By David Hennessy
“To get a second bite of the cherry is good. It’s not often you do,” says well known comedian and actor from Cookstown, Owen O’Neill. “All the mistakes we made before, we can try to iron them out here, probably make new mistakes.” It is lunchtime when The Irish World finds a relaxed Owen taking a break from rehearsing the stage version of The Shawshank Redemption which has been adapted by himself and Dave Johns. Preparing for a stint at the Edinburgh Fringe, Owen and Dave’s new take on Stephen King’s novella, which is already a revered film starring Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman, has already had runs at Dublin’s Gaiety Theatre and London’s Wyndham’s Theatre in 2009/2010.
The play was a massive hit at the Gaiety, but Owen sees this as an opportunity to improve on the production that had Reg E Cathey (The Wire) and Kevin Anderson (Sleeping with the Enemy) in the pivotal roles of Red and Andy: “He (Reg) was very like Morgan Freeman and the guy who played Andy was very like Tim Robbins. In fact when you put them in costume, they looked exactly like them so we got hammered for that. I didn’t have anything to do with that, casting. I could see what they were saying about trying to put the film onstage. I learned from that.” Joining Owen in the cast this time are well known Iranian- British comedian Omid Djalili who plays Red and Kyle Secor of Homicide: Life on the Street who will play Andy Dufresne. Wondering about the effect of the current heat wave on rehearsals, Owen tells us the cast are working with three fans that are needed to relieve them from the heat but also make it hard to hear each other: “We’re shouting: ‘What?’ We do need the fans though.”
Owen O’Neill is hard to attach just one label to as he has enjoyed success as a writer, comedian and director as well as acting for Neil Jordan in Michael Collins. Is getting to perform in a collaborative production of something he has written the best kind of gig for him as he gets to do it all? “This is great but at the same time it has that double edged sword of when I’m in a scene and they say a line, I immediately think: ‘That line’s not right, I should have written a better line than that. I’ve got a better line’. And I’m forgetting that I’m actually acting: ‘Owen, you’re not concentrating. Could you do that again?’ I say: ‘Oh sorry, I was just thinking about the line..’ So you have the writer’s hat on and you have to be an actor as well. I think I’m learning to do that, slowly. It is interesting to see it all come together and also I feel I have control over it because I can say to the director: ‘I want to change this line, I want to change that line’. In other plays I’ve been in, I wanted to do that, I wanted to go ‘I’ve got a better line than this’ and they would say: ‘It’s alright, it’s written by someone else. You can’t do that’. But here I can so that gives me more freedom. I am looking forward to it because the rehearsal process is great but there comes a time where you just want to get up and do it.”
Owen has previously adapted other famous films for Edinburgh starting in 2003 with Twelve Angry Men: “We did it with 12 comedians and everybody thought we were crazy, 12 comedians doing a straight play but it was a big success”. This was followed by the successful West End production of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest starring Christian Slater: “We were thinking we want another big show for Edinburgh and then he (Dave Johns) said ‘The Shawshank Redemption’. I said ‘that’s not a bad idea’. So then I went off. To get the rights took us 18 months. We spoke to Stephen King’s right hand man and he said that they needed script control. Alarm bells were ringing. We said okay because we had to say okay. Stephen King’s right hand man flew in from LA to Dublin. I said: ‘Look, I have ideas’. He said: ‘Look, I know it’s an adaptation and between you and I, as long as Red isn’t a transvestite or any of that crazy stuff, it should be fine’. So we went through a few scripts and he made me change a few things, small things but apart from that Stephen King said: ‘Okay, good. Good on you. Good luck’. And gave us the thumbs up.”
For the full interview, see the July 27 print edition of The Irish World.