Hardy role reclaimed from a great

 

ARTS:‘IT WAS NEVER, ever the intention to become a director, and therefore an artistic director and therefore all of this.” The “this” to which the modest little gesture of Joe Dowling’s hand refers is probably the most impressive theatre building of the 21st century. We are sitting in a public area high up in the extraordinary new (Tyrone) Guthrie Theatre, which opened in 2006 on the banks of the Mississippi in Minneapolis, writes FINTAN O’TOOLE

Jean Nouvel’s dreamy, twilight-blue swirl of forms is an architectural masterpiece but also an extraordinary tribute to the impact that Dowling has had in this old mill city since he left Dublin almost 15 years ago. His ability to raise $125 million (€84 million) to create a hub of three theatres is a mark of his standing, not just as a theatre director but as a public figure.

And yet, this morning, he is trying to explain how all of “this” seems almost accidental. For at this moment he is what he has not been for 21 years – a working actor coming down from the high of last night’s performance. With a crackle of expectation and curiosity in the air, he had opened as Frank Hardy in a play with which his other life as a director will always be associated, Brian Friel’s Faith Healer. It was an extraordinary act of exposure, returning not just to the stage but to an austere and demanding play in which he has to perform two lengthy monologues. Returning, too, to a ghost that has haunted Irish theatre for almost 30 years.

From the time he was six, Dowling recalls, he wanted to be an actor: “There was nothing else I wanted to do.” He trained, in drama classes and then at the Abbey, with contemporaries such as Brenda Fricker and John Kavanagh. He began to make it when he was very young, joining the Abbey at 20 and quickly establishing himself as a leading actor under his mentor Tomás Mac Anna, who cast him in such memorable roles as Brecht in Günter Grass’s The Plebeians Rehearse the Uprisingand Bloom in Ulysses in Nighttown. Acting met a psychological need that, in retrospect, he can discern in his own personality.

“There’s a very, very shy part of me,” he says. “I live with it all the time, I fight it all the time. So I’m constantly, in a way, playing a part, the part of a more confident man.”

It was the ramshackle state of the Abbey that turned him into a director. “The first piece of direction I ever gave was on the opening night of a Frank Dermody production of The Colleen Bawnin 1967. Marie O’Neill and I were trying to work out how we were going to move in a scene. We had learnt it and said it to each other, but we had never actually rehearsed it.” Dermody – “disorder writ large” – hadn’t got round to rehearsing the third act.

Eventually, with a group of like-minded younger actors, Dowling formed the Young Abbey, an internal revolt against the theatre’s moribund state.

“It was an absolute cry for help from a number of us to say to the board: ‘You have got to start cultivating a whole different generation, otherwise this will die.’ There was this entrenched Ulick O’Connor nonsense about this tradition passing on from generation to generation, which was bullshit of the first order,” Dowling says. “I used to say that there is a tradition that has passed on from generation to generation: don’t be sober on stage because you might be the only one. The laxity in the whole place was abominable. I had to take charge and be a guerrilla movement within the theatre.”

This self-preserving activism gradually led Dowling away from acting and towards the running of theatres and the direction of plays. He ran the Peacock, then the short-lived national touring outfit, the Irish Theatre Company. From there, he became artistic director of the Abbey, ran the Gaiety after his resignation in frustration at his constant battles with the board, and then decamped for the more appreciative environs of Minneapolis.

In all of this, his life as a performer virtually disappeared. He took over in an Abbey production of The Man Who Came to Dinnerwhen Ray McAnally had a heart attack. He acted in the Shaw Festival at Malvern after his resignation from the Abbey and in his own production of A Day in the Death of Joe Eggat the Gaiety. But his last real on-stage role was in Patrick Mason’s superb production of Peer Gyntat the Gate in 1988.

“I never said to myself ‘that’s the end of the acting’. It took years and years before, at seven o’clock every evening, I wouldn’t get a feeling that I should be getting ready to be on stage. But that gradually died out,” he says. “Moving here, I thought, ruled it out permanently. I’m not a member of American Actors Equity. It stopped being an issue for me.”

IN TRUTH,there was probably only one play that could drag him back to the stage, a play to which he had a visceral connection but he could never have directed for another actor.

Faith Healeris a huge part of Dowling’s life. It was the play in which he really emerged, both as the man who could reinvent the Abbey and as a director of international stature. Perhaps the most eloquent statement of the continuing resonance of his Irish premiere of 1980 is that he has been unable to bring himself to watch the play in any other production.

Paradoxically, one of the things that makes sense of his decision to risk his grand reputation by performing Frank Hardy now is the riskiness of that original production. It is now almost universally accepted that Faith Healeris a dramatic masterpiece and that Donal McCann’s Frank Hardy was one of the greatest performances ever to grace an Irish stage. At the time, neither of these conclusions was at all obvious.

In the first place, the play itself had been a disaster on its debut in a very large Broadway theatre. Friel, says Dowling, was “very very depressed” by the failure and loath to take up the offer of an Abbey production. “He knew he had something extraordinary in this play. But he had been burned so badly, he was very reluctant. He said, ‘we’ll talk about it again’. Then he gave me a call and said: ‘If you get McCann, I’ll do it’.”

Since McCann became so utterly identified with the role, it is hard to realise what a bold idea this was. McCann, Dowling happily admits, hadn’t entered his head at all. Not only was he too young for Frank Hardy, but his career and reputation were at a low ebb.

“He had done a show in the Olympia about Elvis,” Dowling recalls. “I remember going to it and literally weeping – this great actor working essentially as an Elvis impersonator. He reached a very low point in his career in the 1970s because of the drinking, because of his behaviour towards people. People were avoiding him.”

The element of risk was huge, so much so that some members of the Abbey board wanted the play to be done in the Peacock rather than on the main stage. Dowling’s own artistic directorship was on the line. “We weren’t thinking: ‘We’re on the cusp of something huge.’ We were thinking: ‘Can we get this damn thing on? Will McCann stay sober? And how the hell will an audience sit through four monologues? Will they go screaming out of the theatre at half time?’”

Although Kate Flynn and John Kavanagh actually gave very fine performance as Hardy’s wife and manager, Grace and Teddy, that production of Faith Healerwas all about McCann’s terrifying, magnetic, mesmerising exploration of his own dark psyche. Dowling admits that he barely directed the role of Hardy in the normal sense.

“It was all to do with Donal’s persona and how he was finding Frank Hardy,” he says. “To be part of McCann’s process, and that’s all I was – there was no way there was going to be a directorial imprimatur on the way he was going to play it – it was much more a question of keeping him on the straight and narrow. Will he stay with us? Are we okay?”

The result was a performance so searing that it obliterated the distinction between Frank Hardy and Donal McCann. The play came to be seen as a great one, but also as one almost incapable of being performed by anyone else.

When Michael Colgan finally managed to bring Faith Healerback to New York with Ralph Fiennes as Hardy, Dowling felt “thrilled that Brian finally got an actor he liked in the part in New York. But I just couldn’t go and see it. I just couldn’t. I would not give it a fair chance. I’d be sitting there going ‘no’.”

Even now, Dowling believes that he could not have taken on the role of Hardy if McCann, who died of pancreatic cancer in 1999, were still alive. “I still miss him a lot and think about him a lot because our careers were intertwined for so long. He was very abusive to me on a number of occasions, but in the end that didn’t matter. But this play needed to be freed up from him, there’s no doubt about that.”

THE IDEA THAThe would have to free it up for himself began to form last year. An invitation to write for an Irish Timessupplement to mark Friel’s 80th birthday sent him back to the play. “I read Faith Healer, and I started to cry. I thought of Donal and the whole thing, but I kept reading and put it down knowing I had to do it. It’s part of me and I have to do it. And then I started thinking: what would it be like to be in the rehearsal room with somebody else doing Frank Hardy? And I thought I couldn’t bring myself to do that, to start again. And then the thought, ‘well, you could if it was you’.”

A week in Friel’s company at the MacGill Summer School in Glenties felt like a “homecoming”. The death of his mother, who was his most personal link with Ireland, and the birth of his first grandchild in Minneapolis played a part in his need to recreate his own sense of an imagined Irish home. As with Hardy in the play, the idea of a fateful return grasped him.

He found it difficult at first, and says that “it didn’t happen in the rehearsal room at all”. But, again as with Hardy, something happened when he began to work on the stage, “the darkness, the fourth wall, whatever alchemy happens – then it started to feel okay, more like a job I had to do than a hurdle to climb over”. His anxious faxes to Brian Friel had met with the laconic response, “trust the text”. It turned out to be a precise definition of what Dowling’s remarkable performance does.

One piece of the text in particular helped to open the play up. Hardy talks about being taken by his father to a horse fair in Ballinasloe, hinting at a rural hinterland that is far from McCann’s Dublin persona. The power of McCann’s performance meant that it didn’t matter that he was much younger than Hardy, that he used his own Dublin accent, that he was a toweringly dominant figure rather than the beaten-down, rural, late middle-aged man of Friel’s text.

In Dowling’s performance, Hardy – slow, heavy and weathered, with a rural Limerick lilt that is insidiously hypnotic rather than incantatory – is all of these things. As a result, Hardy escapes from McCann’s shadow and Faith Healerescapes from Hardy’s. Dowling wanted to play “this man that Friel created as opposed to the man who Donal played”.

In doing so, he has laid to rest a ghost that has hovered, not just over Irish theatre but over his own life.


Faith Healer