'The body has a language of its own'
Pat Kinevane’s theatrical epiphany was ‘like being walloped about the back of the head’, and the result is mesmerising work about contemporary issues
WHEN CORK ACTOR Pat Kinevane started his first job with An Post, he used to “travel to Dublin in-between shifts to go to the theatre. I’d go to the Abbey, the Gate, to see all the big names, and some of the most incredible productions of the plays of Beckett and Yeats.” Then, in 1983, he saw Tom MacIntyre’s expressionistic adaptation of Patrick Kavanagh’s epic poem The Great Hunger, “and it was like being walloped across the back of the head”.
For Kinevane, who had been involved in community drama throughout his teenage years, Patrick Mason’s production was to become a keystone for his own ambitions. He threw himself into the amateur dramatic scene and it “was a baptism of fire, a training in all the fundamentals: how to make sure you’re heard at the back of the hall, how to make a set stand up”.
Kinevane had always been attracted to the “more theatrical kind of theatre. I had seen the likes of Dublin Contemporary Dance on tour down in Cork, and I remember sitting there watching the dancers and translating it all in my head. I loved the way you could tell a story through gesture; the fact that the body had a language of its own.”
Soon he found himself training in movement with Vincent O’Neill at the Oscar Mime Company, and by the early 1990s he was working as a professional actor in “what was for me Mecca. There I was, working at the Abbey, at the Gate, where I used to sit as a punter watching the greats. There I was in a Tom MacIntyre play. I remember, when I was still in Cork, making a recording of myself as Christy Mahon from The Playboy of the Western World and sending it in to RTÉ Radio Drama, and then suddenly I was in the studio playing the part.”
With his tightly shorn head, long face and strong chin, the 45-year-old Kinevane is a distinctive physical presence, although, sitting in a tracksuit in the Westbury Hotel, you might not necessarily recognise him as an actor. His broad shoulders have become slightly stooped over the years, while a slight paunch betrays a sweet tooth, which is sated during this interview by a selection of French pastries and scones, a Diet Coke and several sugar lumps in his tea.
Even so, when he stands and moves, he commands attention, and, alone on stage in his latest solo-show Silent, he is mesmerising as Tino McGoldrig, a homeless man haunted by the death of his brother and the spirit of the silent movie star Rudolph Valentino.
Silent was commissioned by Fishamble: The New Play Company, and Kinevane credits the company with kick-starting his writing career. This is his fourth play with them, and “without their encouragement, I don’t think I would have had the confidence to put the work out there. I don’t think it’s easy for an actor to be accepted into the slipstream of a writer’s career and there’s always the fear that you won’t be accepted.”
Kinevane was originally inspired to write by a desire to “give actors a chance to do work that was outside of what you’d usually see. I love a good cerebral play, but I wanted to do something with movement, create a different sort of mythical world but at the same time deal with certain issues that affected me.”
Silent has been in Kinevane’s head for years. After leaving school he started training as a psychiatric nurse in Our Lady’s Hospital in Cork City, where he witnessed “the daily struggle the patients had with the delicate balance of [their] mental health. It was a shocking place to be. There were brilliant people trying to do their job in the most horrible conditions, and while you had some patients who did well, had visitors all the time, there were others who were medicated to the gills, and who you knew would never get out of there.”
Kinevane left his course after 10 months, because “while I wanted all the knowledge, was interested in the academic side of it, I felt that I wasn’t qualified to do some of the things they were asking me to do”. In Silent, he admits: “I am remembering some of the bleak situations I saw people in, and some of the funny bits too.”
Despite its long genesis, Kinevane credits Silent’s success – it has taken him across Europe, from Edinburgh to Iceland – with the evolution of attitudes to mental health over the last few decades. “I think there’s a recognition in these last few years that it is okay to talk about depression. Mental ill-health – just like old-age [which Kinevane explored in his equally remarkable 2006 play Forgotten] – is something that affects most people at some stage of our lives; if you think about what has happened in Ireland in the last few years, people losing their jobs, and with it their routines, their self-esteem, their feeling of being in control. But when you can express those negative emotions they become more manageable.”
Tino McGoldrig’s tragedy is that he can’t, “he becomes more isolated and with it those feelings get magnified”. Kinevane himself admits to the occasional brush with depression. “I suppose I am one of those people,” he says wryly, “who doesn’t like to have too much down-time.”
Being an actor, where employment is often sporadic, “you can find yourself with a bit more down-time than most”. But writing, Kinevane continues, “has helped me get through many a rainy day of a weekend when I’ve been out of work”.
More than that, it has provided Irish theatre with an inimitable series of works about contemporary social issues, where words are not always necessary to tell the world how you feel.
Silent is on national tour, with performances in Waterford, Cork, and Clonmel, and at the Peacock Theatre, Dublin from 30th May to 16th June. fishamble.com