The Gallant John-Joe

What is it about Tom Hickey that makes him such a unique presence on the Irish stage? There's his courage, of course

What is it about Tom Hickey that makes him such a unique presence on the Irish stage? There's his courage, of course. Hickey is one of the few established actors who will go into the uncharted realms beyond embarrassment, glamour and convention. There's also his physical energy, that extraordinary repertoire of gestures and expressions through which his whole body speaks to an audience.

More than either, though, is the fact that Hickey's presence is not mediated through an established system of performance. His roots are in the Stanislavsky school at the Focus, where he is recreating his one-man performance of Tom MacIntyre's play. But he is no method actor. His courage and physicality seem to link him to the European avant-garde. But there's no trace of its self-conscious formality, either.

What The Gallant John-Joe reveals is the secret of how Hickey manages to be such a coherent actor while remaining so apparently instinctive and individual. He inhabits the words. In the tiny Focus space, the audience gets something very special: an almost tangible sense of language on stage, of the audible made visible.

The Gallant John-Joe is, at one level, a recognisable literary text. There is a strong central character, the old Cavan widower John-Joe Concannon. There is a vivid plot, concerning the mysterious pregnancy of Jacinta, John-Joe's teenage daughter, and the suspected fathers that haunt his obsessive imagination. There is a strong sense of locality, bound together by the mythic presence of John-Joe O'Reilly, the great Cavan footballer of the 1940s.


Much more than any of this, though, the play is a skein of words. Leaving behind the increasingly problematic Hickey-MacIntyre collaborations after the triumph of The Great Hunger, in the 1980s, it gives full rein to the exuberance of MacIntyre's prose. John-Joe's baroque monologue is a torrent of mumblings and malapropisms, of mediaeval dialect and pop slang, of yearning tenderness and murderous xenophobic rantings.

Hickey conveys the feeling that these words are speaking the character rather than the other way round. The line between what may be true and what must be the ravings of a hurt mind disappears. Hickey conveys the sense that truth and lies are both just words, and that the only available reality is the sound he makes.

It is a performance of rare virtuosity, in which there is not a hair's breadth between author, actor and text. Though the play is an act of mourning for the individuality lost in a blander Ireland, it is itself a fierce vindication of a lingering uniqueness.

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Fintan O'Toole

Fintan O'Toole

Fintan O'Toole is an Irish Times columnist and writer