The Gigli Concert: ‘What’s an Englishman doing directing a revered Irish classic?

Tom Murphy’s great play, currently at the Gate, subverts Irish and English stereotypes. How did director David Grindley rise to the challenge?

 

JPW King is a mess. Alcoholic, dishevelled, adulterous, fraudulent and far from home, he cuts a pathetic figure as the only practising “dynamatologist” in Dublin, perhaps the world. “I do not even know if we are still in existence,” he later admits of this cult of “self-realisation”, like a distant, failed missionary. For all these grimly amusing details in Tom Murphy’s brilliant play, The Gigli Concert, from 1983, nothing signals JPW’s sense of displacement quite as unnervingly as a question from his only client, an Irish property developer determined to sing like the Italian tenor Beniamino Gigli: “You’re a stranger here, Mr King? You’re English?”

You could put the same question to David Grindley, the London-based director working in Ireland for the first time on Tom Murphy’s belated debut at the Gate Theatre. Grindley, a prolific director of West End revivals, had not been familiar with the play, which archly inverts the relationship between the two countries.

Obliging, good-humoured and upbeat, Grindley gamely entertains the parallels. “What’s an Englishman doing directing a revered Irish classic? I would suggest it’s very useful, not only from the fact that I can assist in interpreting JPW, but also that I can come to this like a new play.

“It’s very important about The Gigli Concert that our expectations, in every sense, are confounded. So, for example, it’s not the Irish man who’s an emigre, it’s JPW. It’s not the Irish man who’s the poet and dreamer, it’s JPW. That kind of sets the story up brilliantly in terms of ensuring we’re not playing up to any cliches.”

Grindley is a relentless prober and a stickler for detail. He spent two days with Murphy “asking him the stupid questions, because the writing is so dense”. In the Gate’s rehearsal space, he had covered the wall with an intriguing montage of images: pictures of Gigli himself sat next to gangsters both historical and fictitious (Al Capone, John Gotti, Tony Soprano); Irish property developers rubbing shoulders with jowly politicians; a gallery of eccentric English characters, from Richard E Grant in Withnail and I to Peter O’Toole in The Ruling Class, resting beside a curious installation of the legendary narcotics Quaaludes, making mind-altering connections. (They feature in Murphy’s play.)

Grindley had also provided “a glossary of terms”, anticipating every question he could think of, which he made available to the cast – Declan Conlon, Denis Conway and Dawn Bradfield – whether they referred to such material or not. It signals his consideration, intended to bolster confidence within the production.

“It’s most important that you establish a rapport with the actors and the people working on the production,” he says, “that they feel they are in safe hands.”

When Grindley discusses the play, it is usually in concrete terms: its geography, its era, its character psychology. But The Gigli Concert is a highly symbolic piece, guided in its structure and ambition by music and transformation. That makes it tricky to stage well.

“This play is the absolute argument that a play has to be seen rather than read,” he says. Usually, he will read a play and have a good sense of how it will work in production. Here, though, he was still coming to terms “with how Gigli is a fourth character. Tom Murphy’s writing is lyrical, it’s musical, and that could be nowhere better demonstrated than in this play.”

Grindley made his name directing more straightforward revivals of neglected works, such as Joe Orton’s Loot, Mike Leigh’s Abigail’s Party and RC Sherriff’s 1928 play about the first World War, Journey’s End, and he says his metier is plays involving “single-location conversations”.

“Where this adds the extra layer,” he says, “is the notion of the surreal. The flights of fancy. And how you make the ending work.” His job, then, is to build a framework, detailed and realistic, “that the play can bust out from”.

 

Murphy’s dark optimism

At home in Dublin, Tom Murphy gives a dry laugh and recalls a trusted friend’s first response upon reading The Gigli Concert: “You’re a dark fucker, Murph.”

Actually, for all the damage and disillusionment exchanged between JPW and the Irish Man, the play is a stubbornly optimistic work. In its exaltation of song and transformation, it dares to depict spiritual transcendence at a time of buckled beliefs.It boldly seeks to let the light in.

It took Murphy a long time to write the play. He began it in 1971 when he befriended the actor Colin Blakely, an opera lover and “frustrated singer” who was taking lessons, determined to improve. “I was very jealous of singers,” Murphy recalls, “and we would be tipsy, or drunk, lying on the floor listening to the great tenors. That led me to the idea for the play. I don’t think I am the first person to say it – but I’ve believed it for many years – that all art aspires towards music.”

There are, he allows, many autobiographical lines in the play, none more so than the Irish Man’s effort to explain himself: “Singing, d’yeh know? The only possible way to tell people . . .Who you are?”

Murphy repeats the line, then adds, softly and carefully: “Words are very limited.”

 

Unfamiliar culture

If Grindley finds himself in an unfamiliar culture working on The Gigli Concert, it may be less as an English man in Ireland than as a director of commercial theatre working in the subsidised world. For shows on the West End and Broadway, he has worked with marquee names in the cast and heavy expectations at the box office: Kevin Spacey in National Anthems; David Schwimmer in Some Girl(s); Claire Danes in Pygmalion. In such situations, casting and play selection are not entirely in a director’s control, and though Grindley has avoided unhappy compromises, it’s a strange reward for someone who built his career through a mixture of independence and entrepreneurship.

He is a graduate of York University, where his peers included the playwright Simon Stephens and director Sean Holmes. He points out that he is not an “Oxbridge” director. He learned the business working with both theatre and comedy in Edinburgh (he was an early associate of The League of Gentlemen), and cannily secured the rights to Mike Leigh’s play Abigail’s Party in time for its 25th anniversary, long before he had a production.

“What has then typified my career is that, irrespective of the scale of work I’m doing, hopefully I’ve created an environment where the whole thing coalesces,” he says. He is stubbornly exacting when it comes to performance, asking questions and teasing out details long after another person might leave well enough alone. It satisfies him that the production is then “an expression of my taste”, even if is not as well received as hoped, which can be the case, particularly with the vagaries of commercial theatre.

During a busy period in New York between 2007 and 2009, he staged four shows. “I had two massive critical hits, the first of which, Journey’s End, sold no tickets, the second of which did better but wasn’t that well sold. The two [critical] flops I had, Pygmalion and The Philanthropist, were actually sold out. But the commercial success didn’t matter. It was how they were perceived by the industry that mattered. As a result, I haven’t been back.”

A more positive result, though, is that Grindley decided that each year “you make sure you’re doing something that’s absolutely for you”. His lauded revival of Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen, in 2012, was one such production; The American Plan, in 2013, was another; and now comes The Gigli Concert: “Choices that I’m actively pursuing because I believe that I can really bring something to the production.”

He would not be the first person to arrive at JPW King’s door, or Tom Murphy’s, in search of self-realisation. Is this play his dynamatologist? “Yeah,” he smiles at the notion. “Exactly. You’re absolutely right.”

  • The Gigli Concert is at the Gate Theatre until June 27th
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