Dublin. Midsummer. While absent in New York, the celebrated actor Molly Fox has loaned her house to a playwright friend, who is struggling to write a new work. Over the course of this, the longest day of the year, the playwright reflects upon her own life, Molly's, and that of their mutual friend Andrew, whom she has known since university. Why does Molly never celebrate her own birthday, which falls upon this day? What does it mean to be a playwright or an actor? How have their relationships evolved over the course of many years? "Molly Fox's Birthday" calls into question the ideas that we hold about who we are; and shows how the past informs the present in ways we might never have imagined.
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Deirdre Madden is from Toomebridge, Co. Antrim. Her novels include The Birds of Innocent Wood, Nothing is Black, One by One in the Darkness, which was shortlisted for the Orange Prize, and Authenticity. Her most recent novel is Molly Fox's Birthday, which was also shortlisted for the Orange Prize. She teaches at Trinity College, Dublin and is a member of the Irish Arts Academy Aosdana.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
In the dream I was walking through the streets of a strange city, in a foreign country I did not recognise. I was weary, and my feet were sore because I was wearing shoes that were too small for me. Then, as is the way in dreams, I was all at once in a shoe shop and my grandmother was there. She did not speak, neither in greeting nor to explain what she was doing there, but handed me a pair of shoes made of brown leather. I put them on and they fitted perfectly.
Never in my whole life had I had such soft and comfortable shoes. ‘How much do they cost, Granny?’ I asked. She told me the price in a currency I had never heard of before, but of which I somehow knew the value: I knew that the price she named was derisory, that the shoes were in essence a gift. And then she gave me a thick green woollen blanket and I wrapped myself in it, and it was only now, when I was warm that I realised how cold I had been, and it was only now that I remembered that my grandmother was dead, had been dead for over twenty years. Far from being afraid I was overjoyed to see her again. ‘Oh Granny,’ I said, ‘I thought we had lost you forever.’ She smiled and shook her head. ‘Here I am.’
I awoke and I couldn’t remember the dream. I only knew that I had been dreaming and that it had left me full of joy. Then immediately I was disconcerted by not recognizing the room in which I had awoken. Whose lamp was this, with its parchment shade? Whose low bed, whose saffron-coloured quilt? The high windows were hung with muslin curtains, the room was flooded with morning light and all at once it came to me: I was in Molly Fox’s house.
Molly Fox is an actor, and is generally regarded as one of the finest of her generation. (She insists upon ‘actor’: If I wrote poems would you call me a poetess?) One of the finest but not, perhaps, one of the best known. She has done a certain amount of television work over the years and has made a number of films, a significant number given how much she dislikes that particular medium and that the camera, she says, does not love her. Certainly she does not have on screen that beauty and magnetism that marks out a true film star and she hates, she has told me, the whole process of making a film. The tedium of hanging around waiting to act bores her, and the fact that you can repeat a scene time and time again until you get it right seems to her like cheating. She likes the fear, the danger even, of the stage, and it is for the theatre that she has done her best work. Although she often appears in contemporary drama her main interest is in the classical repertoire, and her greatest love is Shakespeare.
People seldom recognise her in the street. She is a woman of average height, ‘quite nondescript’ she herself claims, although I believe this fails to do her justice. Fineboned with brown eyes and dark brown hair, she has an olive complexion; she tans easily in the summer. She often wears black. Neutral tones suit her – oatmeal, stone – and natural materials, she wears a lot of linen and knitted cotton.
On the dressing table of the room in which I was sleeping was a marquetry box full of silver and turquoise jewellery, silver and amber, together with glass beads and wooden bracelets. For special occasions she wears silks and velvets in deep, rich colours, purple or burgundy, which I think suit her even better than more subtle tones, but which she thinks too showy for everyday wear. She dislikes the colour green and will have nothing to do with it, for like many theatre people, Molly is extremely superstitious, and if she speaks of ‘the Scottish Play’ it is not only out of respect for the feelings of others.
When the public fails to recognise her in her daily life it is not just because they see her face only infrequently on the cinema or television screen. It is because she has a knack of not allowing herself to be recognised when she doesn’t want to be. I have no idea how she does this, I find it difficult even to describe. It is a kind of geisha containment, a shutteredness, a withdrawal and negation. It is as if she is capable of sensing when people are on the point of knowing who she is and she sends them a subliminal denial. I know what you’re thinking but you’re wrong. It isn’t me. I’m somebody else. Don’t even bother to ask. And they almost never do. What gives her away every time is her voice. So often have I seen her most banal utterances, requests for drinks or directions, have a remarkable effect on people. ‘A woman with such a voice is born perhaps once in a hundred years,’ one critic remarked. ‘If heaven really exists,’ wrote another ‘as a place of sublime perfection, then surely everyone in it speaks like Molly Fox.’
Her voice is clear and sweet. At times it is infused with a slight ache, a breaking quality that makes it uniquely beautiful. It is capable of power and depth, it has a timbre that can express grief or desire like no other voice I have ever heard. It has, moreover, what I can only describe as both a visual and a sensuous quality, an ability to summon up the image of the thing that the word stands for. When Molly says snow you feel a soft cold, you can see it freshly fallen over woods and fields, you can see the winter light. When she says ice you feel a different kind of cold, biting and sharp, and what you see is glassy, opaque. No other actor with whom I have ever worked has such a remarkable understanding of language.
Unsurprisingly, she is much in demand for this gift alone, for voice-overs, radio work and audio-books. Although constantly solicited for it, she always refuses to do advertising. People who have never entered a theatre in their lives recognise her distinctive speech from historical or wildlife documentaries on television or from the tapes of classic children’s literature they play to their sons and daughters in the car.
Now she was in New York and from there she would go to London to make a recording of Adam Bede. I thought of her sitting alone in the studio with her headphones and a glass of water, the hair-trigger needles of the instruments making shivering arcs, as if they too thrilled to the sound of her voice. I thought of the bewitching way she would call up a whole imagined world so that the
sound engineers behind the glass wall and anyone who would ever hear her recording would see Hetty in the creamery as though they were there with her. They might almost smell the cream and touch the earthenware, the wooden vessels, as though Molly were not an actor but a medium who could summon up not those who were dead, but those who had never been anything but imagined.
She lives in Dublin, in a redbrick Victorian house, the middle house in a terrace. The front path that leads from the heavy iron gate to the blue-painted front door is made of black and red tiles, and is original to the house, as are many other details inside. There is a pretty, if rather small, garden at the front that Molly keeps in a pleasing tangle of bright flowers all summer, like a cottage garden. She grows sprawling pink roses, and lupins; there are nasturtiums, loud in orange and red, there are spiky yellow dahlias and a honeysuckle trained up a trellis beside the
front window. Bees bumble and drone, reeling from one blossom to another like small fat drunks. Inside, the house is surprisingly bright and airy. There is a fanlight above the front door, which is echoed in the semicircular top of the window, high above the return, which brightens the stairwell. On the ceiling in the hall there is a plasterwork frieze of acanthus leaves, and a central rose from
which hangs an elegant glass lamp. Although it has immense charm it is a small house, more modest than people might expect given Molly’s considerable success. She bought it at the start of her career and has remained there ever since, for the sake of the garden, she says, although I suspect that Fergus is the real reason why she has never left Dublin. She also has a tiny apartment in London where she is obliged to spend much of her time for professional reasons. She likes the city; its vast anonymity suits her temperament. My home is also there, and I am always pleased when she says she is going to work in London, because it means I will have her company for a few months. She is without doubt my closest woman friend. This particular visit, to make the Eliot recording, coincided with her getting some urgent work done on her London flat and I was interested in spending a little time in Dublin, so I suggested that we simply borrow each other’s homes, an idea that delighted her, for it solved her problem at a stroke.
I heard the clock in the hall strike the hour and counted the beats. Six o’clock: still far too early to get up. I lay in Molly’s wide soft bed knowing that in less than a week she would be lying in mine, and I wondered what it was to be Molly Fox. Slippery questions such as this greatly preoccupy both of us, given that I write plays and she acts in them, and over the years we have often talked to each other about how one creates or becomes a character quite unlike oneself.
In spite of my own passion for the theatre, unlike many other dramatists there is nothing in me of the actor, nothing at all. When I was young I did appear in a couple of minor roles in student productions, which served their purpose in that I believe they taught me something of stagecraft that I would never have known otherwise. But I have never felt less at ease than standing sweating night after night under a bank of hot lights, wearing a dusty dress made from an old curtain, pretending to be Second Gentlewoman and trying not to sneeze. ‘You must stop immediately,’ one of my friends said to me. ‘I know you want to write plays but if you keep on with the acting, you’ll lose whatever understanding you have for the the...
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