THERE are few theatre actors as experienced as Niamh Cusack but her latest role, as the narrator Lenu in an epic, two-part adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s hit Neapolitan novels, nevertheless poses quite the challenge. My Brilliant Friend runs to around five-and-a-half hours in total and Niamh is barely off-stage throughout.
‘When I got the job the director Melly Still warned me, “You’re going to give up your life,”’ she says, in a break from rehearsals. ‘And I think I almost have. I put a wash on once or twice a week and that’s about it.’
Still, Niamh had no hesitation in coming on board. Ferrante’s books tell the story of two friends, Lenu and Lila, living in Naples in the latter half of the 20th century and the first decade of the 21st. Both the lead parts are ‘amazing roles, and particularly for someone of my vintage’, says Niamh. ‘There still aren’t many parts for women, particularly women over 45, that are as full and vivid and complex as these two.’
Since being translated into English in 2012, the novels have been a worldwide phenomenon, selling millions of copies. Aside from Ferrante’s brilliant writing, Niamh thinks a key part of their draw is the focus on the oft-overlooked subject of friendship, and female friendship in particular, with all ‘the push and pull, the power struggles, the jealousies, the passions, the loyalties and betrayals’ that arise. ‘I am now getting to a stage where I have had the friends I’ve had for 30 years, and you realise that those kind of long-term friendships are so profound,’ she says.
One of the acting challenges for Niamh and her co-star Catherine McCormack, who plays Lila, is that they both have to ‘age down’ — they play their characters through the whole of their life, from children to adolescents and beyond. However, Niamh, now 60, says that she hasn’t found it too difficult locating her inner child.
‘Even though I’m so old now, I remember what it was like to feel gangly and not quite know where to put my nose when I kissed someone,’ she laughs. As a Cusack, Niamh is part of Ireland’s most renowned acting dynasty — including husband Finbar Lynch, her late father Cyril, older sisters Sorcha and Sinead and Sinead’s husband, Jeremy Irons.
However, it was far from an inevitability that she would become an actress herself. She trained as a flautist, but was partly inspired to make the switch when seeing Sorcha in a production of Three Sisters. ‘Weirdly, I hadn’t watched my family before that, but acting was a bit like the oxygen I had been breathing all my life without knowing it.’
As for her relationship with her siblings, is there healthy competition between them? ‘I think probably you notice when one of you is working a lot, particularly if you’re not,’ she chuckles. ‘But there is also a real sensitivity about that and a care about that. I don’t think we’re ruthlessly competitive at all.’
Niamh’s most high-profile career moment came in her early thirties as the female lead in ITV’s Heartbeat. She reflects back on her primetime fame as a great career step-up, but wouldn’t repeat it now. ‘I don’t think I’d want to be a household name now,’ she adds. ‘I think it was much less invasive then.’
Since then, her most celebrated work has been on the stage, where she has been acclaimed in everything from Ibsen and Shakespeare to the original National Theatre production of The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time.
Last year, she got to tick another dream role off her list, when she played Lady Macbeth opposite Christopher Eccleston for the RSC — an opportunity all the sweeter, she says, because she thought that her time to play the character had passed.
She is enjoying a particularly fertile career period, that she credits in part to working with so many female directors, such as Still and Macbeth’s Polly Findlay. ‘I think they see older women in a different way to male directors,’ Niamh suggests.
When My Brilliant Friend finishes its run, she’s planning to take a much-deserved walking holiday in Kerry with her husband and have a couple of months off and then, she laughs, ‘I’ll start getting very neurotic, so if you could put it out that I’m ready for work from about April…’
As for how she feels about embarking on a new decade: ‘To be working when you’re 60, and to be playing a huge role like Lenu, it’s what we all want. So if this is a sign of things to come for the next decade, I’m very, very happy.’
■ My Brilliant Friend is at the National Theatre until February 22, nationaltheatre.org.uk