Judith Roddy is good at making an impression. The actor, who is starring in Translations, which returned to the National Theatre’s Olivier stage this week, was only in one episodes of hit Channel 4 sitcom Derry Girls, but left such a mark that she received declarations of love off the back of her performance and is regularly recognised in the street.
The Irish actor played Ms De Brún, an eccentric, philosophical English teacher in the mould of Robin Williams’ character in Dead Poets Society.
Her link to the show goes deeper – not only was she born in Derry, but she once worked with its writer Lisa McGee in a cafe in the city. “She worked in the bakery while I did the dishes, and when I first auditioned for Aunt Sarah in the show we had a laugh about our past,” she says.
What was your first theatrical job?
The Wild Duck, Abbey Theatre (2003).
What was your first non-theatrical job?
Working in a restaurant called The Leprechaun in Derry.
What is your next job?
I’m not sure. I’m doing some meetings alongside this. I’ve got a feature film, Queens of Clew, coming out soon and a television series, Darkland, has just started.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
To trust myself a bit more.
Who or what is your biggest influence?
What is your advice for auditions?
Read the play and do your homework and leave your ego at the door.
If you hadn’t been an actor what would you have done?
Probably would have ended up in music.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
I tend to touch the stage before going on and I have to say hello to everyone in the cast and crew – I can’t be meeting people on stage.
Roddy discovered the joy of acting early on. “At school I was a quiet child, which now people will not believe,” she says, “but when we did the nativity I loved Jesus Christ Superstar, so I put a wig on and played Herod and my parents were amazed when they saw me on stage.”
She continues: “I loved going to drama classes and I did a lot with the local drama group; we won awards and were able to renovate the space with the money from them.” Aged 13, Roddy was cast in a BBC show for kids called Over the Wall and for one workshop read Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, which “scared the shit out of me”. It also introduced her to the potential power of theatre.
It was after accepting a place at Dublin’s Samuel Beckett Centre, Trinity College, in 2002 that she developed her craft, graduating with a bachelor’s in acting studies. “I remember one teacher, Peter McAllister, stopped the class and said to me: ‘Judith you have a will and it can go against you.’ I was amazed that he’d realised that, and I thought I might as well go all in.”
In her first role after graduating, Roddy won an Irish Times/ESB Theatre Award for her role as Hedvig Helmar in The Wild Duck, directed by László Marton. She continued to appear regularly on the stage, and in 2013 joined Field Day, Brian Friel’s theatre company – the following year she performed in Sam Shepard’s final play, A Particle of Dread (Oedipus Variations), which Field Day commissioned. “It was being written in the room, with poetry and text being handed over, which was absolutely mental,” she says.
Translations marked Roddy’s third role at the National Theatre. She was previously in two Sean O’Casey plays The Silver Tassie – she describes working with director Howard Davies as “monumental” – and The Plough and the Stars.
She knows Friel’s play well, not only because she studied it, but it was first performed in the Guildhall in Derry: “A place I passed every day and on Friday nights I went there for dances.” She adds: “I’ve had the opportunity to do the show a few times, but you wait for the right production and when this came about I was just in.”
This production of Translations, directed by Ian Rickson, was first staged at the National in 2018. Set in a hedge school in County Donegal, it depicts the slow but inevitable erosion of Irish heritage when English soldiers arrive to enact the first ordnance survey, replacing Gaelic place names with English ones.
Roddy starred in the original run and was keen to return. “I wanted to keep searching through the play. Nothing is set in stone: secret notes can be exchanged to try and keep it alive and go deeper. As long as we keep playing, we’re on to something.”
She talks glowingly about the “quiet presence” of Friel’s female characters and from Translations picks out Sarah, played by Liadán Dunlea in this production, as a longstanding favourite character who “ignites on the stage”.
While the current political issues around the Irish border give the play “a heartbeat that makes it throb”, Roddy is keen to emphasise its universal quality: “The play itself is so famous and it’s an incredible cross-culture section. There’s no heavy-handed foreboding of what’s to come historically. It’s a tapestry of language, culture and identity. Friel allows us to slow down and have a look. To have so much beauty, tragedy and hope is bloody sophisticated.”
But Irish work is not just about politics, she says. “The past is, for everyone, a sum of events that bring us to where we are now. Ireland is wealthy with artists. I’m a big fan of Tom Murphy, Seamus Heaney, Samuel Beckett, Friel – all poetic and universal writers. Their works have politics in them as a small strand of the conversation.”
Roddy has appeared regularly on stage on both sides of the Irish Sea – regularly at Dublin theatres the Abbey Theatre, the Peacock Theatre and the Pan Pan Theatre – as well as London theatres the National Theatre, the Donmar Warehouse and the Royal Court in the UK. Does she see a difference in approach in the two countries’ approach to drama?
“The stuff I see in London tends to be by younger writers – the Royal Court is insane for the opportunities it provides,” she says. “In Ireland, new work is often only coming through the fringe. There’s incredible work happening in Dublin and there’s lots of arts council funding for the fringe, but it stays in that bracket.”
Born: Derry, 1981
Training: Samuel Beckett Centre, Trinity College, Dublin, Accademia dell’Arte, Tuscany
Awards: Irish Times/ESB Theatre Award, for The Wild Duck, Abbey Theatre (2003)
Landmark productions: The Wild Duck, Abbey Theatre (2003), A Particle of Dread (Oedipus Variations), Pershing Square Signature Centre (2014), The Silver Tassie, National Theatre (2014)
Agent: Lorraine Brennan Management (Ireland) and Kate Buckley at 42 (England)
Translations is at the National Theatre until December 18, 2019. Click here for more information