“All autobiographies are lies,” wrote Gerorge Bernard Shaw, who viewed the stakes as too high for someone to write truthfully about their own life. For the sake of posterity the line between fact and fiction will inevitably blur, and the obligation to accuracy will vanish.
The most conspicuous genre may be the Hollywood memoir, a field that, historically, has spun dazzling lies from one-sided recollections, feeding on eccentricity rather than veracity. Some might expect this to be the strut of Gabriel Byrne’s memoir Walking with Ghosts – Byrne was a movie star at a time when Ireland didn’t have those – but there isn’t much that counts as industry gossip or A-list cameos. Adapted as a solo play for Landmark Productions and Lavano, Walking with Ghosts explores painful memories with a serious eloquence, like a cathartic search for healing.
When a schoolteacher once admonished him for admiring his reflection in a mirror, Byrne explains how he was searching deeper. “I was looking at the face of a strange boy who might not be real,” he says. This may seem to be a rewinding of a personal history but in the actor’s impressive portraiture, the composition extends wider becoming a fixating picture of mid-century Dublin.
Certain details are tweaked towards idyllic. During a street carnival marking the Guinness bicentenary, he floats from one character to another with near-impossible ease. A woman funnily turns down a man asking to snog her, with just a quick, sharp adjustment of Byrne’s voice. He raises his finger like a pistol when a kid pretends to be a cowboy, while keeping his other arm casually by his side. The approach to performance seems free of excess, as if hardened into a refined cool.
This is a world fenced in by the church. Byrne portrays his child self as earnest rather than naive, full of serious explanations about the Holy Spirit and how souls are created. Later on, having entered a seminary as a boy, the actor recreates the unsettling moments before he was abused by a priest, and even emulating the predator’s voice. When Byrne – who was the first world-famous Irish person after the church reports of the 2000s to share the fact that they were a survivor – fantasises a confrontation with his attacker, he burns with the same threatening fire seen in his neo-noir film roles.
The script moves through life touchstones as if sorting through an assemblage of interesting stories, but the structure risks feeling unfocused as a play. Without cogent links between several scenes, the story has a lot to contain, like Sinéad McKenna’s set, stacking proscenium arches on top of each other, leading to a large cracked glass as if Byrne’s mirror had broken.
The emotional impact lies in the recollections of family members are, the unforgettable kindness of a supportive mother and sister, and the clarion love of a father who barely spoke his feelings. “I wanted to be truthful but I struggle with authenticity,” says Byrne, at his father’s deathbed. A cracked mirror may distort a reflection, but you can still make out an image.
Walking with Ghosts runs in the Gaiety Theatre until February 6th. Available to stream February 26th – March 4th