Did you hear the one about the actor trying to be funny?
Druid actor Rory Nolan takes his comedy seriously - which may explain his impressive ability when it comes to theatre, and to trolling his fellow cast members
By Rory Nolan’s standards – which have become almost legendary in certain circles – this does not count as a classic prank.
But when the PR person phones to make sure that we have met in the right place, his commitment to a spontaneous wind-up is infectious. “No,” he mock worries down the phone. “What does he look like? Good-looking guy?” Eventually, mercifully, he sets her free: “Yeah – I’m here sitting with him.”
For the busy stage actor, it is another comic role, well played. “If the opportunity presents itself, you have to take it,” he says. This, I suspect, is his philosophy.
Nolan, whose impressive career has provided an ocean of amusement, demonstrates an almost musical range of laughter himself. There is his incapacitated wheeze, which rustles out of him as he talks me through a recent elaborate practical joke perpetrated against the actor Peter Daly.
There is an impish gulp, as he scrolls through its series of text messages, sent from an unknown number and claiming to be from a member of an accountancy firm/counselling service, as the ruse takes flight. And then there is a fast, delighted chuckle when Daly, who gives as good as he gets, finally susses him out: “Are you trolling me?”
“Imagine if he applied all that energy to something productive,” a mutual friend sighed at the conclusion of his most recent gag. To judge from his seriously funny career, though, the truth is that he does.
Nolan has had an uncommon command of their substance, rarely coming across as comic relief, when he can invest them with something like a comic belief
Since he began in the profession in 2003, Nolan has most regularly been associated with comic roles. In 2004, he played the flouncy John Betjeman in Rough Magic’s Improbable Frequency.
He became the stage embodiment of Ross O’Carroll-Kelly in three hugely successful plays by Paul Howard for Landmark Productions. More recently, he was nominated for an Irish Times Irish Theatre Award for his role as the clownish yet complex Falstaff in Druid’s phenomenal staging of the Henriad, DruidShakespeare.
In all those parts, Nolan has had an uncommon command of their substance, rarely coming across as comic relief, when he can invest them with something like a comic belief.
That approach helped Druid’s extraordinary production to crack open Beckett’s Waiting for Godot last year, in a rivetingly fresh take on a play that now transfers to the Abbey.
Nolan plays Pozzo, the overbearing master to Garrett Lombard’s unfortunate slave Lucky, who is at once the play’s most outwardly comic character and also the conduit for some of its most shuddering insights.
He presents Pozzo as a whirling creature of improvisation and quick recalculations
On stage, Nolan certainly looks the part: shaven-headed, sallow-eyed and made rotund with the help of a fat suit, slightly modified since its last outing as Falstaff (“A second skin” he calls it).
But he also finds some sense in this maddeningly indeterminate character – famously sighted one day, blind the next, and given no clue to his provenance or destiny – by presenting Pozzo as a whirling creature of improvisation and quick recalculations: if an opportunity presents itself, he has to take it.
This production of Godot originated in similar spirit, as a suggestion put forward by its cast, rounded out with Marty Rea and Aaron Monaghan who play the tramps Vladimir and Estragon. “We realised very quickly that we had something that is actually organic, and pure and real,” Nolan says of Druid’s ensemble, assembled in 2012 to stage DruidMurphy.
In any other circumstances, Nolan points out, he, Lombard, Rea and Monaghan – all actors of a similar age – would be more competitive than collaborative: “All the same age, the same sex, going for the same parts. We’d be grumbling at each other in the waiting room for an audition.”
As a part of Druid’s ensemble, though, performers can be both supported and challenged. On tour with DruidShakespeare in Limerick, musing about future projects, someone mentioned Godot almost as a joke, but it suddenly turned serious. The cast approached Druid’s artistic director Garry Hynes with an unlikely proposition. “I was just thinking that,” she replied.
Playing for two weeks at the Galway Arts Festival in the tiny Mick Lally Theatre, then undertaking a brief outdoor “country road” tour, the production, like Beckett’s original, delivered a modest display with an immense impact.
For 25 years, Godot in Ireland had seemed like the exclusive property of the Gate Theatre, in a much revered, endlessly revived production featuring Barry McGovern, Johnny Murphy, Alan Stanford and Stephen Brennan.
I think Godot is one of the most accessible plays going. It’s hilarious, it’s sad, it’s funny. It makes you think
“They owned it, as far as we were concerned,” admits Nolan. Other versions have been staged, though, usually performed with as much reverence as a catechism.
“That’s exactly the problem,” says Nolan. “I think Godot is one of the most accessible plays going. It’s hilarious, it’s sad, it’s funny. It makes you think. It gives you all the feels. It does what great art should do. It moves and stirs you.”
Godot’s accessibility, much like its comedy, can be a vexed issue. An absurdist play of shattering import, you may find yourself laughing at it, but it still resists any easy interpretation.
Nolan is sincere about its open invitation to both audiences and actors. His introduction to Beckett, as a teenager, came from his father reading passages from Malone Dies; tearing up with laughter at a pained scene between its elderly characters, “trying to bundle his sex into his partner’s like a pillow into a pillow-slip”.
“I find it really funny,” says Nolan, searching for the right words. “It’s not macabre. It’s a kind of Irish wit. I don’t find it gloomy. It reaffirms . . . that it’s okay to be alive.”
He also takes Pozzo as he finds him. “The more you try and put your finger on who, or what, he is, the more he evades you. The worst is when you start to think metaphorically: ‘Oh, this is what he stands for.’ If you do that, I think, you’re doing a disservice to the play, because you’re telling your audience, ‘I get this. Come follow me’.”
Instead, Nolan takes his cues from the text, which is customarily precise. “I find his cowardice, and his lack of being able to veil who he is, very funny. He has this part where he breaks down crying, and then looks up from between his hands to see if they’re noticing.” On stage it’s a brilliantly wicked moment, and typically Nolan, but he points out it’s all on the page. “I wouldn’t dare dick around with this stuff. Beckett knew what he was doing.”
For that energy the comic character has to have, there has to be a dark side to it
In the rehearsal room, though, there’s a seriousness behind Nolan’s playfulness. “Sometimes a quip, or a bit of craic, can lighten something that has been very tense, or it can unlock something that’s been very difficult. Everyone has to be very respectful to each other, but caution can be detrimental. Because you’ve got to be able to go for it.”
Not everyone takes comic characters as seriously, Nolan knows. “I do think comic characters are sometimes overlooked,” he says. Nolan, though, has always been drawn to them, and he recognises something in their comedy. “For that energy the comic character has to have, there has to be a dark side to it. You can’t be like that without having it. Usually comic characters have that aspect to them for survival.”
Before Nolan won the award for best supporting actor this year, for his role as Pozzo, he had been nominated twice before – and presenter Peter Daly, his long-time friend and sparring partner, couldn’t help making a dry joke, noting that Nolan, the eternal nominee, was up for a play in which people waited endlessly “for something that’s never going to happen”.
Thankfully, Nolan did win, but he took an opportunity to make another jibe when I mentioned it. “The joke’s on him,” he said. “My character doesn’t wait.” And he laughed again.
- Druid’s production of Waiting For Godot runs at the Abbey Theatre from April 25th-May 20th. abbeytheatre.ie