Pat Kinevane’s singular vision from the brink of the world

The Cork actor and playwright’s searing solo performances have a style of their own and have taken him to 18 countries – so why does he still struggle to admit that he’s a writer?

Pat Kinevane: ‘I’ve always felt that I’d gush with ideas, but I need to be bridled as well.’ Photograph: Patrick Redmond

Pat Kinevane: ‘I’ve always felt that I’d gush with ideas, but I need to be bridled as well.’ Photograph: Patrick Redmond

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For the past week or so, Pat Kinevane has been asking for trouble. The rehearsal space for his new play Underneath, his third solo performance for Fishamble, adjoins another, currently occupied by the performer Olwen Fouéré.

“She knows this; she’s my goddess,” he tells me. Whenever the opportunity has arisen, though, Kinevane – an energetic and impish man – tried to disturb his neighbour. “Olwen, can you hear me?!” he shouted through the walls. Finally, Fouéré got her own back. During a haunting scene of Kinevane’s rehearsal, an almighty roar bellowed in from next door, puncturing the poignancy. “If it was anybody else, you’d say shut up,” says Kinevane. “But that was fantastic.”

When Kinevane, then a neophyte, first breathlessly approached Fouéré at the end of a performance of Salomé he spluttered: “I just think you’re an extraordinary creature.” It’s actually quite a serviceable description of Kinevane himself, an actor whose striking features and nimble physicality on stage can often seem otherworldly. He has a magnetic presence, which, in ensemble casts, tends to draw the eye and can sometimes hijack a scene, as though he wasn’t made to share the stage.

That may explain why Kinevane has come into his own by going it alone. His first solo performance, 2006’s Forgotten, was both wickedly scabrous and immensely compassionate, telling the stories of four elderly characters with an invigorating theatricality that borrowed as much from Japanese Kabuki theatre as more familiar Irish icons.

 

Pushing the right buttons

Directed by his most frequent collaborator Jim Culleton, it was followed in 2011 with Silent, another show about life on the edge of society. Told by a homeless man, Valentino, who darkly describes the many suicide attempts of his brother, it made playful experiments with form, from a surreal mental health hotline (“If you are obsessive compulsive, please press one repeatedly”), to flickering silent-movie-style images or a monologue over Flamenco dance steps.

As a storyteller, Kinevane favours an arrestingly disjointed approach; as a performer he combines the exotic and the earthy; and as a quietly political dramatist, he gravitates towards the marginalised.

“I always felt like I was born on the brink of the world,” says the unnamed narrator of his new play, a woman disfigured from a young age, speaking to us from beyond the grave. It seems like a fertile place.

“Pat is always looking at the underdog, people living on the fringes of society,” says Culleton, who also directs him in Underneath. “There’s something full of humanity about the characters he writes, but he thinks it through theatrically as well: the visuals, dance and movement, how the story can be told. It makes us push ourselves in different ways.”

Kinevane owns up to no system – to hear him describe it, the plays came together largely by accident – but these solo shows really depend on a partnership. “It’s like this,” he says, “I’ve always felt that I’d gush with ideas, but I need to be bridled as well.” His ideas tend to come instinctively, surging with the energy of new discovery, then tugged back by self-doubt, and Culleton works to make sure they earn their place.

Take the transfixing introduction of Forgotten’s character Gustus, an incapacitated stroke victim, for which Kinevane almost turned himself into a puppet, donning an impressionistic mask, turning his body back to front, and moving, with hypnotic slowness, to a voiceover.

“I will definitely be the one wanting everything to fit together logically,” says Culleton. “Pat will say, ‘I think it just feels right.’ Sometimes that’s the way to go: the madness, brilliance and oddness actually makes sense on a subconscious level and audiences are most struck by it. You don’t batter it into something too logical.”

Kinevane’s first solo work came from a sense of frustration. “I think I wanted to work in a different theatrical mode. I knew there was an awful lot of stuff I wanted to do and express, style-wise and presentation-wise, and I thought, well, f*** it, this was the time to do it.”

For Fishamble, the fleet-footed productions allowed for lengthier development and cautious exploration. You had to struggle to catch Forgotten, a hit-and-run touring operation that appeared for just a couple of nights at a time. As word spread, it visited more than 80 venues in Ireland and Silent has reached almost as many (Kinevane often performs them in repertory). Together they have achieved international success – 18 countries and counting – and now expectation has become harder to manage. Before Underneath opens for a handful of performances as part of Limerick City of Culture, it has been booked for an extensive national tour. These days it’s much harder to stay under the radar.

Underneath was never considered part of a trilogy, but the three plays do belong together. The tone and technique of the new play solidify Kinevane’s style, darting from grandiose gestures to earthy wit, creating a gossipy rapport with the audience, and leaping from acute social observation to flights of fancy. It is an Irish story, threaded through with an Egyptian theme, whose narrative is punctuated by the increasingly absurd soundtrack of a television property show.

 

Fish out of water

Still, it feels like a more personal show for Kinevane. Like him, its character comes from Cobh, a fish out of water with a salty humour and fluid powers of observation who moved to Cork city to work and finally settled in Dublin. “I have that in common with her – the steeling of yourself,” he says.

“I had no confidence in myself as a teenager, like loads of other teenagers,” Kinevane recalls. “But I’ve never been happier than in my 40s. You go, what was I worried about? What was I thinking about?” In Underneath, his character realises late “I should have cared less and laughed more”, and though the play is concerned with beauty, exploitation and a world of appearances, it could be a metaphor for the creative act and the threat of inhibition. At times a friend of Kinevane’s likes to reprimand him with some Corkonian common sense, “Ah Pat, would you ever get out of your own f***ing way?” The play, too, is a battle against self-consciousness, a struggle for self-liberation.

Even now, Kinevane, who describes his background as “proudly working-class” rarely admits to being a writer. “As far as I’m concerned, my profession is performer.” He later admits, “I think it’s a confidence thing. Maybe I feel subconsciously that I don’t deserve it.”

Early last year, while touring Australia, Kinevane found himself divided between aesthetic ideas that might suit Underneath’s strange position between life and the hereafter. He had been toying with references to Egyptian and South American cultures and their honouring of the dead. Kinevane enjoys touring, but Perth had been an unexpectedly lonely experience and he went wandering the city. “I walked into an antique shop and I saw it – a golden pharaoh with a black face. I went, ‘That’s it. That’s f***ing it.’” His search was over.

The figurine belonged to a pair, but Kinevane insisted on taking just one. Given his continuing singular journey, it seemed appropriate. “I said, ‘That’s okay, leave the other one there. I’ll be back to get him next time.’ ”

 

Underneath is at Lime Tree Theatre, Limerick, Dec 3-6, and tours nationally in the spring

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