chapter  2
12 Pages

Sinead Cusack: Andrew James Hartley

WithANDREW JAMES HARTLEY

Sinead Cusack had no formal training as an actress. She disavows an allegiance to any particular “school” or approach to acting, and says she has no consistent process. In spite of this, she has become a commanding figure in the modern theatre, having played to critical acclaim many of Shakespeare’s most demanding roles for the Royal Shakespeare Company and other organizations including, most recently, the Bridge Project, for which she played Paulina in The Winter’s Tale directed by Sam Mendes. The apparent paradox speaks to her success as an instinctive actor who has honed her craft through experience, and who is able to keep what she calls “the essential humanity” of the roles she plays uppermost. Though she never went to drama school, Cusack came from a deeply theatrical

family. Her grandparents were traveling players and her father, Cyril, had an extensive resume as an actor for the RSC, the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, and numerous other theatres as well as almost a hundred films including Zeffirelli’s The Taming of the Shrew, The Day of the Jackal, Harold and Maude, and My Left Foot. As a girl, Sinead watched her father prepare, helped him learn his lines and saw up close the man’s careful and conscious use of technique. She learned from him “osmotically,” but never adopted his deliberation where craft was concerned, so that many of the tools she uses on stage-vocal projection, for instance-tend to be accessed reflexively. What she did get is a conviction that detail work is crucial in the construction of character, so that-as in her father’s film work-the impression of personhood, of a fully rounded thinking and feeling presence is always specific and concrete, not generalized. Her first forays into Shakespeare were unsuccessful, she says-citing her “disastrous”

Juliet at the Shaw Theatre in 1972 and her Desdemona at the Ludlow Festival in 1974largely because of her assumptions about what Shakespearean acting was. Shakespeare, she thought, was to be declaimed-shouted even-with the eyes front and a suitably elevated look on the face. There was to be no smiling or laughing, no spontaneous movement, no naturalism of any kind: no sense of character as a living, breathing person. Shakespeare was an idea manifested by poetic sound. In short, she was playing Shakespeare’s reputation, his Cultural Significance, not his characters. She was still getting cast, partly because of a “quality” derived from her look, her youth, perhaps even her Irishness, and she had a facility with poetic language which was aided by the natural mellifluousness of her voice (she grew up speaking Gaelic),

but-at least where Shakespeare was concerned-she wasn’t treating the characters as human beings. This despite the fact that she had established herself as an actress with a gift for naturalism in modern drama, and it seems that her inability to see Shakespeare in the same terms came from a sense of intimidation augmented by her self-identification as an “Irish peasant.” The change came around 1980 and it originated in a couple of different factors.

On the one hand she had simply (and in her own words) “become a better actress” by paying attention to the craft issues she had not formally studied: how to relax into a part, how to project, to persuade and so forth. The successful application of such things to Shakespeare, however, continued to prove elusive for her, until two crucial experiences provided the necessary epiphany. The first occurred while rehearsing Celia in Terry Hands’ RSC As You Like It. Early in the process, she was shown the set model with its green color palette and the design for her dress which was also green. Timidly she approached Hands and pointed out that, being the same color as the walls, she would disappear into the set. “Sinead,” Hands replied, “Celia is the set.” She resolved-with characteristic spunk-not to be, injecting the part with wit

and dynamism designed-more than anything-to stay alive and visible. Not only did the performance get her noticed, it got her laughs, and this-to her, an extraordinary and astonishing feat quite at odds with that rarified notion of what Shakespeare wasaltered her sense of the characters and went some way to breaking down the respect with which she had approached them. The incident also serves to pin point a key element of her process, the deliberate fusion of her own personality with that of the character, in this case a kind of performative defiance, a refusal to vanish, to become the dramatic equivalent of furniture, and that spark of Cusack herself gave life to Celia. The second incident of the year which proved enlightening and transformative

occurred while she was rehearsing Olivia opposite Felicity Kendal’s Viola in John Gorrie’s production of Twelfth Night filmed for the BBC. Confronted in part with the naturalized and smaller acting necessary for television, and working with actors used to the medium, she found the power and playfulness of Olivia’s situation, its romantics and erotics, forced her to confront the character as a human being: a person, not an idea, albeit a person in a preposterous predicament, a woman responding to that predicament rather than a mouthpiece for authorial poetry. She was suddenly aware of her Olivia wanting things from Viola/Cesario. The situation suddenly struck her as something real, something edgy and charged with humor and sex in ways that had not registered before. These were ordinary people in remarkable circumstances: flawed, complex, familiar people, frail in every sense, driven by the same doubts and passions, the curiosities, terrors and thrills that she knew in herself. The unsmiling model of English nobility vanished, the face-front declamation disappeared, the wheeling out of lofty characters thinking lofty thoughts evaporated. She had found herself in the part by finding its heart and mind, a playable human presence glimpsed, then grasped, through the text. She would-in all subsequent roles-begin her process with a quest for that human presence. Cusack’s Irishness is important to her, but as that ironic reference to her “peasant”

stock suggests, the intimidating nature of Shakespeare (even as she stands on the

boards of the RST playing Portia) might verge on the oppressive, even the politically-and colonially-unsavory. Finding a specific human presence within Shakespeare’s characters, however, provides a kind of ownership which overrides such negative concerns, giving her a sense of the familiar, of people she knows and can play. For her, Shakespeare transcends England and Englishness, tapping into broader emotional and political truths. Moreover, the richness of the writing allows her to find the details she can use to shore up her instinctive approach. In both ways, then, she turns what was once off-putting into a method of tackling Shakespeare in which she is an equal maker of the resultant character. The process gives her the special theatrical power of ease, of seeming-in exact contrast to those early attempts-at home with the characters she plays. That “process,” however, is not static and consistent. Each part, she says, is

different, as is each director, each method of rehearsal. She adapts to what seems required and will work in whatever way her director wants-be it research-heavy (for Adrian Noble when playing Lady Macbeth), improvisationally inventive (as it was when she played Paulina for Sam Mendes) or using Max Stafford-Clark’s “actioning” process, which she used for Our Lady of Sligo and which is premised on a degree of detail and control from the director that she initially baulked at. (“Actioning” involves the breaking up of the script into individual beats and assigning each beat a transitive verb. Cusack used it throughout the Our Lady of Sligo rehearsals, and her performance garnered the Evening Standard and Critics Circle awards for Best Actress. She has subsequently tried “actioning” by herself but could not make it work without Clark.) Her “process” as an actor is necessarily shaped and retooled for each production through an awareness of herself as a collaborative artist working with other actors, with a director and an entire staff of designers and technicians. Most importantly, it is determined by the demands and feel of the role itself: “It’s always the character who dictates my process.” That said, there are certain features which seem fairly consistent for the way

Cusack generates character and they begin with a deep and close analysis of the text itself. She reads and rereads the play numerous times, absorbing the whole of it, and combing it for everything she can find about the character she will be playing. She calls this process “mining”—a deep probing for details, for clues, for facts of back story, for given circumstances, for the tone and nuance which will inform her final realization of who the character is. She searches for the hard evidence of age, class, geographical origin, level of education, past experience-professional or domesticfor indicators as to who she would have been raised with, spent time with, what she might know, her beliefs (religious or otherwise), her passions, instincts, tastes, desires and so on. She also looks for things implied by phrasing or word choice, the images she uses and what they say about her, her brand of humor, how she deals with her inferiors, with power and powerful people and-particularly-with adversity. Though at this stage of the process (before rehearsal) such discoveries are being registered on almost a subconscious level, each of these details will become threads in the tapestry she will weave as she builds a more conscious sense of who the character is. I refer to who the character is, rather than who she might become because for

Cusack there will be one Paulina, one Beatrice, one Lady Macbeth, and that one

character is there for the finding in the intersection between the details of the script and the actress herself. She doesn’t expect other actors to find the same Cleopatra that she did-each actor bringing “their own values, their own DNA, their own baggage” to a role-but she sets out to discover who the character is for her. This is, in other words, not a range of possibilities from which she will choose, but a sense of the unique character which emerges from the details of the script as mediated by the actor’s sense of self and personal history. What will appear on stage is the hybrid result of that symbiosis, one in which role informs actor and actor informs role, a character which is singular, true and specific. The personal nature of her performances (and a sense of being intimidated by other performers) makes her unwilling to see other actors performing the same role or research prior productions. She has to own the part, and to do so requires-to an extent-the gradual banishing of alternate possibilities, point by point, detail by detail, until a single figure emerges. This character will grow and develop in the course of rehearsals and performance, but its core is Cusack herself though deeply imbued with every detail and implication of the play script. Alongside this mining of the script, Cusack also reads around the subject,

researching in particular any relevant history and politics that will help her to get a grasp on the forces shaping the play and the character. For Winter’s Tale she read Marxist criticism of the play. For Michael Attenborough’s 2002 Antony and Cleopatra she pored over historical biography to try to separate the actual person of Cleopatra from the myth, particularly that of the Siren so demonized by the Romans. What she found-the physical plainness of the Egyptian queen and her political savvyhelped break down her fear of the role by giving her a sense of the person behind the icon. Because if there is one thing she has come to work against in her acting more than any other, it is generalization. To find specificity in a character requires actual connection-for her-to the character as a personality with a particular set of experiences, a full symbiotic transfer between actor and role. Fuelled by this demystified sense of who Cleopatra actually had been, she returned to the script and found new weight in her first line: “If it be love indeed, tell me how much.” “This was not the voice of a love affair at its height,” she says. “It was love in decline. It was the desperation of a woman convinced he [Antony] was going to leave her. It was the cry of the mistress.” From that point she understood Cleopatra in ways she hadn’t before, a way that cut through the legend and made her playable. It is also illustrative of her general approach. She does not need to like her character-and she feels that many of her greatest successes have come when she is playing monsters-but she does have to empathize with them. She has no interest in cleaning them up for the audience, in sentimentalizing or emphasizing extremes, always wanting instead to (in John Barton’s phrase) “embrace the ambiguity” of the character, and to do that she must understand her. Once some sense of the character has begun to emerge in her own private reading and

before rehearsals have begun, Cusack likes to embrace a relevant physical discipline. For Kate in Shrew, she pumped iron for toughness and self-reliance; for Cleopatra, she did Pilates to build core strength and flexibility; and for Beatrice she learned ballet. The Beatrice she had found in reading was mercurial, elegant and quickwitted, and she wanted a graceful physicality that would mirror that, focus it. Again

she recognizes that this is her sense of the character, one other actors or scholars might dispute, but it is not simply a choice. It’s what-reading through the lens of her own personality, experience and selfhood-she found in the script. Again, the choice of discipline is instinctive, a gut-level decision of what “feels right” according to her sense of the character. The decision to take on a physical discipline for several weeks before rehearsal

requires considerable forethought, and if the character does not leap out at her reasonably quickly-as was the case for her Paulina-that may not be possible. It is certainly true that she often goes into rehearsal without a clear sense of the character she will play but she still mines the script to find those humanizing touches that will make the character feel real in her mind: a person, not an abstraction. Specifically it’s often about finding “what damage was done to the character”: something that might not fully explain who that person is in the play-and certainly not excuse itbut might provide access to who they are in private. For Cleopatra it was that sense of being the mistress. For Lady Macbeth (opposite Jonathan Pryce for the RSC in 1986) it was having lost a child. The mining of the script is then balanced with a mining of herself, her memories, anything that will allow the necessary symbiotic connection to happen. Sometimes this connection is literal, as she describes in her piece in Carol Rutter’s Clamorous Voices [1994], in which she details drawing on her experience as a sleep walker for the specifics of her Lady Macbeth. Those specifics go beyond sleepwalking, however, and the chapter shows the detail with which she finds images and emotions for every word in order to keep the scene from becoming generalized-a particular problem, she says, with playing madness. At this stage she attempts to get extremely familiar with the text-the whole play, not just her own lines-but she does not yet learn her part. Once in rehearsal, her process is very much dictated by the director and the

nature of the company’s work. This is not simply a pragmatic concession to the conditions of practical theatre-making, but an embrace of the collaborative process which is, in some sense, political. Whatever sense of character she brings in to the rehearsal process does not solidify until she is engaged with the other actors, relating to and interacting with the other people in the story. It is telling, for instance, that she does not learn her lines until the scene is roughly blocked, and that even the method of that learning is designed to emphasize her character as part of a scene, defined at least in part by her organic and active engagement with the other characters on stage. She covers her lines with a piece of cardboard and then reads aloud everyone else’s lines-not just her cues-so that even her attempts to get her own lines right are done within the interactive context of the scene. She cannot grasp her character in a vacuum and needs the entirety of the play and its characters to comprehend the world of the production and her place in it. The decision not to learn her lines until a scene is blocked also serves to bind action and word together so that the words are made physical and utilizes a kind of muscle memory in which the body and its sense of space becomes a species of mnemonic. Moreover, it binds utterance and movement into a single impulse, fusing speech, gesture and action at the level of intent, immersing the actor in the role in ways producing naturalized character. The fusion of script and action reinforces that impulse towards the learning of physical disciplines where it “feels right.” Cusack’s Shakespeare does not

exist merely at the mental or vocal level being crucially physical in ways generating a potent stage presence. Even in Winter’s Tale in which her physical presence was limited by the nature of the part she was quickly defined by the way she moved, the long, stately processional entrance with which she crossed upstage, and the graceful, energized stillness with which she stood. Both emblematized her stature and strength of character. Her attitude to the lines themselves, though alert to form, is content driven, and

she makes no conscious attempt to address scansion and verse form. Generally, she says, her instinct about such things is good, and she will only count out syllables if she is having difficulty understanding the sense or intention behind a line. In any case, whether it’s that latent Irish musicality to her voice, or years of experience, the lack of deliberation where scansion is concerned seems to have no effect on her effective handling of the verse, though she will occasionally deviate from the rhythm for particular emphasis. This is in keeping with her statement that she has “no tricks up [her] sleeve” and is “the least technical actor I know,” which is to say the least deliberately or consciously technical, since she is more than competent in handling iambic pentameter. Similarly she does not worry about communicating with an audience while making eye contact with a fellow actor, even in intimate moments. Her stage craft has become instinctive rather than deliberate or intellectual, so it makes sense that-in contrast to other actors and directors-she says “I have no rules when it comes to Shakespeare … I cherry pick.” The quest for revelation continues throughout the rehearsal process-according

to the methodological dictates of the director-and she does not follow a set pattern in this phase of the production. She has no particular exercises or habits that she takes into the rehearsal room beyond close attention to the text, a constructive inquisitiveness which continues to draw on her own life experience, and a willingness to work with whatever approach the director has chosen to use. For her, rehearsal often comes down to answering key questions, particularly questions she cannot answer alone and needs input from the company in order to get a sense of the dynamics at work. Why, for instance, is Paulina absent from the first court scenes? And how is she able to stand up to Leontes without fully experiencing his tyrannical wrath? Both are crucial because the script seems to reveal so little about who Paulina is, and while Cusack saw value to maintaining some sense of the mystery surrounding the character, she needed to answer such things if she was to play her. In such matters she operates as elsewhere, mining the script and herself to make sense of what is there, building back story only from what is clearly evidenced by the play and certainly never in contradiction to it. But in rehearsal she adds the crucial component of the other actors and the director to help her work towards the kinds of answers that would help to root the character, particularly where the script is unhelpful. At this stage, she is testing her initial assumptions, her subconscious response to the character, and trying to figure out whether her impulse is right. If it seems like it is, it will harden, complicate and clarify, but answering these questions will give her the necessary foundation from which to build. In this case, she (with director Sam Mendes) concluded that Paulina had been away-perhaps because she had been abroad, perhaps because she lived not at court but in the country with her daughters-and she entered the prison scene with luggage: newly returned and astonished

by the news which has reached her from court. The second question about the curious sense of license she seems to have is a good deal trickier and goes to the heart of who Paulina is. Paulina’s ability to tell truth to power without apparent fear of consequence

smacked, to Cusack, of blood kinship: as if she had been in the king’s life a long time, perhaps all of it, like a great aunt or a nanny (though not literally a wet nurse, a possibility she ruled out as unhistorical). Cusack and Simon Russell Beale characterized Paulina as resembling a formidable relative who would give every niece and nephew a dressing down but would reward them with marvelous gifts. Her attitude to both Rebecca Hall’s Hermione and Simon Russell Beale’s Leontes was cerebral but also fiercely maternal in both “the dolling out of punishment and the dolling out of love … She’s very direct, and says what she feels without apparent fear of consequence. She’s strong. She’s feisty. She’s also honest and loving.” The notion of her maternal nature derives from Antigonus’ reference to their three daughters, but the notion of its centrality to Paulina’s sense of self comes from Cusack’s own identity as a mother. Paulina as written never discusses it. (Paulina’s marital relationship gets minimal treatment in the play and this provided more anxiety. Cusack perceived a certain pride in Antigonus’ self-deprecating discussion of her strength, and saw real weight in her reference to mourning the loss of her “turtle” [dove] but saw no need to build a stronger sense of their relationship.) This is the symbiosis which is integral to her process, using the lines of her own life to connect the dots of what is scripted, and testing them in the presence of the director and cast till they solidify and become “right.” The result was a Paulina refreshingly marked with tenderness and compassion,

even hope, and not simply a dictatorial harridan, a Paulina who could-alone of those in the court-lay hands upon the king and was merciless in her account of his wrongs, but who also did all for the best. She was still and stately on stage, very slightly aristocratic but always plausibly real and human, a thinking, feeling presence of depth, passion and complexity. I should say before proceeding that for Cusack, there is no question that Hermione

never dies, that while Shakespeare allows for the possibility of a mystical resurrection, the reality of the situation was, for her, absolutely and unequivocally realist. It was a plan-part punishment or test of Leontes, part protection of Hermione, and part an active participation in the oracle’s cosmological scheme. This is, again, a choice made out of a deep personal sense of what the play was about, and having made it, it shaped the character significantly. The production did not finally make a clear choice to support Cusack’s reading (and its cutting some of the lines about Hermione’s wrinkles may suggest the opposite) but her sense of the situation gave her performance urgency and immediacy, as was particularly clear in the “cry woe” speech. The idea that she was waiting for the fulfillment of the oracle-as well as reinforcing her maternal presence-was further emphasized at the end of 5.1 when, as everyone else left the stage, she alone recognized Perdita. Among other things, this conviction that Paulina is preserving a live Hermione

gives a particular urgency to the moments between the announcements of the death of Mamilius and his mother: a scant thirty lines, considerably less if Paulina’s plan is already afoot in her “Look down and see what death is doing.” (Cusack chose to

read the scene this way which meant that the decision to pursue the plan takes rough shape in only four lines.) In this sliver of stage time Paulina has to conceive the scheme to hide Hermione away from further tyranny at least in the short term, though she can take longer over the decision not to reveal the living queen until the oracle is fulfilled with Perdita’s return and Leontes has redeemed himself. This sense of the character’s improvisational quality was central to Cusack’s conception of the part and it was palpable on stage: she clearly thought through each moment as it was happening, beginning with the decision to take the baby to Leontes in the prison scene. From that point, each action was clearly a response to the immediate conditions of the moment and each one came from impulses that seemed to be taking shape before the audience’s eyes. So she picked her way through various strategies of persuasion in the course of

2.3, risking laying the baby down within Leontes’ reach, or reacting to her husband with a dire and heartfelt warning (“forever unvenerable be thy hands if thou tak’st up the princess …,” her only direct exchange with her husband), and the plotting of the “statue scene” was part of this improvisation. Indeed, it continued through that scene, since it was clear that she was monitoring Leontes carefully throughout before deciding that the statue would indeed be permitted to come down. She approached the scene as a “minefield” in which Leontes could, by his actions, delay the “revival” of the “statue,” an idea which grew out of her general impulse that a Shakespearean character, far from sitting back complacently as if everything she says and does has been planned out (scripted, even), is always thinking, acting on impulse, on the line, alert and engaged in what Patsy Rodenburg calls “the state of readiness.” Cusack rarely takes a pause unless (as before the “cry woe” speech, in the shift between “O, cut my lace, lest my heart, cracking it / Break too” and “What studied torments, tyrant, hast for me?”) it seems called for by a significant change in direction or mood, and her rule of thumb is that you can do “almost everything on the line.” In this context, the “Cry woe” speech (3.2. 174-203) becomes a deception, but it

contains so much truth that it need not play as such at all, and Cusack’s delivery, however finally (and with hindsight) untrue as far as Hermione’s true fate is concerned, was done in earnest. The truth of the speech came, she says, in how clearly it manifested the character elsewhere in the play-and it was in this capacity that it became a point of revelation. The idea of thinking on the line is common to some teachers of verse speaking and it partly explains her tendency to rely on the language rather than silence. She sometimes has to force herself, she says, to “take her moment,” and is generally more comfortable speaking-a character trait she identifies as a form of shyness. Given its length and centrality, it is perhaps not surprising that the key moment in

Cusack’s journey towards creating Paulina came while they were rehearsing the “Cry woe” speech. Sam Mendes is a very collegial director and uses a circle in which everyone has to perform the role various different ways in the early, exploratory stages of rehearsal. Cusack confesses to finding this terrifying and embarrassing but also empowering, breaking down her resistance and helping her become comfortable enough to try anything regardless of who was watching. The process freed her up for making new, deeper discoveries once she got the book out of her hands-which is, for her, when her sense of the character tends to deepen most. In this context, the

“cry woe” speech, when it was rehearsed for the first time off book, brought many of her more general impulses about Paulina to the fore and laid out who she was. The speech begins, “What studied torments, tyrant, hast for me?” a remarkably direct-even reckless-standing up to the supreme earthly authority. For Cusack it came from the woman’s passion, her love, disappointment, anger and even humor-the bitterly ironic list of Leontes’s former wrongs culminating in the death of his wife. But she observed that the list also suggests a coolness and composure, a deliberation however improvisatory. Suddenly the character fell into place, confirming her less conscious assumptions and leanings. Armed with this new holistic sense of Paulina’s power, integrity and depth of feeling, she was able to work back through the play with a new sense of clarity which, in turn, gave her a solid foundation from which to build the specifics of each moment. That sense of bleak humor, for instance, surfaced in Paulina’s first scene in which she persuades the jailor to release the baby with a wry reference to the delivery as a liberation from the prison of the womb. Once her conception of the character has taken hold she is loath to let it go, and

the process from then on-a process which extends into previews and performanceis one of finding new colors, new “threads in her tapestry” to enrich the character rather than reshape or significantly shift it. One such moment came to her after the Winter’s Tale production had opened in New York, moved first to Madrid, and then to London’s Old Vic and was almost ready to close. In that litany of Leontes’ tragic errors in the “cry woe” speech, she says “O, think what they have done / And then run mad indeed, stark mad!” Initially she was giving special emphasis to the first “mad” but suddenly realized the weight of “then”: you may have thought you were mad before this, but after you hear what I’m about to say then you’ll run mad… It was a completely different inflection and one perfectly in keeping with the character. These small adjustments and discoveries characterize her work throughout the later stages of rehearsal and performance, and she sees them as clarifying distillations rather than as redirections. Once she feels she understands the character, can get inside her, she is able to add these new threads in the tapestry not so much by invention as by a kind of empathetic discovery. The evolution is constant, always informed by the specifics of both the script and her own personal life. That said, there are times when these discoveries push her away from where she-or

the director-initially thought the character was going, and she confesses to a certain toughness on behalf of the character as she conceives her. In 1982 she appeared in Barry Kyle’s RSC Shrew, and her Kate developed such a profound sense of defiance and anti-authoritarian self-sufficiency that-five weeks into rehearsal-she found the prospect of playing her in Bob Crowleys’ gorgeously silken, luxuriant and jewelstudded costumes utterly confounding. Eventually she approached the director who referred her to the designer himself and she approached Crowley and laid out why she, as Kate, couldn’t wear the costumes into which the wardrobe department had put all their time. Her Kate would not wear anything so lavish and decorative, particularly if-as was evident-it had been supplied by her father or, for that matter, her husband. It was three days till dress rehearsal. Crowley, though sympathetic, was at a loss. There was no contingency plan as far as costumes were concerned and Kate’s sumptuous wardrobe had already absorbed all allocated resources. Cusack

suggested that they desecrate them: cut them up, and that she shave her head and wear the formerly resplendent dresses with Wellington boots and a cheroot. There was a long pause then Crowley “to his eternal credit said, ‘will you make the first cut or will I?’” For Paulina the resistance was not so drastic-the private ditching of a corset-but followed a similar faith in the integrity of the character as she had found her, in this case a need to find a slightly more rounded, maternal form that was comfortable in a different kind of authority and appearance than that of the other court women: again the decision was finally and simply about what “felt right” for her Paulina. Because of the way she establishes and then pursues a clear sense of character-

albeit discovering extra nuance along the way-her performance itself is more about relaxing into the role and relying on those issues of craft which are sufficiently ingrained to function without deliberate intent. That relaxation is also her primary strategy for dealing with stage fright-manifested as a slight nausea and a physical tension particularly in her shoulders. If she is tense when she goes on stage, she is less “in” the character and more likely to stumble on a line, and the same is true for those distractions which inevitably invade the performative moment-whether it’s a lingering issue in the actor’s mind which may have nothing to do with the play or the invasion of audience coughs or cell phones. In such moments her strategy-unsurprisingly-is to “just get on with it” and attempt to relax back into the moment. Sometimes, of course, a director will point out something needing adjusting-either

late in rehearsal or during the actual run. In such cases she will, she says, “fight her corner” if she disagrees, but has the flexibility to reshape where necessary-particularly if she realizes that something is slightly off. In Winter’s Tale, for instance, her sense of the closeness between Paulina and Leontes-a closeness intensified into a kind of mutual dependence during the long sixteen-year gap between Hermione’s “death” and Perdita’s return-produced a feeling at the top of act five that they were like an old married couple. In one moment they sat together on a bench, their lives clearly intertwined. Mendes thought it was now too much and separated them a little, so as not to detract from the centrality of Hermione to Leontes. Cusack takes such direction affably, recognizing that this “sent the wrong message,” because she never loses sight of her part in a larger organism, despite her commitment to character. In accord with her remark that she loves to be directed she counts herself “almost ridiculously open to suggestions from all and sundry,” ideas that she sifts, tries out and keeps or discards according to what seems to work for the character she has built. When asked, for instance, about her sense of Paulina’s last minute marriage to

Camillo she responds almost as an audience member: “I think it’s a hoot!” she says. “I love it! A moment of sheer joy and comedy.” She felt no need to seed some form of relationship earlier in the play-something which is extraordinarily difficult to do given the characters’ minimal interaction-and has no interest in trying to create a wholly psychological through line for that particular moment. Rather she sees it as a kind of theatrical closure, something to be accepted without a great deal of soul searching or the extra textual invention of a long correspondence (as some actors have done) between Camillo and Paulina over the last sixteen years. There are times when character-however crucial-must give place to theatrical effect.