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Caoilfhionn Dunne: Conor McPherson gives a poetry to the normal

Ahead of the London opening of The Nest, Irish actress Caoilfhionn Dunne talks Conor McPherson, how she got into acting and PJ Harvey's music for the show

Caoilfhionn Dunne in The Nest
© David Sandison

After being nominated for the Evening Standard Award for Outstanding Newcomer in 2013, Irish actress Caoilfhionn Dunne (pronounced Keelan) has been steadily stacking a series of excellent jobs behind her. Most recently she starred in Mike Bartlett's play Wild, where at one point in James Macdonald's production, gravity seemed not to exist.

Before contending with what must have been one of the most complicated sets ever created, she has worked with Laurence Boswell in Forever Yours Mary Lou, Lyndsey Turner on Fathers and Sons at the Donmar and several Conor McPherson plays. The Night Alive (which she got the Evening Standard nomination for) and the National Theatre's production of The Veil in 2011 were both also directed by McPherson, but her most recent McPherson project, The Nest, is directed by ex-artistic director of the Royal Court Ian Rickson. The Nest is a play by German writer Franz Xaver Kroetz which McPherson has translated and opened in Belfast earlier this year and is about to begin a run at the Young Vic.

Conor McPherson has translated this play, is it very different working on it to other McPherson plays you have worked on?
It still feels very much like a Conor play. He's made it his own. But it's the first Conor show I've worked on where he isn't directing it. It's always interesting to have an outside view.

What is The Nest about?
It's about two young people, Kurt and Martha, who are expecting a baby. They are trying to figure out the financial difficulties of that and also the environmental consequences of their actions. The themes are probably not as heavy as they would have been in the German version which was put on in the '70s. Conor makes it very accessible.

There are only two of you performing in The Nest, how has that been?
It's a tough play, but I think being surrounded by the right people on the right play makes all the difference. Laurence [Kinlan] and I have known each other for years. It makes a huge difference because you already have that base of knowledge of a person to build on to make a marriage.

Conor is one of our best modern playwrights, what is it about his writing that makes it so great?
He writes very soulful characters, but they are soulful in an everyday way. He gives a poetry and a majesty to the normal. He understands how people talk but he also understands the importance of what people don't say. That's one thing I loved about doing The Night Alive. My character Amy carried so much of her life with her that she didn't speak about. There's also a great redemptive quality to his stuff. He gives hope.

Is there something essentially Irish about his plays?
Definitely. I think it's a poetry that the Irish people have. We have a way with words. We are born with it in us and he brings that out very well.

Caoilfhionn Dunne and Laurence Kinlan in The Nest
© David Sandison

PJ Harvey is doing the music for The Nest, what's the music like?
It's like another character. It's part of the set, lights, the performance. Polly came into rehearsals a few times and she watched us and listened to us and she read the script again and again. She really looked and listened to it and felt it and she went away and with James Johnston they recorded this magic music. It just fits in the piece very well. It doesn't impose itself, it doesn't tell you where to go, it doesn't tell you what to feel, which is a difficult thing to do. It is really perfect and simple and beautiful.

Are you a PJ Harvey fan?
I am a big PJ Harvey fan.

So what did you think when you found out she was coming on board?
Ian [Rickson] the director said I tripped up on the floor when he told me. It was absolutely nerve wracking having her in rehearsals. I think I just stared at the floor for about two hours.

How did you get into acting?
I did Oliver! at secondary school and I was a really, really shy child, so for me to get up onstage was a big deal. But the minute I did, I thought: 'I like this'. I decided to do the sensible thing and go to university first, so I studied French, Law and Sociology. But I dropped out after two years to study drama.

You were last in Wild, Mike Bartlett's new play where the set turns upside down. What was it like working on that?
It was insane, but it was the most fun thing to do. What happens with the set was in the script, so we knew it would happen but it was only in tech rehearsals where we realised that we would actually have to be in it. We had a few hiccups at the beginning, but the audiences at Hampstead Theatre were amazing.

You've had to sing and dance in several of Conor's plays too - are you a singer?
I went to a choir school, but there's a difference in choral singing and singing in front of 500 people in the West End. I had to dance in The Night Alive and sing in The Veil. I don't have to either sing or dance now and I am very happy.

The Nest runs at the Young Vic until 26 November.