In 1990, the Cusack acting dynasty could be seen together in their home city of Dublin when Sinead, Sorcha and Niamh appeared with their father, Cyril, in Chekov’s The Three Sisters. Like Irena, Niamh is the third of the three sisters, and she says that she instinctively knew how to play the role of Irena when she saw her sister Sorcha playing Olga. Despite it being the family trade, Niamh's move into the profession had not been guaranteed. Her family, she tells me, were pleased that she was different, musically gifted. She won a scholarship to train at the Royal Academy of Music and subsequently worked with the RTE Symphony Orchestra in Dublin as a flautist. Returning to London a year later, she considered doing a French degree, but an intensive one day acting course at the City Lit Adult Education Centre convinced her that acting was her true vocation. She left the Guildhall School of Music and Drama after a year to play Hester Worsley (the juvenile lead) in Oscar Wilde’s A Woman of No Importance at the Gate, Dublin.

In 1985, she played Irena in The Three Sisters at the Royal Exchange and found herself here at the RSC playing Desdemona opposite Ben Kingsley, then Juliet with Sean Bean in 1986. Ten years later, she was back playing Rosalind in As You Like It alongside David Tennant and Joseph Fiennes.

A young man holds the hand of a young woman as they sit on some steps
Juliet (Niamh Cusack) and Romeo (Sean Bean), in Michael Bogdanov's 1986 production.
Photo by Joe Cocks Studio Collection © Shakespeare Birthplace Trust Browse and license our images

We talk about modern productions of Shakespeare and how styles have changed. The 80s' Romeo and Juliet featured a red Alfa Romeo sports car on stage which provided an exciting set for the fights. There were chains and black leather yet it was delivered in RP.

This year's Macbeth, puts the concept of time at its centre. It's a production for now: all classes, colours and backgrounds are invited to engage with its universal themes. Niamh says that she was interested to hear John Barton talk about the more guttural way the language might have been spoken in Shakespeare’s day. To her, accent can serve the visceral quality of Shakespeare’s poetry as it does in Christopher Eccleston’s portrayal of Macbeth, the soldier.

Niamh feels that no actor can own a part; they are custodians. When we move to her role of Lady Macbeth, Niamh says she can only pour her own ingredients into the mould of the character. She believes that, as a woman, Lady Macbeth’s empowerment comes from her ability to produce a dynasty and to help forge the success of her husband. The world she exists in holds no other options for a woman.

Niamh Cusack sits on the stage, screaming, in silk pyjamas.
Niamh as Lady Macbeth.
Photo by Richard Davenport © RSC Browse and license our images

Niamh considers Lady Macbeth's back story to be dominated by the loss of children. The marriage is a strong one that has survived multiple miscarriages and the death of one baby boy who only lived long enough to be nursed by her. Their losses have brought this couple closer. Having had to accept that there will be no children, the only ambition left for both of them is for Macbeth to get the recognition they believe he deserves: kingship.

Successful soldier Macbeth has been promised the throne by the Weird Sisters but recognises that King Duncan and his heir Malcolm are obstacles in his way. It is not difficult for Lady Macbeth, alive to the opportune moment, to convince her husband that he must kill Duncan to get what he craves. This is to be their success, the ultimate life achievement together.

But, Niamh says, she fails to think beyond this moment and therein lies her tragedy and his. She doesn’t expect him to kill the grooms and is visibly horrified by his going off plan. She feels herself losing control over him. Niamh feels that Macbeth never told his wife of the prophecies relating to Banquo because he wanted to protect her from that pain. As he plots murder after murder to secure his position, he moves away from her into his own private hell.

This production often appeals directly to its audience. Macbeth delivers his soliloquies as confidences to us and in the sleep-walking scene, Lady Macbeth runs half-crazed into the audience to deliver her “Give me your hand” lines. There is a deep sense of personal isolation, as it hurtles inevitably to its Faustian ending. Lady Macbeth, having lost the connection with her husband, having no female confidante as Desdemona or Juliet have, brings her regret directly to us. Niamh brings to the role a deep emotional fragility very different from the vampish portrayals of the strong woman we may have previously seen.

Viv Graver

Viv Graver is a retired teacher, who taught Shakespeare for more than 30 years in the north of England. Her present interest is introducing Shakespeare into primary schools. Viv's blog is a series of interviews with RSC cast and creatives about their path to Shakespeare and how they first came to it, at school and elsewhere.

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