Our head of state and the queen of theatre

 

THE PRESIDENT WAS in Poland for the soccer, and when Ireland scored he jumped up and threw his hands in the air, delighted with the nation’s achievement.

The General saw it on television and was shocked. “He’s the head of state,” the General said. “He shouldn’t be jumping around like Desmond Tutu at a U2 concert.”

“He’s being himself,” I argued.

“You wouldn’t see the queen jumping up and down,” the General said.

I was defending the President as I had been invited to the Áras to celebrate Bloomsday and the birthday of the late Deirdre O’Connell, who founded the Focus Theatre, in Dublin. Deirdre was a walking icon of dramatic tragedy, wrapped in a black woollen shawl, with red hair, slender ankles and an enormous grief lodged in her heart.

The invitation arrived by email, with an alarming number of typing errors. It also requested the invitee to print out a hard copy of the email and bring it to “the main gate”, which made going to the Áras seem a bit like getting a Ryanair flight. And there was a footnote stating that only the named invitee would be admitted. Just as Ryanair is strict about excess luggage, so the Áras seemed firm about not admitting husband, wife or other extra baggage.

The graceless email saddened me because as a child I used to be in awe of the gilt-edged invitations the Áras sent out.

Not that I ever got one, but I had an uncle who worked as a secretary to a number of presidents. He lived just outside the Phoenix Park and enjoyed a boiled egg every morning before going to work. The cooker was his pride and joy, because it turned itself on automatically at noon each day and boiled a pot of potatoes by 1pm, at which hour he left his desk, walked up Nephin Road and sat at the table, where I would watch him consume the spuds with a tin of salmon, still wearing the dark woollen suit, tie and crisp white shirt that were his working clothes.

I was halfway to the Áras at lunchtime on Bloomsday when I realised I hadn’t printed out the email. Rather than face the shame of being refused at the gate I decided not to go. Which was a pity, because I admired Deirdre O’Connell and the wonderful theatre she established in Dublin.

The Focus was a tiny place. The coffee area was behind the stage, partitioned from the dressing room by plywood. It was always frightening to be in the loo before going on stage and to hear the audience clinking their wine glasses and saying things like, “I heard this show is not very funny.”

But my most terrifying experience was one night when Tom Hickey and I staged a play called Misogynist, in 1990, for a women-only audience. One truculent man came to the door claiming to be a feminist, but we turned him away. When everyone had taken their seats, and Hickey began the monologue revealing the comic and ugly landscape of misogyny in the Goyaesque fashion of the piece, I sat behind the stage and felt the tension rising in the audience. Why are we doing this, I wondered.

The answer was that Deirdre had asked us. The play had been closed down by the Abbey the previous year, after sustained indignation from some voices on the radio and less than loyal support from the national theatre. But the day it closed Deirdre phoned and said defiantly, “Why not put it on at the Focus?” We did, and the production went on to find success in Edinburgh and London and around Ireland.

Deirdre had saved the play from obliteration and probably saved me as a writer, because she helped me believe that if theatre was about speaking the unspeakable then she was committed to a space where that could happen.

The Focus was a training base for many Irish actors, and for years it championed European writers in the provincial world of Dublin theatre. But, ironically, the reason they were celebrating Deirdre’s birthday in the Áras was because the Focus has been closed. Without Arts Council funding it has no future.

I never imagined it would close, because Deirdre’s half-empty theatre was a permanent place of refuge in an Ireland of cliches and hubris; I will miss its tattered curtain, its wobbling lights, its old red velvet seats and the portrait of Luke Kelly, hidden king of Deirdre’s heart, which dominated the coffee area with presidential dignity.

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