I’m playing British characters on stage but I’ll always be Irish
Q&A with Irish actor Rory Fleck Byrne: ‘It took going abroad for me to realise how much Ireland has contributed to the world of theatre and film’
‘Although we sometimes have to work harder to assure people of our ability to do a flawless English accent, many leading British roles are being won by Irish talent.’
Rory Fleck-Byrne moved from Kilkenny to London in 2009 to train at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (Rada). Since then he has been performing increasingly larger roles on the London stage, most recently playing the part of Prince William on the West End in King Charles III, though he will be more familiar to Irish audiences for his role in the last season of RTÉ’s Damon & Ivor. Here, he describes what it was like to study at Rada, and his experience of the London theatre scene as a young Irish actor.
What brought you to London?
I moved to London at 18 to train at Rada straight after my Leaving Cert. It had always been my goal to go straight on to drama school so I was delighted to be accepted. It was a big jump to move from Kilkenny to a massive capital like London. It was like that moment in a movie, when it’s you, your suitcase and the prospects of an open road.
What was it like studying at Rada?
The training was very intense. We worked all day, and evenings could be spent doing anything from analysing a Chekhov text, to pretending to be a walrus, to rehearsing flamenco or practicing sword fighting for our stage combat exam. It was a whirlwind ride. That intensity combined with the intensity of London life was a bit of a culture shock. But I love change, so I fully embraced it.
Because there was a small group of Irish students in the academy, the transition to college life in a new country was made easier. We went together to cheer on Ireland in rugby matches, and made sure the common room looked the part on St Patrick’s Day. One year, myself and my friend Karen actually skipped a class to ensure the decorations were right. I was grateful to be on this new adventure in London, but still have people around me who I could have Irish banter with.
I used the money I had to see as many shows as possible. I remember burying myself away in corners to read plays like Hamlet or The History Boys because I hadn’t read them yet and probably felt a bit behind my classmates, some of whom already had undergraduate degrees from Oxford and Cambridge. I found myself reading more and more Irish playwrights too; it took going abroad for me to realise just how wonderful, unique and original Irish writing is, and how much Ireland has contributed to the world of theatre and film.
You say moving to London was a culture shock. How did you adapt?
In my limited free time I started to explore London, and fell in love with Camden, Hampstead, Angel, Brixton and the many beautiful parks throughout the city. I spent my weekends with friends, walking the streets and exploring the many markets and pop-ups like Borough Market in London Bridge.
London has quite a rapid energy and you can’t resist it, you have to let go and go with it. I have found things that have become a constant in my life in the city, things that keep me rooted, like visiting St Paul’s Cathedral, or cycling over Waterloo Bridge into the city. Doing things like that make me feel humbled and lucky and, well, alive really.
What was your first big break as an actor?
The decision to stay in the UK after I graduated in 2010 was very obvious as there is much more opportunity for actors here. Luckily I was cast in a play while I was still at Rada, so when I left I went straight into rehearsing that. It was a production of Antony and Cleopatra in Liverpool, starring Kim Cattral as Cleopatra. I played Dolabella, and had a scene with Kim at the end. It was very exciting for someone fresh out of drama school.
Next I set my sights on The Old Vic. Ever since I saw Kevin Spacey in A Moon for the Misbegotten there (while auditioning for Rada), I wanted to act on its legendary stage. I was luckily offered a couple of supporting roles in a production they were doing of Cause Celebre by Terrence Rattigan. I felt very fortunate to get to play at this British institution so early in my career. It felt great to be integrating into the industry here, and getting to play British. I went from that very English play at The Old Vic to a production of Disco Pigs, a very Irish play, at The Young Vic.
What is it like to be an Irish actor in London?
It’s wonderful to see so many talented Irish actors making a name for themselves over here, and integrating so well. Although we sometimes have to work harder to assure people of our ability to do a flawless English accent, many leading British roles are being won by Irish talent.
Actors like Andrew Scott have inspired me. I remember first seeing him in Design for Living by Noel Coward at The Old Vic. He looked like he was having so much fun up there. After the show, I cycled straight back to my flat, put on a suit, stuck on a record and flounced around my sitting room smoking and donning a British accent, pretending I was in a Noel Coward play.
I got to put that practice to work last year when I played in Coward’s The Vortex at the Gate Theatre in Dublin. Coming back to Ireland to play that role is an experience I’ll always treasure. We had the incredibly talented Annabelle Comyn directing, who really brought the piece to life, and I got to once again employ my best British accent. The cast consisted of an eclectic mix of actors from England, Ireland and Scotland. Annabelle had toyed with the idea of setting the play in Ireland, in an attempt to help it translate to a Dublin audience, but in the end she concluded it didn’t help the play and the story and so we stuck with its original English setting. We found it still resonated very deeply with the audience. It is great how English writing is so highly revered in Ireland, and vice versa.
This integration continued even further earlier this year when I found myself back in the West End playing Prince William in King Charles III, a “future history” play that sees the prince ascend to the throne. I got crowned king of England every night and I remember thinking the first night when the crown was being put on my head “Me? King? Sure I’m just a fella from Kilkenny”.
It might seem that you can’t be more assimilated than that, but to me they’re just the roles I’m playing - I’ll always be Irish no matter where my career takes me.
So where do you see your career taking you in the future?
London has been very kind to me and I can see my future intertwined with this city for sure. I would also love to venture further afield to New York or Los Angeles, to follow the beckoning call of film. I would also love to get to work at home in Ireland again. I had such a good time shooting Damo & Ivor that the idea of shooting a film or TV series again in Dublin really appeals to me.
London has also provided me with opportunities to start creating my own work, and together with my creative partner B Welby-Delimere, we brought our short film BODIES (which we shot on location in Kilkenny last September) back home to Ireland for the premiere in early June. It was a wonderful experience shooting the film in my hometown, bringing a crew of 24 from London to Kilkenny with us.
That’s what has been so wonderful about the last few years, for me personally and in my career, that connection between London and Ireland, which I hope will continue into the future. We plan to return to Kilkenny to shoot the feature length film of BODIES next year.