Based on Eugene McCabe’s modern Irish classic, ‘Death and Nightingales’ is a riveting story of love, betrayal, deception and revenge, set in the beautiful haunting countryside of Fermanagh in 1885 when all of the country is an undivided province of the British Empire.
Set over a desperately tense 24-hour period, it’s Beth Winters’ (Ann Skelly) 23rd birthday – the day she has decided to join the charming Liam Ward (Jamie Dornan) and escape from her limited life and difficult and complex relationship with her Protestant landowner stepfather Billy (Matthew Rhys). As decades of pain and betrayal finally build to a devastating climax, ‘Death and Nightingales’ is a powerful and gripping drama that follows a woman struggling to control her own destiny and will illuminate tensions that tear both families and nations apart.
Ahead of the show’s premiere on BBC Two on 28 November 2018, we wanted to find out a little bit more about the show. Leads Ann Skelly and Jamie Dornan tell us why ‘Death and Nightingales’ is worth a watch.
What’s it like working on a period piece?
Ann: I’ve done two period pieces and I like the costumes and the hair and all those wonderful things and the look of it. I think it’s interesting to work within the confines of a certain lack of expression you are allowed in that time, particularly regarding corsets.
Tell us about your character?
Jamie: We don’t know what his intentions are but there’s an undercurrent of something sinister. He has a big impact on the proceedings of the story from when we first meet him until the end.
Ann: I play Beth Winters, she lives in Fermanagh with her protestant stepfather. She’s a Catholic, as was her mother who died in tragic circumstances. She’s living under a very constricted environment as it was in those days for women. Liam Ward walks into her life and starts a chain of events where she plans to run away with him.
What attracted you to the project?
Ann: I’ve never read a script like it before and I can’t believe that book existed and I didn’t know about it. It’s such a beautiful adaptation by Allan and it’s really remarkable. It’s a different take on a period piece with a young woman at the centre. It’s not just looking over misty hills, there’s a lot of action and terrible things happen.
Jamie: You want every character you play to be multi-faceted and complex. Allan and I have history, with me playing one of the most complex characters that I may ever have the chance to play. Anytime you have the opportunity to play a character where there’s more to them than meets the eye you have to jump at it, they don’t come along that often. You see a lot of two-dimensional characters on screen but Liam Ward is so much more than that and there’s a lot of juiciness to get stuck into. He was a real treat to play.
What was it like working with such an esteemed cast?
Jamie: Ann’s only 21 and she’s incredible, I feel very old around her! Oddly enough she’d been recommended to me for another project. When I knew they were casting this, I texted Allan to say that he should check out this girl Ann Skelly, I didn’t know a huge amount about her but from what I’d seen she was brilliant. Cut to two weeks later, Allan texts me to say that she was doing it!
She’s lived up to the hype and she’s so fun, which is important. She looks unbelievable in every image and I think she’s going to be quite something. She’ll be amazing in this and I think she will be a big deal.
Ann: To work with Jamie is great as I’m a big fan of ‘The Fall’. There’s a lot of craic between takes which is great as a lot of days are very intense. Matthew Rhys is a lot of fun to do the tragic scenes with as sometimes it’s hard to find actors who are so present.
How was the script?
Jamie: I was very drawn to the script due to the tone and eloquence of it. It has beautiful use of beautiful sounding language in it. I was worried about my American agent reading it as there’s so much slang from the North of the country that even I don’t know all of it, so I thought they are going to think it’s a whole other language. It’s been lovely using that speech – you should only do something if the script resonates with you, as does the character. I’ve been in a lovely position as Allan has been whispering in my ear about it while he’s been writing about Liam Ward – so I knew I was going to like it and that doesn’t happen often. I like the way Allan writes and the words fit in my mouth. It’s very comforting.
What’s it like to work with Allan Cubitt?
Ann: Allan Cubitt has adapted it and directed it too. I really liked ‘The Fall’ and I think he’s a bit of a genius! He’s so brilliant to work with and lets you act. He’s not intrusive at all; he’s the perfect actor’s director and has the perfect vision for the show. His references are lovely and this feels like a special thing to work on.
Jamie: With Allan, I didn’t really have to think about working with him again. If he wants me to do anything for the rest of my career then I will do it because in many ways he gave me my career. He cast me in ‘The Fall’ and he had to very much fight for it. That changed my professional life in a huge way; I’m eternally indebted to him.
When Allan came knocking for ‘Death and Nightingales’ and I knew quite far in advance he was writing it with me in mind and I felt very lucky. I just love him and we have a shorthand and understanding of each other on how we both like to approach the work. It’s invaluable when you work with someone you’ve worked with for six years and it makes things a lot easier on set when he doesn’t have to say much to know what he wants from me. It’s a lovely thing to be back working with him again.