Friel life: Aristocrats haunted by the ghosts of shows past

John Kavanagh played Casimir in the first production of Aristocrats in 1979, a role Tadhg Murphy now inherits. They discuss the role, their craft and changing times

Family drama: John Kavanagh and Tadhg Murphy. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

Family drama: John Kavanagh and Tadhg Murphy. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons


Actors often talk about the theatre as a haunted place, how the stage is shadowed by the ghosts of those who trod the boards before them. For actors John Kavanagh and Tadhg Murphy, who star in a new production of Brian Friel’s Aristocrats at the Abbey Theatre, the spectral presences of the theatre’s former life are even more uncanny.

Aristocrats is a play about ghosts. Set in the large decaying house of District Justice O’Donnell, it explores a cluster of grown-up children who are haunted by the success of their forebears and their family’s grandeur falling into ruin. The ailing Justice O’Donnell is himself a spectral presence – he spends most of the play in an upstairs bedroom – but he makes his presence felt throughout the house by means of an intercom. His children are also beleaguered by his ambitions for them, and by their own inevitable failures.

Patrick Mason’s new production speaks to this sense of haunting in a very particular way. Kavanagh, who originated the central role of Casimir, now takes the part of Justice O’Donnell, while Murphy, playing the benighted Casimir, fills Kavanagh’s shoes. However, Murphy sees Kavanagh’s experience as a bonus. “He has been a bit of a mentor to me for years, though it is a bit weird to be playing beside him in the very part that he spawned. But we have worked together loads of times, and I always learn something from him,” says the younger actor. Indeed, the pair worked together most recently in a revival of Hugh Leonard’s Da last year, which pitted them against one other in another complex father-son dynamic.

Generational dysfunction is at the heart of Aristocrats. Ex-solicitor Casimir, as Murphy elaborates, is “regarded by his father as a failure”.

“There’s this speech . . . ” Kavanagh prompts him, and Murphy delivers the line: “ ‘If you were born down there [in the town of Ballybeg] you would have been the village idiot. But because you were born up here, we can absorb you.’ It is such an appalling thing to say.”

Murphy looks to Kavanagh, who agrees. “It’s pure abuse.”


First meeting

The two actors first met in 2003 “in a boot camp high in the Atlas mountains in Morocco”, as Kavanagh remembers. There they were in training for the film Alexander. They had an immediate rapport, and Murphy wasn’t shy about soliciting advice.

“I remember being in a pub on Sunset Boulevard after the premiere,” says Murphy, “and I asked John what was the most important thing for an actor starting out. He said, ‘Say yes to everything.’ Then, last year, we were working on Da, and we had the same conversation, and he said, ‘The most important thing is to learn how to say no’.”

“That’s the arc of a career, a life,” says Kavanagh.

Murphy interjects: “Yeah, I’m as busy as he is these days. John’s career is a good model to follow.”


The original Aristocrats

That first production of Aristocrats in 1979 was an important one for Kavanagh, as he sought to make his mark in Irish theatre.

“It was a great, complex role, a relentless role, and an opportunity to be in a new Friel play. That was extraordinary.” He would go on to star in Faith Healer, the play that cemented Friel’s reputation, the following year.

The Abbey was a different theatre then, says Kavanagh. “It still operated on a company model. There were 36 members, and it was brilliant. There was a real sense of historical continuum. I was working with people like May Craig, who knew Synge, and Sheelagh Richards, who was the first Nora in The Plough and the Stars, and knew O’Casey well.”

Like Murphy, he looked to older actors as mentors. Donal McCann and Geoff Golden are two that he mentions.

But Ireland was a different place too, and Friel’s play, which is set against the backdrop of the Troubles, had a deep political resonance in its first incarnation.

“The political element wasn’t as strongly perceived when we opened at the Abbey,” says Kavanagh. “Just like the O’Donnells are sort of isolated from the violence, so were the audience in Dublin. In Dublin we were kind of indifferent to it. As it says in the play, ‘Sure that’s 30 miles down the road’.”

But the production went on tour to Belfast after its Dublin run, and Kavanagh was shocked by the atmosphere. “It was strange doing it there, where the references to the Bogside, to Catholics and Protestants, had such a huge resonance with the audience. Murder gangs were going around at the time. The Shankill Butchers were from down the road. I have to say I never really understood what was meant by terrorism until then. I never felt safe until I got on stage.”

“It is obviously a different political situation now,” Kavanagh adds. “But because the play is about a family, it still has a universal resonance. The fact that the family is reaching the end of its line, winding itself down, even from the business end, sort of encapsulates the whole Northern question, the end of empire. But it is the human story that comes first.”


The personal perspective

Murphy finds it difficult to imagine how fraught the political situation was then. “I look at the play more from the personal perspective, just as the politics are all in the background for Casimir and his family,” he says.

The pair elaborate upon the fraught relationship between father and son again, the heart of this under-rated great Irish drama, slipping between quotation (Murphy) and anecdote (Kavanagh). On several occasions it is difficult to tell whether they are talking about their characters or themselves.

Kavanagh: “He is constantly looking for confirmation from people.”

Murphy: “Yeah. He has to make a persona for himself, construct a shell. But there are people who live like that. It must be exhausting.”

“Exhilarating,” Kavanagh interjects. “Exhilarating. Exhausting. Just like an actor’s life.

Aristocrats is at the Abbey Theatre until August 2

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