The greatest dualist in Irish theatre takes a final bow

Sat, Feb 18, 2012, 00:00

CULTURE SHOCK:IN THE EARLY days of television, one of the standard formats was a gameshow called What’s My Line?in which the panel had to guess, on the basis of various hints, the occupation of a mystery guest. David Kelly could never have gotten a gig on the show.

He only had to open his mouth and the dimmest panellist would know that he was an actor. Or, not so much an actor as an act- or. He spoke in ordinary life in an accent that was purely theatrical, his plain Dublin cadences heightened and rolled into a self-consciously enunciated, ever-so-slightly Anglicised elocution.

If you wanted to engage in the popular pastime of belittling actors as thesps or luvvies, David Kelly was Exhibit A. Along with the accent went a languid, even fey, daintiness, the feline presence of a now-lost generation of performers whose DNA still contained elements of the grand manner of the 19th century.

And yet, all of this was grossly deceptive. Or rather, it applied only to real life. It was if Kelly indulged his inner act-or off stage so that he would have no need of it when he walked out in front of an audience. There was no actor of his quality on the Irish stage over the last 30 years who was less self-indulgent or egotistical. He embodied those qualities of dedication, professionalism and service to an audience that make all those snide jibes about “luvvies” so stupid.

To put it negatively for a moment, I would say that in my time watching Irish theatre, David Kelly gave more good performances in bad productions than anyone else. Because he did not become internationally famous until very late in his career, he spent most of it as the quintessential working actor, moving from job to job. He ended up in a lot of dreary plays, often in parts that were relatively marginal for an actor of his stature. But he never, ever, seemed to be going through the motions, to be drawing on the survival skills accumulated over the decades.

Critics usually learn to delete bad experiences from their memory banks, like victims repressing trauma. But I remember Kelly being really good in three poor productions at the Abbey in the very late 1980s, when the theatre was going through an especially rough patch after the acrimonious departure of Joe Dowling. When he came on stage as Gentleman John Burgoyne in George Bernard Shaw’s The Devil’s Disciple, he immediately banished a tedium that again settled over the proceedings once he was gone. In an appropriately abysmal production of Gorky’s The Lower Depths, he conjured a poignant image of a broken-down old actor. Most remarkably, he excelled as Old Mahon in a bland production of Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World.

What was remarkable about this was that he was the last person a sane casting director would have thought of for the violent, bullying father who has driven his son to desperation and flight. A small, elegant, dapper Dubliner could not be Old Mahon. But Kelly just got on with it and used the physical improbability to give the role his own twist of psychological nastiness.

And this was typical of his extraordinary ability to ignore the basic idea that an actor has an appropriate range. He is spoken of now as a “comic actor”, but there was no qualifier before his job description. He was undaunted by the age of a character or the form or mood of a play. He seemed as comfortable in Noel Coward as he was playing the destitute Rashers in Strumpet City, as much at home in Chekhov as in the coarse knockabout of Waking Ned.

Some of this flexibility was rooted, obviously, in sheer necessity – if you’re trying to make a living in a small theatre market, you adapt or you starve. But there was, I think, something a little more profound than that going on, something that makes Kelly’s passing into more than an individual moment. He was the last of the troupers, the last Irish actor who was shaped in equal measure by straight drama on the one side and music hall on the other.

If you go back 50 years or so, you’ll find David Kelly as two apparently contradictory things. One is a young avant-garde actor: he emerged in Alan Simpson and Carolyn Swift’s tiny Pike Theatre, in plays such as Eugène Ionesco’s The Bald Prima Donna.But the other is a sideman in the last days of Dublin’s great music hall tradition, supporting Jimmy O’Dea and Danny Cummins in revue at the Gaiety. You’ll see him, in other words, with one foot in the radical future and the other in performance traditions that go back to the 19th century and beyond. Kelly had the humility, the technique and the timing of a music hall straight man. He was the foil to O’Dea in the very early TV series O’Dea’s Your Man, written by Myles na gCopaleen, and three decades later to Milo O’Shea in Neil Simon’s The Sunshine Boys.

It’s a pity that the world in which an actor could be both “serious” and music hall disappeared. But I do feel privileged to have twice witnessed performances by David Kelly in which he had the opportunity to use both sides of his training at the same time. I remember him, in the mid-1980s, playing in a double-act as a pair of drying-out drunks alongside Ray McAnally in Aodhán Madden’s The Midnight Door, set in a psychiatric hospital. The fusion of bleak realism and vaudeville comedy was superb.

And then, of course, there was the avant-garde writer who loved music hall: Samuel Beckett. Kelly was, in 1959, the first actor to perform Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tapein Ireland – presumably the fact that he was far too young didn’t bother him. But he played the role again at the Gate’s first Beckett festival in 1991 and in New York in 1996, and he was terrific.

He made brilliant comic use of his own slightly affected Dublin accent for the younger Krapp, while giving the older man a more broken voice and a poignant, shambling, shuffling dignity.

In 1960, in a revue at the Gate, he had performed what is recorded as a “burlesque of Beckett”. In the years since, he played everything from burlesque to Beckett but his artistry really came home when he was doing both simultaneously.