Siobhán McSweeney: 'I just want to dance in the street and lick people's faces'

She was a sarcastic nun on Derry Girls, and mopped up Keith Brymer Jones’s tears on The Great Pottery Throw Down. Now Siobhán McSweeney takes to the London stage as a ‘white-faced, frantic dervish’. As you do

Photographed by Ed Miles for Big Issue at the National Theatre on March 16

Deep within the brutalist beauty of the National Theatre on London’s Southbank, Siobhán McSweeney has been dancing the morning away, under the watchful eye of superstar choreographer Wayne McGregor.

“We are putting the dance in the Dancing at Lughnasa,” McSweeney says, as she enters our interview room on the fourth floor of this modernist maze.

McSweeney and a cast including Derry Girls co-star Louisa Harland and Father Ted’s Ardal O’Hanlan are just weeks from opening night on the huge Olivier Theatre stage. For the second time in her career, McSweeney plays Maggie – one of the five Mundy sisters – in Brian Friel’s classic.  

“I did it well over a decade ago, playing the same part in Birmingham Rep. It was marvellous but I knew there were bits of the character I couldn’t understand because I hadn’t lived enough,” she says.

“I always knew in my heart of hearts that I would play Maggie three times. So there’s another time after this. It’s one of those weird things you just know, you know? Because Maggie speaks to me in a very particular way.” 

The script for director Josie Rourke’s revival of Dancing At Lughnasa requires McSweeney to produce some seriously manic movements. “She dances alone – a white-faced, frantic dervish,” is just one of her stage directions. And the morning’s activity has taken its toll on the newly Bafta-nominated star of Derry Girls and presenter of The Great Pottery Throw Down.

McSweeney puts one of her feet up and shows off a huge scar on her lower leg – the result of a bicycle accident in West Cork in 2021 that led to her missing some episodes of The Great Pottery Throw Down and being propped up by crew members while filming the adaptation of Graham Norton’s Holding. It still hurts. A lot. 

“It’s pretty impressive, isn’t it?” she grins, tapping her scar. “It’s all metal. The muscle isn’t back yet. Standing’s hard for long periods of time. When I was offered this role, my heart was broken. I really wanted to do it but wasn’t sure I could. Then I thought, Maggie will only be what I can be.

“If I was a musician, this is the battered instrument I’ve been given. So the wonky old tune is going to come out of this. Besides, she’s more enthusiasm than skill. I also have to sing, which is upsetting. I can’t imagine how it’s gonna be for the audience. Oh god, poor audience.” 

McSweeney in rehearsal at the National Theatre
In rehearsal for Dancing at Lughnasa at the National Theatre. Image: Manuel Harlan

McSweeney is picking at a box of chilli, which goes cold midway through our interview. It is, she says, a huge improvement on last Friday’s fare. “I had fish and chips and nearly cried. It was so horrible. It ruined the day.”

Between mouthfuls, she considers the way her career has progressed. 

“The masterplan was always to be allowed to be an actor. That’s all I ever wanted,” she says. “I quite arrogantly compare it to coming out. It is just something you always know – and I was scared to admit it to my parents. I was scared to break their hearts. I sort of forced myself into an arranged marriage with a science degree – I had many beards!” 

McSweeney’s acting took off slowly, following an early role in Ken Loach’s The Wind That Shakes The Barley.

“This is my sixth show in this building. But it is the first one where I’m on the poster,” she says. “I spent five shows holding spears in the back. And I don’t regret a second of it.”

If, in the past, we liked actors to be easily categorised – stage actor, comedic actor, dramatic actor – then McSweeney has timed her career well. Because now, an actor doing everything, being everywhere, all at once is tolerated, even celebrated. Act on stage, TV and film? Yes. Host a TV pottery show? Why ever not? Present a documentary on St Brigid or travelogue around Northern Ireland? Go for it.  

“It seems to be a time where instead of being told to stay in your lane, it is somewhat appreciated and rewarded if you have more interests. Which is lucky for me,” says McSweeney. “I’m currently working for the National Theatre, Mickey Mouse and Channel 4. And they’re all linked. 

“Why I’m wanted to play Mary in Extraordinary on Disney+ is because of all the training I got here. The stamina of Sister Michael in Derry Girls comes from doing however many matinees. Pottery comes because of Sister Michael, which came because of this. Everything is interconnected.” 

Sister Michael in Derry Girls
As Sister Michael in Derry Girls. Image: Channel 4

The success of Lisa McGee’s Derry Girls – McGee also just received a Bafta nomination – catapulted McSweeney into a new league. Sister Michael is one of the great comic creations – a hardcore deadpan no-fucks-giving nun. But awards and rave reviews are one thing. Catching the eye of the film greats is another.  

“It feels like something that happened to somebody else,” says McSweeney. “Martin Scorsese watches Derry Girls? What the fuck does that mean? It’s like when I’m watching Professor Brian Cox and he’s talking about Sagittarius A*– I don’t understand black holes. You’re messing with my brain. So when Scorsese, which is the equivalent to my black hole [a pause, a raised eyebrow, a smirk] … I just can’t comprehend it. It’s too big.” 

The shift to presenting was unexpected. But it arrived at just the right time. Lockdown was tough. As it was for so many. If Dancing At Lughnasa shows a family escaping into dancing and singing as the world goes to hell in a handcart, it’s a feeling a few in the audience may recognise. 

“We have been dancing ourself through it, with lockdown, haven’t we? We’ve Joe Wicks-ed ourselves through it,” says McSweeney. “In the play, we dance through pain but also dance to release our pain. That was the big thing for me.

“When lockdown happened, I remember thinking, when we can, I just want to dance in the street and lick people’s faces. There was a report a couple of days ago – a stupid report, with no rigour in the research – about how apparently lockdown had no adverse effect on our collective mental health. Did you see it? Atrocious. It’s so irresponsible and morally bad to say that. I personally was deeply affected. My mental health went to the dogs during lockdown.” 

So how did McSweeney get through? 

“Medication. Meditation. And The Great Pottery Throw Down,” says McSweeney, who was born in 1979 and raised in Aherla, County Cork before moving to the UK “at the height of the Celtic Tiger” 20 years ago. “So I outsourced my anxiety. I’m a country girl. We bubbled up in Stoke-on-Trent and in the Peak District there. Oh my god, I think it saved my life. It’s so beautiful. That’s what got me through. But I’m almost not able to look at the dark bits of lockdown yet.” 

McSweeney is great at thinking on her feet. She describes filming The Great Pottery Throw Down as 10 hours a day of improv. And she approached it like an acting role.  

“I don’t know how to be myself. I only know how to play a character. So I thought, why don’t I play the character of a hapless presenter?” 

McSweeney laughing with Jon Roynon on The Great Pottery Throw Down.
With contestant Jon Roynon on The Great Pottery Throw Down. Image: Channel 4

On Keith Brymer Jones’s famous propensity to cry at the sheer joy of the pottery he judges, she says: “I think Keith’s tears have done more for modern masculinity than most things. 

“My feminism has reached a point now where I feel we need to mind our men. We need to liberate our men from the yoke of patriarchy. Because they’ve been fucked up by the same stuff that has fucked us up, our poor darling men, our gorgeous men. And if Keith blubbering over a fucking jug on telly helps that, then bring it on.” 

Her lockdown experience mirroring the plight of the sisters in Dancing at Lughnasa

“There was the idea of being disposable. As somebody who was shielding, that is what I was getting from the government. I was hearing ‘we’re willing to sacrifice you so that our businesses can reopen’,” she says.

“To be told you are disposable was a very strange sensation. So to awkwardly and clumsily bring it back to Lughnasa – Ireland in the 1930s and being a female, that was the ultimate expression of disposable and small lives that people don’t consider are important or worthy of the same interrogation and compassion that we give ‘great’ lives.  

“These women know as soon as their brother comes back, they don’t have a home to live in. So yeah, we are all fucked but we can dance through it, can’t we?” 

Siobhán McSweeney stars in Dancing at Lughnasa at the National Theatre in London

Speaking out isn’t straightforward. There’s a price to be paid for putting your head above the parapet, especially if you’re a woman. Yet McSweeney feels compelled to get among it – another refusal to stay in her lane.  

“I’ve always been outspoken and I’ve always been political,” she says. “But it unbalanced me slightly when my profile got higher. Because I had more volume. It’s disconcerting to feel you’re being listened to – even if you’re like, shouting. 

“And the conversation around certain issues is so toxic. It does make me wary. It trips off the tongue, ‘as a woman on social media, the abuse blah, blah, blah’. But I’m vocal about it because it’s fucking awful.

“I make my living by being extra sensitive to things. I walk around with no skin so that I can afford to buy shoes. So I can’t let stuff go. When people comment on my appearance or my accent or they just don’t like me, that hits.

“But how can I not talk about trans issues when whatever I’m feeling, it’s worse for my trans friends with the legislation, misinformation and downright fuckwittery? Their lives and livelihoods are at stake.”  

McSweeney smiling with necklace
Photographed by Ed Miles for The Big Issue at the National Theatre on March 16

Despite her burgeoning portfolio, theatre is closest to McSweeney’s heart.  

“I consider this my second home. This building – I love it,” she says. “This is a proud building. A rightfully proud building. Not an arrogant building – but a proud building that is in the service of something other than an individual. It’s in the service of a play. Everybody’s in the service of something bigger than themselves.

“So in that way, it feels like a church. But without the hypocrisy and molestation. Although if we’re lucky, perhaps a little bit of molestation.”

Undercutting serious points with a quip? It’s little wonder McSweeney is drawn to Friel’s work.

“Friel is one of the most intellectual writers but he’s also very funny and very accessible – so the giant intellect behind it sometimes gets dismissed,” she says. 

It would be wrong to make the same mistake about McSweeney. She explains why it is fitting that the first big Friel revival since his death is at the National. 

“The seed of this play happened on the Southbank,” she says. “Friel walked out of the theatre and saw two women on a bench who were destitute. He told them about two of his aunts who left Donegal, came to London and were homeless, succumbed to drink and died.

“A very sad story that was common to the Irish experience at that time. Someone said he should write a play about it.

“I just keep thinking about Maggie. And it’s all about opportunities. I’m the best of my O’Neil and McSweeney bloodlines, do you know what I mean? My lungs are being looked after. I have been given an education none of my ancestors had. I’ve financial security none of my female ancestors had. And I’ve autonomy, legal rights, the ability to travel – my Irish passport means I literally have the luxury to travel. The only thing I’m missing is a doggy but that hopefully will be coming soon.” 

After the play finishes, presumably?  McSweeney grins. “I think I can bring the doggy into rehearsal. They’re mad for it in America. I’ve reached the point now of being a little bit eccentric. I’ve earned my eccentric stripes.” 

Dancing At Lughnasa opens at the National Theatre on April 19. Previews from April 6 

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This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine. If you cannot reach your local vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.

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