'Why should we leave Irish history to the Irish?'


IN THE GROUND floor apartment he shares with Irish writer Stella Feehily, Max Stafford-Clark (69), is apologising for having his phone by his side.

Over dinner, our subjects of conversation range from Cate Blanchett to Donal McCann, while taking account of Stafford-Clark’s days in Trinity and his childhood trips to John Huston’s home in Galway. More than once the conversation returns to the perceived ambivalence of Irish theatre managers to new writing. Stafford-Clark and his company Out of Joint have become, he says, “something of an Abbey Theatre in exile” over the past decade, with several new productions of plays by Irish writers such as Sebastian Barry, Stella Feehily and Frank McGuinness.

The company has again turned its attention to Ireland for its first touring production of 2011 – Hull playwright Richard Bean’s new play The Big Fellah– which takes a detached look at Irish-American republicanism. The play centres on the character of David Costello, who heads up the American wing of the IRA, and the action moves between 1972 and 1999 in an unsentimental journey through ‘the cause’. Having received strong reviews during its UK tour last year, it transfers to the Gaiety on April 19th. Any worries that an Irish audience might react negatively to an English writer and director taking on the Troubles, are brushed aside.

“Why should we leave Irish history to the Irish?” Stafford-Clark says. “Last year I directed the premiere of Anderson’s Englishby Sebastian Barry, which was based on a visit Hans Christian Anderson paid to Charles Dickens. It was a play about one of the best-known English writers, and written by an Irishman, so why not have a play about the Irish by an Englishman? Any country’s history is most interesting examined from without."

The Steward of Christendom

“When we were rehearsing The Steward of Christendom, Donal, Sebastian and I spent a week rehearsing in Dublin before the other actors joined, just so Donal could get familiar with the lines. We had a room in Trinity overlooking the rugby pitch. It was cold and miserable and I was whingeing about having to be in Dublin and how cold it was. Donal said, ‘Fuck off. This country gave you your education, now it’s time you gave something back.’”

Of the last 21 productions Stafford-Clark has directed for Out Of Joint, seven have been premieres from Irish writers. While he has more than repaid his Irish patronage, his last major directing work here was Feehily’s play Oh Go My Manand, before that, Sebastian Barry’s Hinterlandat the Abbey in 2002, which he admits divided audiences.

“It fell between two stools: those who were Charles Haughey supporters took offence and those who weren’t didn’t think it went far enough. It’s been seven years since I’ve worked in Ireland. Partly because I think it is very difficult to bring a new production over. Fiach MacConghail in the Abbey has a particular taste, and in my experience Michael Colgan at the Gate is more interested in who is going to be in the play than the play itself. When you can’t give any guarantees regarding the cast, I feel his interest wanes considerably. Both were offered this play yet didn’t take it up.”

For four decades, Stafford-Clark has been to the fore of new writing for the stage in the UK, having founded Joint Stock with David Hare and David Aukin in 1974. He championed writers such as Mark Ravenhill, Caryl Churchill and Howard Barker during his time as artistic director of the Royal Court and more recently was name checked by Danny Boyle when the director collected his Bafta for Slumdog Millionaire.

STAFFORD-CLARK’S WORK was threatened in recent years, not by changing theatrical trends, but by personal illness. He suffered a stroke in 2006 that left him incapacitated for several months. Doctors warned him at the time he might never walk again, and advised against returning to work.

“What a lot of people want is the miraculous cure story. I continue to walk with a huge limp and my left periphery of vision is gone completely. I can’t drive any more and my life has changed forever,” he says. “But I got out of hospital on December 6th 2006, and went to rehearsal in January 2007. To be honest, I didn’t make a very good job of it. I was doing the run through and thinking in my head that it was perfectly acceptable but not really giving notes. The stroke knocked my confidence a bit and maybe I thought I was not up to it any more.

“A few months later I did a project working with students and that was terrific. From there I went on to the Sydney Opera House to direct The Beggar’s Operaand my confidence was back completely. Although, I did have to say to the cast, ‘If I leave you downstage right for 20 minutes and don’t give you a move, then shout!’”

From the bookshelves in the sitting room, writer Richard Bean, who has joined us for dinner, picks up Tim Pat Coogan’s History of the IRAand discusses aspects of present day republicanism. Both Stafford-Clark and Bean have meticulously researched the history of the Troubles and their knowledge is impressive, yet Bean says they are still somewhat apprehensive about bringing the play to Ireland.

“I mean, surely this is completely weird for me, an Englishman from Hull, to have written this play. I guess one of the themes, though, is how does the layman who would never pick up a gun, support terrorism? Some may have found it easy to justify an American civilian with Irish heritage puting five dollars in a bucket. We are all capable of distancing ourselves from freedom fighter or terrorist movements. But September 9/11 changed everything. Playwrights are attracted to irony and to dilemma. We hone in on that human dilemma to a point where a man or woman has to make an impossible decision.”

As dinner ends the conversation continues, with Stafford-Clark recalling the night the Hollywood actor Montgomery Clift came to dinner in his parent’s house in the 1950s. He speaks about actors the way a racehorse trainer might reflect on his favourite winners.

“When I was ill, one of the things I missed most was being in the company of actors,” he says. “I missed their skills and ability to bring their own humanity and perception to a script.” Contrary to his doctor’s orders, he has no intention of slowing down. What would be the point? “I don’t understand why theatre people should retire. It’s not a word in my vocabulary.”

The Big Fellahruns at the Gaiety Theatre from April 19 - May 7, gaietytheatre.ie, 01-6771717

The Big Fellah

Richard Bean, from Hull, is one of the UK’s most provocative and productive new playwrights. His work includes England People Very Nice(National Theatre), Under The Whaleback, Harvest(winner of the Critics’ Circle Award for Best Play), Honeymoon Suite(all Royal Court) and The English Game(national tour).

The story of The Big Fellahbegins with young fireman Michael Doyle who decides to live up to his Irish heritage by joining the IRA. Costello, the charismatic “Big Fellah”, who wants to use Doyle’s apartment in the Bronx as a safe house for a killer on the run, recruits him.Yet it soon transpires that someone is passing information to the FBI.

Richard Bean on the IRA

“As a teenager I viewed the IRA as freedom fighters rather than terrorists. But I wrote this play when I was 50, and there was a big gap in the middle.

“If you’d asked me at 35 what I thought of the IRA, I would have been severely critical of them. All the flush of youthful rebellion had gone. The grubbiness of it had hit home and I had no sympathy then other than a lingering knowledge that the country had been occupied.”

What the critics said

The Telegraph:“The characterisation is sharp, the craic often hilariously funny, but there are also chilling vignettes of stomach-turning violence.”

The Stage:“Bean’s play is very funny, full of sharp contrasts between grim hilarity and gut-wrenching reversals.”

The Guardian:“What is excellent about the play is the way it explores historical change through individual lives, and shows the mixed motives that drive people on.”