Filming a live play during Covid: ‘We were playing Russian roulette’

Producing David Ireland’s Sadie at Belfast’s Lyric Theatre for TV was nerve-wracking

“It’s been such an odd time. We’ve produced a new play by a major writer on the main stage, we’ve had a dress rehearsal and previews but no audience. The process has been nerve-wracking, a bit like a Hitchcock film, right up to the endgame. As the numbers grew, we were playing Russian roulette with the production. If anyone had tested positive for Covid, the whole thing would have been over.”

Jimmy Fay, executive producer at Belfast's Lyric Theatre, describes the tense countdown to BBC Northern Ireland's live filming of David Ireland's new play, Sadie, to be broadcast over a year after the theatre closed its doors.

While breathing life into the building, the rehearsal period has been a massive logistical challenge. Two of the actors, Andrea Irvine and Santino Smith, live in Dublin and Glasgow respectively and, on arrival, quarantined for 10 days, connecting to rehearsals via Zoom.

Abigail McGibbon plays the title role and the director is Conleth Hill, who directed her in Ireland’s Can’t Forget About You in 2013 and in his play for BBC’s Splendid Isolation: Lockdown Drama last June.

The storyline focuses on a flinty, sharp-witted cleaner, who ignores lockdown rules to pursue an unwise fling with a younger man. When he unexpectedly falls in love with her, she is forced to confront some painful issues from her past. The role is a gift to a fearless actor like McGibbon.

“David had had trouble with the piece,” she says. “But once I told him I was in, he said, ‘Right, that frees me. You’re my avatar.’

“His writing always feels authentic and natural. He has a fantastic sense of speech rhythms, which probably has something to do with him being an actor himself. He knows what sits well in the mouth. Same with Conleth. It’s all about playing the scene. There’s no glamour planet acting, it’s just directing the audience towards who and what you want them to be listening to. It’s everybody on board simply wanting to express the play as best they can.

Violence

“People often talk about the violence in David’s work, but read the lines and you’ll find humanity, love, hope, regret and, yes, violence, which is also part of life.

"Sadie is a role that will live with me. With other Belfast plays I've done, I can get very paranoid about misrepresentation. And it's much more so with David, because I can't bear the thought of his characters being done in a trite or cliched way".

Confined to his home in Glasgow, Ireland has been absent from the rehearsal room, leaving it to the trusted team to deliver the task in hand.

“Other than seeing a dress rehearsal, I haven’t been much involved at all,” he says. “Still, if I wasn’t going to be there, it was important that it was in the hands of people I completely trusted. Abby and Conleth have been friends for a long, long time and I try to work with them as much as possible.

"When I was writing Can't Forget About You, Conleth said he'd love to be in it, which was so frustrating. Here was this fantastic actor looking to be in my play but I had no part for him. Then I heard that he was interested in directing. I'd conceived the play as a romantic comedy and I thought, well, here's a guy who's worked with Neil Simon, Woody Allen, Larry David, all people I'm aspiring to write like, so... It turned out perfectly."

The production has been a long time coming. Ten years ago, Stephen Rea approached Ireland to write a play for Field Day, with the intention of opening it in Derry.

“It was the first time I’d met Stephen,” says Ireland. “He never asked for a pitch, he just said I could write whatever I wanted. I accepted like a shot. I wanted the money and I wanted to tell people I’d been commissioned by Field Day.”

He says that although the initial idea came easily to him, he struggled with early drafts of the script.

I think one of the reasons I was struggling is that Sadie is quite a challenging, dislikeable character. She says things that people find offensive or upsetting

“I imagined this middle-aged woman from Belfast on a stage, talking to the audience, sharing a problem and asking for advice. But it was torturous to write. I’d have given up years ago but Stephen kept pushing me and trying to find a way to put it on. When it finally looked like it was going to happen, the pandemic arrived and, sadly, it seemed like the end of the road. Then, a week later, Stephen rang to say he’d talked to the Lyric and that there was BBC funding available. So, here we are.”

No-brainer

There had been no director or lead actor in the frame until the Lyric came on board and Hill and McGibbon’s names emerged. Ireland says the combination was a no-brainer.

“I don’t know why I didn’t consider Abby from the start, possibly because she was too young. I think one of the reasons I was struggling is that Sadie is quite a challenging, dislikeable character. She says things that people find offensive or upsetting. In previous drafts, it was like she was lying to the audience. I kept trying to make her more likeable. But Abby is unapologetically herself. That just suits the character. With her voice in my head, I did a substantial rewrite and was able to tell the truth to the audience.

“And I’m delighted that Conleth is directing. No matter how dark it gets, I like the humour that he brings to the script.”

The play bears all the hallmarks of Ireland’s intense, bleak yet humane dramatic vision. He is the master of the sudden handbrake turn from apparent normality into deeply troubling territory, and admits to being taken aback when he re-reads some of his scripts.

“When I’m in the middle of writing something, I don’t realise how shocking it is. When I return to it some years later, it seems incredible that I would put that on a stage. Thankfully, this tendency only surfaces when I’m writing.”

Sadie will be broadcast on BBC Two NI and BBC Four as part of BBC Arts’ Lights Up theatre campaign; the transmission date is to be confirmed. It will be available for 12 months on BBC iPlayer

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