In a role and on a roll
When I heard, I said ‘Jesus, my folks will be over the moon.’ All the lifts to the Gaiety School of Acting . . . at least now they can say, ‘ah yeah, he is good’, writes BRIAN O'CONNELL
THERE IS A story about a Cork actor, who was grumbling about the size of a supporting role he was offered. His volatile amateur drama director’s response? “Listen boy, sure any f***er can play Hamlet.”
It was a wry observation, said in jest, but the idea is the big roles almost play themselves, and an actor in a leading role, provided of course he can act, faces less of a challenge than those trying to make an impact in less developed parts.
The actors nominated in the best actor category in this year’s Irish TimesIrish Theatre Awards may not quite agree. The nominations range from performances in classic American theatre to new Irish improvisation and commedia dell’Arte. Each performance was excavated from a very different place and perspective – some came about by chance, and others were the result of long-standing professional relationships that bore fruit at precisely the right time.
Yet, despite the individuality of the title of “best actor”, each performer was keen to point out their performance – and nomination – was the result of a collaborative process, involving cast members, technical staff, directors and writers.
But what impact might a nomination have on an actor’s career? Will the phone now ring more and did they know instinctively during their runs that they were offering a potential award-winning performance?
Paul Reid’s character Farrell Blinks in Man of Valourhad been in his head in bits and pieces for a number of years. It started as an image of a man in a suit working in an office environment. During an acting workshop with Corn Exchange Theatre Company, he played out the scene. Man. Suit. Office and co-workers. Generally, actors join in for each other’s improvisations, but in this case the others just stood back and let Reid go off.
“I kept going for about 20 minutes and I was doing all this crazy stuff with the character. Afterwards, director Annie Ryan and writer Michael West came up to me and said they thought there was something in it, and asked would I go away and try to write something. I’m more of a visual artist and so I drew lots of pictures of what it should look like.”
Reid says he had little time to think about the performance until moments before he stepped on to the stage for the opening night at the Everyman Palace Theatre in Cork, such was his immersion in developing the role. What helped the performance, though, was the support he received from the company, and the production team. “Without all the backing and support, it would not have been the performance it was. I felt I was in safe hands and had a big safety net. That allowed me to be as free as I wanted with the role.”
The nomination has given him the confidence to trust his instincts as he approaches his next stage outing, in Alice in Funderland at the Abbey Theatre. It has also made his family very happy. “When I heard about it, I said, ‘Jesus, my folks will be over the moon.’ All the lifts to the Gaiety School of Acting, at least now they can say, ‘Ah yeah, he is good.’ My sister said on Facebook that she was always biased but now it has been confirmed. It’s lovely for them and me granny. I feel really proud for Corn Exchange also.”
Having confidence in and being at ease with those behind a production seems to have been a constant with all four nominees. Cillian Murphy, nominated for his portrayal of Thomas Magill in Misterman,had read dozens of scripts sent to him, but in the end he worked with one of his closest friends, writer Enda Walsh.
Murphy already had a deep level of understanding with Walsh before ever entering the rehearsal room with the writer, who was on board as director also. “I adore Enda’s writing and I liked the idea of working in a room with him and myself. The one-man thing held attraction as you want to push yourself and the one-man show is a real actor’s challenge. I hadn’t done a play in about five or six years.”
Murphy says he also took more time before beginning rehearsals to learn the lines and discuss at length with Walsh their ideas for the character. “I learned it for about two and a half months before and then sat for about two weeks talking about it with Enda. In the rehearsal room, I never laughed so much in my life. The performance Enda got out of me – I wouldn’t have trusted anyone else to direct me in that way. I’ve never been that broad and big and the physical comedy of it was all new to me.
“Enda made me watch Buster Keaton and Fatty Arbuckle and it opened up a whole other world. Film acting is about little, little, little, and this is big, big, big, until you come along and smash it with the tragedy of the piece.”
Murphy says the nomination does mean something to him as an actor. “Any actor who says it doesn’t is lying to you.”
Philip Judge’s role as Older Man in Mark O’Halloran’s play Tradealso came from a trusted source, as he and O’Halloran had known each other for many years. While writing the play, O’Halloran sent Judge the script, as a friend, asking what he thought of it.
“I remember texting him and saying ‘this is wonderful’,” says Judge. “Then I was thrilled to get the call to go on and meet the director. You discuss what you think the character is and then you work out what fellow cast members are going to be doing, and it is all a very evolutionary process.
“You can’t make hard and fast decisions early on. You might know the basic emotions and what you do then depends on who you are collaborating with.”
Judge says the success of the production was very much a team effort and that many variables feed into a strong performance. “My partner, Tara Quirke, is one my best critics and she made the point that in this show everything came together. It was a wonderful cast, with young lad Ciarán McCabe, and Tom Creed was a very sensitive director. He wasn’t stamping his authority all over it.”
Judge says that having lived in Britain for many years, he is often seen for middle-class or Anglo-Irish characters, so playing a more working-class Dubliner should help show him in a broader light. As to whether the phone will be ringing with more offers, he’s not so sure: “Ring me again in a year and I’ll tell you how it has benefited my career. The received wisdom is you win an award and everyone thinks you’re now too expensive or not available, so they stop ringing you. Everyone wants to be at the theatre awards and maybe it will have some sort of impact on my standing, even if the phone doesn’t ring automatically.”
“The strange thing about this game is that you are only as good as the other actors and crew will allow you to be,” says Patrick O’Kane, nominated for his role as John Proctor in The Crucible. “This production was nominated for five awards so that tells you something in that we were all singing from the same hymn sheet.”
He says he took his cue and inspiration from a close scrutiny of the text. “At the end of the day, the work is text-based and it all goes back to the script. That is where you start and finish. To my mind, if you can’t find it in the script, you shouldn’t use it. That means I read the script a lot, maybe several times a day.”
O’Kane says, though, he did do some research into what Salem might have looked like at the time of the play and also read secondary material on the McCarthy era in the US. This, he says, was “scaffolding” on which to construct the performance.
He approached this performance the same way he has approached many others in the past. “It is a great role and every night you are trying to make it better, trying to just keep listening. If you can listen honestly, the responses take care of themselves.”
So how did his family take the news of his nomination? Is he treated differently at home now? “Not a chance. They said ‘Oh that’s good, well done’ and that was it. There is no danger of it lifting me off the ground, which is a relief in a way. I was very surprised and delighted to be nominated at the same time. My 13-year-old son said, ‘Oh right. Is that good?’ It helps keep things in perspective.”