'Opening nights? They're not the Leaving Cert'
The four nominees for Best Actor at the 'Irish Times' Irish Theatre Awards talk about their acting lives and their futures
Three of the four best-actor nominees in this year’s Irish Times Irish Theatre Awards made the shortlist for roles in plays by Tom Murphy, underlining his status as an actor’s writer. The fourth, Aaron McCusker, who played Algernon Moncrieff in The Importance of Being Earnest, is more unusual, given his recent focus on television and the casual way his stage role came about.
Here, the four actors talk about their parts and how they deal with the uncertainty of an acting life.
As Tom in Conversations on a Homecoming for Druid Theatre Company, Galway
As well as having the astute direction of Garry Hynes to guide him, Garrett Lombard says he also benefited from the presence of the Tom Murphy, the play’s writer, during early rehearsals for Conversations on a Homecoming. “Tom and I had several discussions about the character. It was great to be able to access his insight. I think he understood I had a firm grasp on it from an early stage, and he didn’t interfere at all. He just had a nice wry grin on his face.”
Lombard had been talking to Hynes about the role for two years before it came to fruition, so by the start of rehearsals he had read a lot of material related to Murphy’s work. But it was a personal connection that helped Lombard unlock the character of Tom.
“The main thing for me was that the character was not able to get out of his environment. In my own case, if I didn’t do what I do, and had stayed at home in the small town I’m from, I could have turned out not too dissimilar.”
He perfected the accent by listening to Murphy speak and by trying to mix a midlands and an east Galway accent. The character is still at the back of his mind, and he is rejoining the cast for an upcoming tour.
As one of Ireland’s most in-demand stage actors, Lombard is well placed to assess whether Irish theatre is capturing the mood of the country. “Theatre is not in a bad state by any means, but I understand questions as to whether or not we have addressed what happened to Ireland in the past five or six years. I think maybe we should be investing more in new writers and encourage them to get out some big, epic plays about the recession and about institutions letting us down. We are probably a bit lacking in that respect, but it’s not because of a lack of talent.”
Lombard did channel into Tom some of his dissatisfaction with Ireland’s economic state. “He brings up a lot of grievances with the world. His take on the church, the government and the state of the nation are still applicable – and possibly even more now since the recession. His anger about all those things really clicked with me. I am quite angry about it too.”
As Algernon Moncrieff in The Importance of Being Earnest at the Lyric Theatre, Belfast
McCusker hadn’t taken on any stage work for several years, in part because of his success playing Jamie Maguire in the Channel 4 series Shameless. He called the Lyric Theatre in Belfast to ask if any roles were coming up, then auditioned for the part of Jack Worthing in Oscar Wilde’s play. He met its director, Graham McLaren, who suggested he take on the role of Algernon.
Returning to theatre and learning lots of lines was not so unusual for McCusker. “With Shameless, the scripts arrived so late you sometimes had about five minutes before filming to learn the lines. They were so well written that they were easy to learn, and that was the same with this play.
“McLaren kept telling me not to play it for comedy; that it would come out of it naturally, as it is one of the best comedies in the English language. We broke the script down into beats, and he definitely got the best performance out of me, as well as my fellow actors.”
Having last year secured an agent in the US, McCusker is now spending six weeks in Los Angeles during “pilot season”, in the hope of getting a part in the next big television series to come out of Hollywood.
“There are about 70 pilots in production, and so the aim is to get a meeting for one of them,” he says. “Only half of them will be made into series, so I could end up on one that doesn’t get made. I want to give this a try, though, as I don’t want to look back 10 years down the line and say, ‘What if?’
“The theatre-awards nomination is great for my CV. Already, the casting directors here in LA have remarked on it, so it will definitely benefit me.”
Working on stage for the first time since 2003 has whetted McCusker’s appetite for theatre work again. “This gave me the buzz for it. To be honest, there is nothing better as an actor than to get up every night to perform a play and make it look like you’re doing it for the first time. ”
As Michael in A Whistle in the Dark for Druid Theatre Company, Galway
Rea says his role as Michael, the Irish emigrant in London trying to make a claim for a new life amid family turmoil, was easy to relate to. “An awful lot of Irish men would be well positioned to play those parts,” he says. “There is a thing within Irish families where the father finds it hard to connect emotionally. There’s a line in a Brian Friel play that goes something like, ‘We can’t ask each other how we are doing because we’re embarrassed of each other.’ A lot of men in Ireland could go into those plays already very well prepared.”
Rea, who is originally from Belfast, had to perfect a Galway – or, more specifically, Tuam – accent to play Michael. “I’m not pretending at all we were getting the Tuam accents spot on,” he says. “I think none of us in the cast was from Galway, but enough of us hit around the same mark and came up with a sound that was universal to us.”
Rea believes there is an over-reliance on opening nights, as he continues to work on his character during the run. This makes it particularly satisfying to be going on tour again with DruidMurphy later this year. “Such a fuss is made about opening nights, and they are treated like the Leaving Cert,” he says. “Some people think that once you get it right on that night, you are sorted. The number of times I get to opening night and I think, Well, this will take a while to fall into place. I never leave it alone. It’ll be great going back to it.”
Named best actor in 2010 for playing Hamlet, Marty Rea says prizes were never a motivation. “I didn’t think about awards for myself when I was doing the DruidMurphy project, but I knew we were in something that could garner a lot of them. That was just from sitting in rehearsals and watching the others. I thought everyone involved should have got a nomination.”
Rea has just finished playing Philip Ashley in My Cousin Rachel at the Gate Theatre in Dublin. DruidMurphy aside, many of his recent roles have been in period dramas, he says. “It probably has to do with a certain look, in that I am tall and skinny and I fit a lot of clothes of the 1920s.”
As Christy in The House for the Abbey Theatre, Dublin
Awards night could be awkward for Conlon, as both he and his partner, Catherine Walker, are nominated in the best-actor and -actress categories in this year’s awards.
“There’ll be fierce competition,” he says, jokingly. “She has one already. I have a best-supporting-actor award and she has a best-actress one, so hers are pushed forward on the mantelpiece and mine are farther back, out of view. To be honest, it is a great help to have a partner who works in the same business. We both understand the oddness and insecurity of it.”
Conlon says that as soon as he read The House, he knew he was on to something special. “The role of Christy was a brilliant part. Initially in the rehearsal room, with Annabelle Comyn on board as a terrific director and a great cast, I thought it was shaping up to be a special show, and that’s not always the case. I’ve done wonderful parts before and had that feeling, but it sometimes didn’t materialise during the run.”
Conlon’s character, from the west of Ireland, is a pimp in London. Conlon had to resist being judgmental. “His intentions are good, but he is also violent,” he says. “I had to be open to that contradiction and not try and put a blanket decision, in moral terms, over the character. I have missed this part. I don’t always miss the characters. Some shows stay with you. But with others, as soon as it has finished it’s gone, and a week later I wouldn’t be able to remember a line.”
This month, Conlon takes up a role in Drum Belly, a new Richard Dormer play at the Abbey; he is one of the small number of Irish actors who are constantly in demand. Not that the acting life ever allows him to become complacent. “You get used to the insecurity because you have to,” he says. “It doesn’t get easier, but you get better at trusting that things come along. Catherine and I give each other space at home when we are in demanding roles.”