Vampire valet: ‘Downton Abbey’ star gets his teeth into a new role

Brendan Coyle is best known as Downton’s valet Mr Bates, but he’s in darker territory at the Dublin Theatre Festival in Conor McPherson’s vampire tale ‘St Nicholas’

Brendan Coyle plays an embittered theatre critic who falls in with a group of vampires in a new production of Conor McPherson's 1997 play. ‘I’ve been lucky, I’ve never been eviscerated.’

Brendan Coyle plays an embittered theatre critic who falls in with a group of vampires in a new production of Conor McPherson's 1997 play. ‘I’ve been lucky, I’ve never been eviscerated.’

 

To all those who were immersed in Twilight, The Originals, fancy the idea of Sky’s new A Discovery of Witches series (worth a miss on the basis of the first episode), or simply have a taste for blood, there’s something about vampires that fascinates. In Conor McPherson’s St Nicholas, the vampires are of a subtler and certainly less attractive sort than the undead types adolescent girls are weirdly expected to lust over on screen.

McPherson’s monologue was inspired, writes the playwright in a foreword to the new production at the Dublin Theatre Festival, by a dream in which, bitten by a vampire, he was given two paracetamols for the pain. On its first outing, Brian Cox played the embittered theatre critic who falls in with a group of vampires, and now, two decades later, Brendan Coyle steps into the role.

There is a clip on YouTube in which Coyle – in the character for which he is most famous, Downton Abbey valet Mr Bates – shows Kate Middleton around the Downton set. Both Coyle and Middleton look rather uncomfortable with the faux-surprise encounter and, perhaps, also with the layers of unreality that attach to the performance of their separate roles.

Now, in the Donmar on London’s Dryden Street, the Coyle I’m avidly watching as he rehearses his latest role is a world away from that other costume drama character. Bestubbled and compellingly dishevelled, the actor makes McPherson’s critic come alive.

If there’s something cliched in the idea of connecting a theatre critic with vampires, feeding off the energy of others, it’s quickly dispelled as the drama unfolds. The original play debuted at the Bush Theatre in 1997, but it hasn’t dated – much. One sign of the times is that, 20 years ago, McPherson’s theatre critic had become wealthy through his journalism. Today it’s easier to believe in the existence of vampires. “McPherson wrote this before Twilight,” says Coyle. “But you know what I found out very recently? Bram Stoker was a theatre critic for the Irish Post. Before he wrote Dracula . . .”

Tricky

When I arrive, Coyle is getting into the swing of the tricky final section of the play, which – without spoilers – will call strongly on his acting abilities to convey the emotion of the conclusion. Breaking out of character, he and director Simon Evans discuss what words mean, how a slight change of emphasis can change everything, and where to insert a pause. Just a foot from where I’m sitting, Coyle steps back into the role, and becomes immediately irresistible, in that it’s impossible to look away. That’s something he revels in – the intimacy of a monologue in a small space.

“I found,” writes McPherson, “that direct address could unlock energy, inferred insight, and a strange kind of poetic sense which dialogue resisted.” Continuing, he speaks of the possibility of transcendence. It’s a vein of thought that attracts Coyle, though he is on the fence about ideas of the supernatural.

Brendan Coyle in ‘St Nicholas’ by Conor McPherson, in Smock Alley Theatre as part of Dublin Theatre Festival. Photograph: Helen Maybanks
Brendan Coyle in ‘St Nicholas’ by Conor McPherson, in Smock Alley Theatre as part of Dublin Theatre Festival. Photograph: Helen Maybanks

“I was brought up a very strict Catholic, and am kind of resistant to any sort of ‘notion’. But when we did [McPherson’s] The Weir, we knew it was kind of beautiful, and the ghost stories got darker and darker. He has this amazing ability to weave this web and draw you in, we had this sort of communal grief, an energy, it’s the only way I can describe it, it’s very potent.”

Dark-haired, with light brown eyes, and with a boyish yet world-weary charm, Coyle was born in England to an Irish father and Scottish mother. He studied drama at the Focus Theatre’s Acting Studio in Dublin, thanks to his relative, Mary Elizabeth Burke-Kennedy, who ran the school with Deirdre O’Connell.

“My cousin,” says Coyle. “I have to call her my cousin, not my aunt – she said that aged her.” 

Cousin or aunt, Coyle still wasn’t allowed to act right away. “Deirdre had studied at the Strasberg Institute in New York, and she had all these ideas, but Mary Elizabeth said, ‘well, I’m not teaching you,’ just in case I was crap and lowered the standard. The standards were sacrosanct, you had to observe for months.”

Student

McPherson is a good storyteller, and Coyle too tells his stories well. A map of Dublin on the wall reminds the actor of the routes he took as a Dublin student. We reminisce over Leeson Street, “I was 18 and I was skint, I could never go down there,” remarks Coyle on the possible perils of his route home to digs in Harold’s Cross.

Out of character, Coyle has a whiff of mischievous devilment, a ready laugh, and a richly dark sense of humour. He’s quick to get things, and good at double meanings. Back in role, he’s rife with suppressed anger, there’s a streak of viciousness born, perhaps, of his character’s disappointment in both other people and himself. Yet the saving grace is that he has, if not hope, then an understanding of the possibility of hope. He uses his gaze, and also his whole frame, an imposing six-foot-two, in a way that can be both intimate and intimidating as he moves.

In St Nicholas, the narrator goes from self-regard to self-loathing, hate to love and back. How much of this rubs off after a performance? I can imagine that Coyle is not without demons. You learn, he says, “to shake off the energies of the characters, or you go a bit mad otherwise”. In a recent role in Arthur Miller’s The Price, his character, Victor Franz, has a breakdown. “I had to come to it, so that I can access it, but try not to let it live with me.”

In that vein, I wonder how he fared during six series of filming Downton Abbey. Did he get bored being a valet for years? There’s a pause. A very long pause. Then he rallies. “No. I tell you what, because of the people I was with. Those people downstairs were just the funniest people. Because I had a limp, a stick, I couldn’t be the featured character in those f***ing dining scenes that took four days to shoot, standing there with a tray. Jim Carter had to do that. Rob [James-Collier] had to do that.” He speaks with obvious affection for his fellow cast members and, yes, for the series too.

Actors want to be loved, and you want the show to be loved. Because of the sheer effort of putting a play on, you want a good review

And what about fame? Being recognised, and people having certain expectations? “You’ve got to get the balance right between being really grateful, because it’s given you a lot,” he says. “But yeah, it can be a bit weird at times, with people googling you . . .”

Theatrical victims

Has he ever been attacked by critics, in the way his St Nicholas character goes for his theatrical victims? “I’ve been lucky, I’ve never been eviscerated,” he says.

I suggest it might simply be that he’s awfully good. “I’ve been in shows that aren’t that great, but I’ve never been singled out. Actors want to be loved, and you want the show to be loved. Because of the sheer effort of putting a play on, you want a good review, not just for sales, but for the effort.”

As I leave, Coyle is about to be measured for costume for the upcoming Downton Abbey film. He comes back to Dublin as often as he can, “but I haven’t worked there for ages, so I’m nervous about bringing this back. But I’m nervous for all the right reasons, because this play is great. It’s always precarious, acting,” he adds. “In terms of being fearful of it, but that’s good, the adrenaline comes from a place of wanting it to be good.”

Although Coyle’s character is, as Evans describes him, “a dissolute, middle-aged, dinosaur of a man [ . . .] contemptuous of himself and everyone around him”, there is a  whisper of possible redemption. “Hopefully,” says Coyle, “we will reflect. What makes us different from the vampires is that we reflect on our actions and they don’t. They see what they want and will do anything to get it. The play is as redemptive as you want it to be.”

St Nichola, as part of the Dublin Theatre Festival,  is at Smock Alley from October 9th to 14th. smockalley.com

Coyled energy: from Downton to Donmar

You’ll find Brendan Coyle turning up on TV in episodes of The Bill, Silent Witness, Inspector George Gently, Murdoch Mysteries, Waking the Dead, Inspector Lynley and Shameless. He also had major roles in Lark Rise to Candleford, Paths to Freedom and Thief Takers.

The General
In 1998, Coyle played a UVF leader in John Boorman’s film about Dublin crime boss Martin Cahill. “I was terrible in that,” says Coyle. “Not terrible, but intimidated. Brendan Gleeson was a big hero of mine, and so was the director. It was one of those early jobs, and Brendan was extraordinary.”

The Weir
Coyle won an Olivier award for his role as the barman, Brendan, in Conor McPherson’s 1999 play.

North and South
Coyle’s 2004 role as Nicholas Higgins in the BBC’s adaptation of Elizabeth Gaskell’s industrial revolution drama led Julian Fellowes to write the character of Downton’s Mr Bates especially for him.

Mary Queen of Scots
In post-production. Coyle stars, alongside Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie, as the Earl of Lennox in the new film written by Beau Willimon of House of Cards fame and directed by the Donmar Warehouse’s outgoing artistic director Josie Rourke. “It’s kind of modern 21st-century political intrigue with medieval bloodlust,” says Coyle. 

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