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Posted 18 June 2012

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TEXT OF THE INTRODUCTORY ADDRESS DELIVERED BY PROFESSOR FRANK MC GUINNESS, UCD School of English, Drama and Film, University College Dublin on 16 June 2012, on the occasion of the conferring of the Degree of Doctor of Literature, honoris causa on JOAN BERGIN 

Joan Bergin first distinguished herself for her costume design at the Focus Theatre, Dublin.  There she displayed the keen eye, the precision of dress and physicality of fabric that allowed the classical dramas of European Theatre to be so memorably, so vividly realized in that extraordinary space, its strict confines turned into the complex, distant worlds imagined by Ibsen, Chekhov and Strindberg, newly realized so accurately by the direction and acting of the theatre’s founder, Deirdre O’Connell and her associates.  They transformed Ireland’s understanding of what could be achieved within the boundaries of an intimate theatre, with their greatest achievement being that in pure theatre, there are no boundaries.  In that most liberating, most aptly named arena of the Focus, Joan Bergin costumed those great, challenging plays as if they were solely hers for the seeing with eyes that were  releasing them for the first time, revolutionising them as new plays, making her craft the core of that theatre’s visual power.

Since those Focus days Joan Bergin has continued to be involved with Irish Theatre.  She has had long, fruitful associations with Noel Pearson Productions and with all the major theatre companies on this island.  The diversities of her design are a mark of her extensive, learned and indeed restless determination to surpass her most exacting standards.  She is capable of sensing the unease, uncertainty and urgency lurking beneath the deceptive surfaces of Pinter and Shepherd, as she clothes their strange, contradictory beings in ways that humanize and even harmonize their clash of moods and manoeuvres.  She is as sure to unleash the violent, physical impulses troubling the histories that resound through the writing of John B. Keane as she is eminently capable of spotting Ibsen’s revealing details on how the intellectually warring family of John Gabriel Borkman hide their sorrows and confront their hatreds, wearing the uniform of their isolation.  She comprehends the savage grief of Sophocles’ Electra, hearing that Greek woman’s annihilating howl of grief, embodying it in the army overcoat Electra buries herself within, the ragged legacy of Agamemnon, the father Electra will mourn forever.  She hears and sees such things because Joan Bergin is a masterly, inspired reader of texts, interpreting the author’s aims and ambitions.  She is also brilliantly adept at transmitting the sheer joy and fun of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Pirates Of Penzance, infusing the production with riotous glee and all the rainbow’s colours.  And these are only some highlights from her most eminent career.  She has made shining contributions to, amongst others, the plays of Friel, Shaw, Leonard and O’Neill.

In film and television that invaluable experience of working at Focus has stood Joan Bergin in good stead.  Aesthetic necessity to concentrate on the deep analysis of character through the proximity of actor to audience in that theatre has proved to be the perfect training for the camera and its ruthless exposure of detail.  From her very first forays into costume design for film she has displayed an instinctive sureness of touch as to how this most demanding medium works.  That extensive range of excellence in historical and social accuracy that marked her costumes for theatre has been matched also in film.  Her collaborations alone with the director Jim Sheridan  on My Left Foot, The Field, The Name Of The Father and the Boxer display their joint commitment -  their fierce commitment to a portrayal of Irish culture that is as stringent as it is vivid.  The political challenge of these films demanded both breadth of reference and above all, authenticity of research.  Joan Bergin’s disciplined vision in these works is her key contribution to Irish film.  Hers is an integral part in their outstanding value in bearing crucial testimony to how our society has shaped itself over the past decades.  It is as if, with the true artist’s unease, Joan Bergin is most attuned to times of upheaval, uncertainty, dispute and change, change terrible and tragic.  It is then no accident that everything in her career leads to her celebrated work on The Tudors.

That profound sense of time passing which Joan Bergin has released with Jim Sheridan and again in such varied films as Dancing at Lughnasa, The Winter Guest, The Prestige, Some Mother’s Son and An Awfully Big Adventure is an historical dynamism that expresses itself with astounding aplomb through every episode of The Tudors.  The beauty of the garments, their sweeps of colour connecting costume with character, the inexhaustible daring revealed throughout the series – these are the  strengths which lie at the root of Joan Bergin’s contribution to the enormous success of and international acclaim for this project.  She above all knew that if clothes were the making of the man and the woman in this most brutal period, they could also be the unmaking.  So the contrasts between pomp and poverty, between the highest attainments and most abject falls were most thrillingly, most movingly conveyed in the power or delicacy of her fashion.  Through her costumes Joan Bergin saw the entire workings of this harsh, unpredictable universe, and she touched it with an awe, a grace and pity that are the attributes of the visionary.  The scale of her triumph on The Tudors was fully recognised with three Emmy Awards, the highest accolade in television.

That global recognition was an acknowledgement of her genius which we in Ireland have been privileged to know since first seeing the work of Joan Bergin.  Within her profession she is as revered as she is loved, very deeply, for her modesty, her kindness, her courtesy and her artistry.  Joan Bergin has given Irish theatre and film work of unsurpassable brilliance, consistently unsurpassable brilliance. It is a honour to salute her for what she is, and for what she has achieved.


Praehonorabilis Praeses, totaque Universitas,

Praesento vobis hanc meam filiam, quam scio tam moribus quam doctrina habilem et idoneam esse quae admittatur, honoris causa, ad gradum Doctoratus in Litteris; idque tibi fide mea testor ac spondeo, totique Academiae.


(Produced by UCD University Relations)


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Joan Bergin and Frank McGuinness