Actress Laura Donnelly on how uncle's IRA murder inspired hit West End play

Laura Donnelly knew her uncle had been killed but didn't fully realise he was one of the Disappeared until she saw his photo on TV. The Belfast actress, known for her roles in The Fall and now in star-studded West End play The Ferryman, tells Joanne Sweeney how his story inspired that drama

Belfast actress Laura with Paddy Considine in English playwright Jez Butterworth's new Troubles-set drama The Ferryman
Joanne Sweeney

WHETHER she’s a tragic victim of Phil Spector in The Fall or playing a young gay woman in Channel 4’s Sugar Rush, Belfast actress Laura Donnelly is never less than mesmerising.

After fulfilling her childhood dream of performing on Broadway – in Jez Butterworth’s The River – in 2014, she is one of the stars being lauded for her performance in Butterworth’s latest work, Troubles-set drama The Ferryman, which is currently on in the West End.

The English theatre kingpin’s production is being talked about as ‘the play of the year’ by critics and theatre-goers and as good at his big hit Jerusalem, which depicted life in rural England and starred Oscar winner Mark Rylance.

Directed by Sam Mendes, best known for directing Academy Award-winning movie American Beauty (1999), The Ferryman stars English actor Paddy Considine, playing opposite Donnelly in another rural setting, this time on a farm in Co Armagh in the 1980s.

The drama concerns a family unravelling after the discovery of a man’s body, the husband of Donnelly’s character Caitlin, who was one of those ‘Disappeared’ by the IRA during the Troubles.

Quinn Carney (Considine) is the head of an extended family ready to celebrate the end of the harvest when his brother’s body is found.

The story is set around the time of the Hunger Strike, which gives another layer of tension. Dublin actress Genevieve O’Reilly plays Considine’s wife while Dungannon actor and tenor Fra Fee, who appeared alongside Russell Crowe and Hugh Jackman in the 2012 film Les Misérables, also performs in the play.

Laura Donnelly

It’s a tale that’s very close to home for north Belfast woman Donnelly, having been inspired by her own family's story. The actress's maternal uncle, Eugene Simons, was taken away from his home near Castlewellan, Co Down, by the IRA in January 1981. Three years later his body was discovered by chance in a bog near Dundalk.

It's not through sheer coincidence that Butterworth chose this very personal experience as his subject matter, of course – he and Donnelly have been partners for several years and have a one-year-old daughter together. The Antrim Road-reared actress tells how the play came about.

“We were watching a BBC TV documentary on the Disappeared – by Darragh McIntyre, I think,” she recalls. “I had known how my uncle had died but I hadn’t realised there was this group that were known as the Disappeared. When I was watching the programme, it didn’t really occur to me that there were this whole other group of people and it wasn’t until his face came up at the end as they showed all the Disappeared, when I said, 'Oh my God, that’s my uncle’.

Laura Donnelly's uncle Eugene Simons was taken from his Co Down home by the IRA on New Year's Day 1981 and murdered, his body found three years later in a Co Louth bog

“My uncle died before I was born so I didn’t know him and my reaction was more thinking about what I knew my mum had gone through, and feeling how difficult it must have been on all the other families.”

Butterworth’s interest in the families of the Disappeared was piqued again when the actress’s mother, Angela Donnelly, asked her daughter to come home to Belfast to attend the funerals for two of the Disappeared whose bodies had been found.

“My mum goes to all the Disappeared funerals,” says Donnelly. “Jez asked to come along to Belfast and he went to the funerals. From having his own ideas of what a haunting experience it must have been, he sat up late and talked with my mum over the weekend and the idea of the play began to develop.

“My mum was very encouraging about this being spoken about as it’s one of the most traumatic elements for so many people involved in story of the Disappeared.

“Things like this just don’t get discussed. The silence can be very hurtful and it doesn’t help heal any wounds. My mum thought it could be very cathartic for the play to be written and she encouraged me to act in it.”

Donnelly says that the entire cast has been “blown away” by the reaction to the intense three-and-a-half-hour-long play. Harry Styles has been to see it, as has Nicole Kidman, fellow Belfast actor and director Kenneth Brannagh, Gillian Anderson, Richard E Grant and James Cordon.

“Overall, it’s just a fantastic play. It’s not about Northern Ireland, it’s not about the Troubles – more than anything I think it’s about love and about family and all these different things. I think there’s something absolutely wonderful about being in a London theatre and seeing a part of yourself represented on the stage.”

Donnelly adds: “I love the fact that this play is in front of an English and international audience as it’s a subject that has never had any light shone on it beyond the confines of home, really.

“The recent Conservative Party deal with the DUP brought to light just how little the people in the UK have any idea, to this day, about what is going on and went on in Northern Ireland. It really shocked me how little people knew who the DUP were and what they stood for. It’s a shame that you can co-exist as countries and be so close in proximity and politics and have so little idea of what is going on next door.”

Donnelly, who will also be appearing soon in the third series of US broadcaster Starz’ Outlander and in Sky Atlantic’s Britannia (also co-created by Jez Butterworth), got her first love of the stage at the Arts Theatre while performing in the Patricia Mulholland School of Irish Dancing.

Playwright Jez Butterworth

The former Rathmore Grammar School girl says her Ferryman role is a “dream part”; however, it’s also very challenging.

“It’s a big part in a big play and its very demanding emotionally and certainly for my character it doesn’t let up from start to finish,” says Donnelly. “Before I go on every night, it certainly feels that there’s an Everest that I must climb but while I’m in it, it rushes by so quickly.

"There’s no question by the end of it I’m emotionally and physically exhausted. But it’s a dream part for any actor and that’s what you are in it for.”

:: The Ferryman is at the Gielgud Theatre, London until January 6 2018 ( Laura Donnelly will be appearing in The Ferryman until October 7 this year.

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