The extraordinary genius of Donal McCann on stage

Derek O’Connor remembers the actor, who was a giant of Irish theatre

Donal McCann: You just need to know that he was here. And he was remarkable

Donal McCann: You just need to know that he was here. And he was remarkable

 

I never saw Diego Maradona play football. I never saw Nijinsky dance. And I never saw Miles Davis play the horn.

But baby, I saw Donal McCann act.

So, you know what? Fundamentally, I’m good.

I’m not quite sure that they make actors like Donal McCann any more. I’m not quite sure that they ever did. Twenty years after his passing, McCann is far from forgotten. Talk to anyone with a passing knowledge of Irish theatre, and chances are that they’ll acknowledge him as a giant, one of the greats, a master of the form.

But then talk to someone who witnessed him ply his trade – scratch that, his vocation – and the tone changes to one of reverence, of something resembling awe, a single question left unspoken . . . How did he do that?

Captain Boyle is one of the great archetypes, in that the character so exquisitely personifies a particular strain of Irish male

I came to the party late. The first time I saw McCann onstage was in a Gate Theatre production of Juno And The Paycock, playing Seán O’Casey’s poetic wastrel Captain Boyle. Little more than a decade later, he would be dead at the ridiculously early age of 56, from pancreatic cancer. I didn’t see him on purpose, either - I was on a school trip. Juno was (as it remains now) on the Leaving Certificate curriculum. An enthusiastic English teacher – one Declan Fitzpatrick – insisted we experienced the work onstage.

Captain Boyle is one of the great archetypes, in that the character so exquisitely personifies a particular strain of Irish male, as prevalent now as ever. With a pitch-perfect wingman in the shape of John Kavanagh’s wired and wiry Joxer Daly, McCann’s Boyle was both pantomime turn and Falstaffian tragedy, sometimes within the same scene, sometimes within the same sentence. I had never – and have never since – seen anyone so utterly alive on the stage. How did he do that?

Shortly afterwards, I see him again, in John Huston’s film of Joyce’s short story The Dead. It’s a tale of unspoken moments, so slight and delicate yet moving beyond comprehension, with a quiet, implosive ferocity that leaves you reeling. And by steadfastly refusing to expand upon the 16,000 or so words in Joyce’s original text – the film runs a mere 83 minutes – its innate power translates to the screen undiluted.

Television work

The performances by McCann and Huston’s daughter Anjelica, as a married couple lost to each other, are sublime. While Huston does the heavy-lifting acting-wise, McCann – a great actor, and reactor – gets to deliver the closing passage of Joyce’s story, as the camera fades from his haunted visage to the snowy Irish countryside: “His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.” The filmmaker knew what he was doing, having directed everyone from Bogart to Monroe – for McCann, The Dead is the closest thing he ever had to a pure movie star moment.

His film and television work ranges from the profoundly ridiculous to the occasionally sublime. He made his screen debut in 1966 in a silly Disney B-picture called The Fighting Prince Of Donegal, and decades prior to The Dead, shared the screen with Paul Newman for a moment in John Huston’s The Mackintosh Man, a minor cold war thriller lensed in Ireland. Even here, back in 1971, brandishing a pint and a fag, McCann already looks weathered beyond his years.

He enjoyed a successful run as a leading man on British television in the early 1970s and his filmography boasts a handful of memorable roles, notably in Thaddeus O’Sullivan’s December Bride, along with a trio of key works by Connemara maverick Bob Quinn – Poitin, Budawanny and The Bishop’s Story. His velvety tones were subliminally ubiquitous in Ireland, thanks to the voiceover work that paid a decent wage between acting gigs.

Truthfully, this piece could merrily trundle along, serving as a perfunctory Wiki-recap of a man and his career, but that’s not why I’m writing about Donal McCann, 20 years after he died. I’m writing because we need to remember. Because I need to remember. The things that inform us, that change us forever. Those tiny specks of light. Those who aren’t here. You see something, and afterwards you’re never quite the same again.

John Kavanagh as Joxer and Donal McCann as Captain Boyle in Juno and the Paycock. Photograph: Tom Lawlor
John Kavanagh as Joxer and Donal McCann as Captain Boyle in Juno and the Paycock. Photograph: Tom Lawlor

This was work that bypassed logic. As McCann acolyte Fintan O’Toole once pointed out, by the time he made what would be his penultimate stage appearance in Sebastian Barry’s memory play The Steward Of Christendom, he was 51 playing a character in his mid-70s. In O’Toole’s words, he “made no effort to act the character’s age. If you thought about it, this made a mess of the play’s chronology. But you didn’t think about it because you had far better things to do, like being enraptured and entranced and devastated and renewed. These details didn’t matter in the workings of genius, but they do draw attention to the degree to which McCann fused the roles with himself.”

Upbringing

What of the man himself? Born in Terenure, raised in a comfortable middle-class household (his father, a playwright and politician, twice served as Lord Mayor of Dublin), McCann came from a well-worn tradition. Following dalliances with journalism and architecture, he paid his dues as a member of the Abbey Players, in an era – now unthinkable – when the national theatre kept a troupe of salaried thespians on the payroll. He diligently worked his way from bit player to star turn, while garnering a well-earned reputation as a wildcard. By 1969, and not yet 30, he was Estragon to Peter O’Toole’s Vladimir in Waiting For Godot, and by all accounts well able to hold his own against The Great Hellraiser O’Toole both on and off stage. Retrospectively, lifelong struggles with alcoholism and depression were publicly acknowledged.

Truthfully, you don’t really need to know anything about Donal McCann’s life. You just need to know that he was here. And he was remarkable.

The next time I see him – this time deliberately – is in another revival at The Abbey in Brian Friel’s Faith Healer. Like The Dead, it’s another ghost story and a precursor to the monologue-driven works that dominate Irish theatre in the decades to follow. As the doomed Francis Hardy, a man whose ability to cure the sick destroys the lives of those around him, McCann performed miracles of his own. His tangible and immersive sadness filled the room. The play can be read any number of ways – a metaphor for the artist’s life, a magic-realist response to The Troubles – but all that really matters is the performer and the words. That night, I stumbled from the theatre in a daze, trying to comprehend what I had just witnessed. How did he do that?

If you spot a genius in your immediate vicinity, take a moment to shake their hand and tell them they’re a genius

I never met Donal McCann, but I encountered him in public on a few occasions, each time profoundly inconsequential. Once I spotted him on a train to Galway – years later, I learned of his predilection for taking to the West following the completion of a job, of disappearing without a trace for weeks afterwards. Years later, I penned the introduction to a short tribute to his film work being given at the Galway Film Fleadh. It was a task I had vigorously lobbied for, anchored by a public interview with the man himself, in what would turn out to be one of his final public appearances.

Awkwardness

Outside the venue, before the interview, I hovered in his immediate vicinity, determined to introduce myself, fuelled by something resembling context. At the very last moment, I demurred. Over the decades since, I’ve learned to embrace the fundamental awkwardness of these encounters – to enjoy them, even. If you spot a genius in your immediate vicinity, take a moment to shake their hand and tell them they’re a genius.

Ideally don’t immediately follow it up with a request for a selfie.

At the time his triumph in The Steward Of Christendom suggested a rebirth of sorts, as McCann found himself the toast of London and New York. It speaks volumes that Barry’s play has arguably never enjoyed a significant revival – the concept of another actor stepping into the role still feels positively ill-advised. Follow that!

In his final stretch, Donal McCann was “discovered” by filmmakers like Bernardo Bertolucci and John Tuturro, who gave him choice supporting turns in Stealing Beauty and Illuminata, respectively. A “late” work of note is Neil Jordan’s neglected 1990 film The Miracle, released a year before Jordan’s defining work, The Crying Game. Shot along the Bray seafront, it’s a coming-of-age tale infused with many of the filmmaker’s reoccurring themes – memory, regret and longing. It doesn’t entirely work, but it’s a movie you can live in. The emotional core is McCann, sporting a big old droopy moustache, as the troubled teen protagonist’s forlorn father, a jazz musician lost to the mistakes of his past. It’s a masterclass in melancholy, played in a minor key, quietly devastating.

His greatest performances are lost to the ether. They happened in the room. But those who saw Donal McCann on stage share an unspoken bond. Between the living and the dead, they know they saw something extraordinary that they’ll never see again. How did he do that?

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