BWW Interview: Actress and Singer Kate Stanley Brennan Talks THE WHITE DEVIL
Kate Stanley Brennan's theatre work includes Wuthering Heights at the Gate Theatre, Yerma at the West Yorkshire Playhouse and The Night Alive at Lyric Belfast. She's currently starring in Annie Ryan's production of Webster's The White Devil in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, the evocative candlelit indoor space at Shakespeare's Globe.
Growing up in an acting family, was this always a natural path for you?
Yes, I grew up watching my parents on stage and television and always admired them, so it wasn't a surprise that I ended up wanting to do what they did. I can't remember a time when I didn't want to act. However, they would have liked me to be a scientist!
Did it seem glamorous, or were you ever embarrassed by your parents performing?
I thought my parents were so glamorous! But I definitely saw that the life isn't all glamour - for every high there's low around the corner. I was proud of them, but there were times I got embarrassed, as any child does of their parents. I remember my dad did a reading at my communion and I begged him "Don't do the posh voice!"
Was it a tough decision to leave college early?
Yes and no. I never quit at anything so that bit was hard, but I was dying to start working, and as my course in Trinity was an academic course, the practical element was limited. I'd had great training throughout my childhood at young people's theatre, so I felt ready.
Did you start pursuing music or acting first, or both simultaneously?
Acting was always the thing growing up, but when I dropped out of college and went to live in New York, I was steered away from acting for the first time and I started to write and sing - something I was too shy to do at home. Acting brought me back to Ireland and I wrote songs in secret for several years until I finally came out about wanting to pursue music to my friends and family.
Does a passion for one feed into the other?
Yes, I suppose it does! I definitely find my acting experience helps me when I'm performing with my band live for sure.
Did you know much about Webster's work beforehand?
I'm ashamed to say I didn't! I knew of The Duchess of Malfi but had never seen it, and I had never even heard of The White Devil. I don't think it's done all that often - certainly not in Ireland anyway. But sometimes that can be good coming to a classical text with fresh eyes. Webster was so forward-thinking to write this woman in the way he did though - it's quite astounding.
Tell us about your character Vittoria and how you approached her
Vittoria is a strong, defiant, magnetic woman who wears many masks in order to survive in this male-dominated world. I learned quickly to embrace all those facets of her personality and play these extremes without apology or question. We're all, as humans, complex characters full of contradictions and that's what makes this play great - we see these in everyone in the play, good and the bad, as the title suggests. We are all white devils I think!
How did you respond to the gender politics of the play, particularly in the current climate?
On my first reading, I wondered if it was a bit archaic or dated, but on further inspection I realised how wrong I was. It's so relevant to today's world - where a man who thinks it's OK to "grab a woman by the pussy" is President of the USA - and it makes a lot of sense to put it on today.
Back when the play was first staged it would have been radical to even hear a woman speak in the way Vittoria does, as women then were to be seen and not heard. Luckily we've moved on somewhat from that, but it does make me wonder how much we've really progressed in our perceptions of how a woman should act. I love that Vittoria questions the word 'whore' - "What's that?" I keep thinking of things like Big Brother, where a woman who cheats on that show gets thrown to the lions and ripped to shreds by the general public, but a man who does the same goes on to win! The double standards in this play seem just as rife now as ever.
Is this production period or a bit more ambiguous/ dystopian?
It's not set in a specific period - it has a dystopian, steampunk element to it, almost a warning that this is the way the world could be headed again if we're not careful.
Any chance to use your musical talents?
Unfortunately I don't get to sing in this, but the amazing Anna Healy has an utterly heartbreaking and beautiful song at the heart of the play - not to be missed!
What's it like performing in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse?
It is absolutely magical - the candlelight and the shadows and the intimacy provide the perfect atmosphere for this show. It's a real honour to get to work here.
Any future plans - more theatre work, screen, music?
I want to finish an EP I've had written for ages and I also have plans to write something that merges both theatre and my music - but it will depend on whether I get the time. I'll have to go where the wind takes me!
Finally, what sort of experience do you think audiences will have at The White Devil, and why should they come see it?
This is an exciting piece of theatre with so many twists and turns to the plot, so you'll never be bored. It's also got lots of humour, an amazing cast and the setting of the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse - it's quite an experience!
Photo credit: Marc Brenner