Brendan Gleeson and his sons, Brian and Domhnall, are discussing the best way to hide a knife. They're working out the details of Enda Walsh's The Walworth Farce, which they are rehearsing at the Clasac Theatre in Clontarf, Dublin, alongside young London actor Leona Allen and acclaimed director Sean Foley. It's the darkly funny story of an Irishman living in a flat in Walworth, where every day he makes his adult sons enact a narratively significant farce.
Twenty minutes later, the Gleesons are sitting in a row: Brian to my left; Domhnall in the middle, sitting cross-legged, puffing on an electronic cigarette; and Brendan on the right, leaning forward in his chair.
So how autobiographical does this play feel?
“I wouldn’t say it feels very autobiographical at all,” says Domhnall.
“Phew,” says Brendan.
“I mean, obviously the relationships, the lineage, is the same,” says Domhnall. “But the characters are so different.”
“Maybe it reminds us,” says Brian, pausing meaningfully, “of times of great stress.”
They all laugh.
Whose idea was it to work on this together? Brendan and Brian both point at Domhnall. “Well, I saw the play before, so I gave the boys copies of it,” says Domhnall. “It was so good.”
They’ve worked together before in different combinations on sketches and short films, even appearing once on the same stage in support of St Francis’s Hospice, for which they regularly fundraise. “So there was a bit of a history leading towards this,” says Brendan.
Brendan and Domhnall acted together in Calvary (for which, a few nights previously, Brendan won a British Independent Film Award), where they ended up disagreeing on how to play the scene they shared together.
“We ended up defining [the scene] by that almost,” says Domhnall. “This is very different, because you have to be in sync in a totally different way. You’re on stage together and this is a farce and there’s so much physicality.”
“It’s clear that everybody works in different ways,” says Brendan. “Domhnall’s process is different to mine, for example. You tend to gnaw away at it and build that way. I tend to jump right in and see what happens. And Brian’s a bit like that but is a bit of a thinker as well.”
A fine balance
Is it strange going from big budget feature films such as Star Wars (which Domhnall acted in) to something like this?
“They’re almost different disciplines,” says Brian.
“There are very definite differences in terms of the actual craft of how you communicate on stage as opposed to a camera,” says Brendan. “It’s a very different craft. You have to hone skills and get spatial awareness and the feel of things and timing. There’s a different artifice at work.”
“Here if you get it right once, you have to find a way to do it again,” says Domhnall. “In film, if you get it right once, they’ve got it on film.”
“And then they leave it out in the edit,” says Brendan.
They talk a bit about balancing art with entertainment. “If I pretended I had a rule, it would be to make sure that I wouldn’t let a year slip by without trying to do something without unquestioned artistic intent,” says Brendan. “That’s not how it always turns out, but that artistic thing should be clear and front and centre of what you’re doing. But I didn’t want to get into a place where I would only do the worthy stuff.
"Cinema is a massive gift to people in terms of escapism . . . I did The Smurfs, for example. I think five-year-olds also have a right to theatre and the sight of me galumphing around the place."
Brendan hasn’t done theatre in 15 years. “Going back to the Olympia was a massive thing to me because of all of that Passion Machine stuff in the 1980s.”
Passion Machine was a Dublin-based theatre company that staged only contemporary, Irish populist work. Brendan wrote several plays for it, and it staged work by Paul Mercier, Roddy Doyle and Gerard Stembridge.
“It was all about bringing people in and entertaining the hell out of them. It reflected people’s actual lives in the suburbs,” says Brendan.
“And it entertained,” says Domhnall. “You didn’t have to have studied Shakespeare to understand why this works, you could just go in and watch and have a brilliant time. It wasn’t, ‘Gah, I have to get a bit of culture’.”
“Paul Mercier wrote a lot of plays for the Black Box where there’s just a table and four chairs and actors running around turning into various different people,” says Brendan. “We had an audience who weren’t theatre-going, and they all got it. They all made the leap of imagination.”
Have they ever really believed in a project but then felt they got it wrong? “Oh Jesus, yeah,” says Brendan.
“That’s part of taking risks,” says Domhnall.
“It’s really horrible,” says Brendan. “But I try not to point [those projects] out in public. Because as I’ve found out over the years, when you say, ‘Oh Christ, that thing is an awful embarrassment’ and someone has just seen it and really likes it, that’s a really mean thing to do to them.”
Domhnall tells a story about a musician he knows who had a 13-year-old fan tell her a performance was great, to which she responded: ‘“No, last night was better.’ The 13-year-old said, ‘Don’t take my experience away from me’.”
“Good man,” says Brendan. “He was dead right. It’s a treacherous act to give way to your own insecurities and rob someone’s experience of a night.”
What's The Walworth Farce all about then? "For me it's just embracing the mayhem for better or for worse," says Brendan.
“I’ve got ‘commit to lunacy’ written on the front of my script,” says Domhnall. He shows me his well-thumbed manuscript. “Commit to lunacy” is indeed scrawled on the front in biro.
“It’s about the beauty of escaping into your imagination and the tragedy of doing that as well,” says Brian.
Is acting together as a family a bit like playing music together as a family?
“It’s a bit harder to organise,” says Brendan. “We don’t just meet up and do a bunch of acting,” says Domhnall.
“Let’s go to the pub for an improv. Improv anyone?” says Brian.
Brendan considers the idea some more. “I always thought it was a beautiful thing if two sisters or brothers are singing the same song. There’s a synergy in the tones or textures of their voices. There’s a shared knowledge and when it works, it works really well.
“Obviously it can go the opposite way, because everyone knows that families fight, but it’s been great so far. There’s a feeling we’re on the one road and with Sean and Leona as well. It hasn’t felt like they’re outside the family at all . . . It’s a cliche but every production becomes a family. Everyone on it becomes a family.”
He also says that, although he sees acting as primarily about communication, the act of getting up on stage can be “extraordinarily therapeutic, and when you do it with people you love, it’s even more so . . . So there’s something massively celebratory to be able to do it with the lads.”
So the fact that this is about a dysfunctional family dynamic, are there any resonances there? “You sound determined to make that connection,” says Brendan. “I do feel like you’ve asked this question about five times,” says Domhnall. “We’re not really a dysfunctional family,” says Brian. “Not really.”
“Although every family is dysfunctional,” says Brendan, philosophically. “There’s no such thing as a normal family.”
"What the hell are you talking about?" says Domhnall.
"We're not as dysfunctional as they are," says Brian.
“There’s no such thing as a normal family,” says Brendan. “They don’t exist. Everybody is barking mad as far as I’m concerned. But I think we know we’re in a slightly different area with these guys.”
“I hope so,” says Domhnall.
The Walworth Farce is at the Olympia Theatre, Jan 10 to Feb 8