Romeo and Juliet . . . and Peter: is there still such a thing as a small part?
As an actor you may have only a few lines – or none at all – but you can still make the most of a role, as Dee Burke, who’s appearing in ‘Hedda Gabler’ at the Abbey, and John Doran, who features in Shakespeare’s tragedy at the Gate, are proving
Doing a lot with a little: John Doran plays the ukulele in Romeo and Juliet; he also joins the cast in several other roles. Photographs: Pat Redmond
Doing a lot with a little: Dee Burke plays the part of Supernumary Maid in Hedda Gabler. Photograph: Ros Kavanagh
Stage roles don’t come much smaller than the part of the doctor in A Streetcar Named Desire. For the actor playing him the job is mainly confined to the dressing room. He appears only in the dying minutes of the last scene, for four lines: 15 words in total. (But who’s counting?) And although his arrival seals the sad fate of Blanche DuBois his primary function is to prompt the line “Whoever you are, I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.”
But that’s not how he sees it.
An actor playing the doctor once described the plot of Tennessee Williams’s play to the theatre critic Mel Gussow. “Well,” he said, “it’s about this doctor who takes this crazy lady off to an asylum.” For Gussow it was revelatory. “For an actor or a playwright, even a critic,” Gussow explained, in a lecture called The Role of the Critic, “one must always believe that what one does is important.”
There’s no such thing as a small part, just small actors, goes the adage. But what if you don’t believe that?
Macbeth’s servant, evocatively named Seyton, has roughly the same amount of stage time as Streetcar’s doctor. But when Macbeth asks “Wherefore was that cry?” one of Seyton’s lines changes everything: “The queen, my lord, is dead.”
In a long-running British touring production of the play, the actor-manager Donald Wolfit gave the part to a young actor who made up with ambition what he lacked in ability. After several seasons of playing the standard-bearer the young actor began looking for a promotion. Wolfit declined. “Into this stalemate,” wrote Derek Nimmo, “came thoughts of revenge.”
When Macbeth was next performed everything went according to plan, and by Act V everything was on cue for bloody repercussions.
MACBETH: Wherefore was that cry?
SEYTON [pause]: My lord, the queen is much better and is even now at dinner.
The young actor walked off the stage and out of the theatre forever.
The first time I remember seeing the actor Dee Burke in a performance I was reasonably sure she was going to kill me. “Why did you follow me?” she asked as we rounded a corner of what was once the Dublin red-light district of Monto. “Are you stupid or something?”
Burke, a petit, no-nonsense figure in pyjama bottoms and a bright red jacket, had seemingly come out of nowhere. You first saw her in Anu Productions’ World’s End Lane, tapping from the other side of a window from the street. For Anu, beginning its extraordinary Monto Cycle in 2010, her unfamiliarity was a major asset that meant the audience could never be sure what was performance and what was real, who was an actor and who wasn’t. “I’m completely comfortable with that anonymity,” Burke says.
Burke was spotted by Anu’s artistic director, Louise Lowe, in Griese Youth Theatre in Co Kildare, which Burke’s mother runs. Sharp-witted and thoughtful – she trained as a social worker – Burke was cast in several of Lowe’s productions and appeared in three instalments of the Monto Cycle. If you attended The Boys of Foley Street you may have helped pin her dress back up in a toilet cubicle. Yet people remember her most from World’s End Lane. She even avoids wearing red these days, she admits, because “it reminds people”.
Burke is making her mainstream debut this week at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, in Mark O’Rowe’s new version of Hedda Gabler, directed by Annabelle Comyn. She plays the part of Supernumerary Maid. “Ah, the new girl!” her fellow actor Jane Brennan greeted her when Burke joined the cast, a few weeks into rehearsals. That’s as close a mention as she gets in the script, when the imperious Hedda (played by Catherine Walker) has expressed misgivings about “the new girl”. Otherwise there are no lines. It doesn’t seem a lot to build on.
Burke could hardly be less precious about the undertaking, but she is engagingly serious about it. “You have to think about those maids and how they enter a room,” she says. “They’re seen but they’re not seen. And it’s actually quite hard to be invisible. I’ve played an invisible worker before, in Thirteen” – another Anu production – “on a Luas. But when you’re trying to be invisible it’s a completely different thing.”
Burke isn’t being overlooked in rehearsals, either. Although she has no lines the Abbey’s voice coach, Andrea Ainsworth, included her in vocal warm-ups. “It cemented me in the group,” Burke says.
Does a Supernumerary Maid have a particular perspective on the play? “I really like it,” she says. “My piece at the beginning I’m really enjoying. They’ve just come back from their honeymoon. Hedda has asked for all the covers to be taken off the furniture. Berte” – her superior – “comes in with a certain kind of rhythm – busy busy busy! – and I follow, head down, for that unveiling. Everything’s very fresh compared to what I do at the end; it’s all closing in, drawing the curtains, so everything comes down a bit.
“I feel it’s very important when I’m doing it. And I really want to do it right. Even though to everybody else it might seem very small I’m taking it very seriously. I think that feeds through.”
Burke smiled at a certain similarity between her role and her experience of being in her first job at the Abbey. When Deirdre Molloy, who plays Berte, showed her the way to the green room, Burke found herself trailing behind, wide-eyed and eager in her voluminous costume. “So I am ‘the new girl’, in every way.”
Across the Liffey at the Gate Theatre, where Wayne Jordan’s production of Romeo and Juliet is running, a backstage joke has developed. Whenever the aggressive young Capulet men prepare to prowl the streets of Verona, looking for trouble, someone calls after them, “Don’t forget to bring Peter along.” Everybody rolls their eyes. “Aw, Christ.”
Peter is the name that the actor John Doran has assigned to his role, which is an amalgamation of a few servant roles at the Capulet household. In Jordan’s adapted script he is called Capulet 2, so sometimes Doran refers to him, with admirable elevation, as Peter Capulet II.
Doran, who is also making his mainstream debut after a series of fantastically memorable performances in independent theatre, many with the Devious Theatre Company, in Kilkenny, speaks so engagingly about his part that you’d swear the play was called Romeo and Juliet and Peter.
“The job is to get up on the stage and play the character in the play, no matter what the company is, if it’s self-funded or self-written,” Doran says. His last piece, for instance, The Centre of the Universe, was a one-man labour of love for Show in a Bag, Dublin Fringe Festival’s scheme to develop small, tourable shows. That’s the mathematical opposite, you might assume, of playing in the ensemble for a Shakespeare production.
“Wayne wanted to cast people who would try things out, throw stuff in, have fun,” he says. “Not to just be a stagehand but to bring a narrative to your stagehandiness.”
To this end Doran has a charmingly upbeat interpretation of Peter Capulet II, a thumb-biting but ineffectual fighter, an illiterate steward, a musician, a frequent furniture mover and, finally, a pallbearer. “I’m a loyal member of the Capulet household,” Doran says. “I’ve got a good job, and I’m good at my job. I’m just the guy. That’s what I’m thinking when I’m moving the table: I’m the guy! They want me to play the ukulele at the party: I’m the guy!”
Doing a lot with a little
That earnestness, on behalf of a character so clearly out of his depth, can be hilarious to watch, and Doran has a particular talent for doing a lot with a little. (He recalls, with affection, playing a part in Willy Russell’s Stags and Hens that involved lying face down in a bathroom for two hours with no lines and four puking cues.)
“I think Peter’s part is to do his job with enthusiasm and smoothness. Whatever that job is. If the job is to dress up like a faun and play some Purcell, well, fine. I’ll do it. If his job is to bring out an invite list and he can’t read, well, I’ll do it. And if the job is to bring on Juliet’s body, to assist in tending to her body in the tomb, then I’ll do it.”
That’s a curiously effective synopsis of the play, in all its comedy and tragedy, as witnessed from the wings. That may also be the keenest emphasis of the production, which works hard to bring new attention to the play’s margins, where Tybalt and Lady Capulet have a heated, thwarted love affair and where otherwise unconnected courtiers exchange amorous glances. It is a production most curious about the inner lives of characters beyond its protagonists.
These days, when everyone is the star of their own show, whether royal or common, doctor or servant, that seems like our story. As Burke says, it’s harder to be invisible than you’d think. Or, as Doran’s own play might have it, there’s no such thing as a small part. Everyone is the centre of their own universe. Hedda Gabler is at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, and Romeo and Juliet is at the Gate Theatre, until May 16th