By David Hennessy
“It was very personal,” says playwright Deirdre Kinahan of the inspiration for These Halcyon Days, her Irish Times Award nominated play that is set for its UK premiere next month. Set in a retirement home, the story of These Halcyon Days centres around its elderly characters, Sean and Patricia. No longer the man he was in his youth, former actor Sean holds little hope for the future until Patricia arrives to show him he still has a role to play. The character Sean, played by Stephen Brennan, takes its name from a relative of Deirdre.
“My own uncle Sean was a beautiful man, a poet and a historian. He had dementia at the end of his days and sometimes we would go and visit and he wouldn’t be in a good state but other days we’d go, he would just light up and all the humour and playfulness and character I knew would come bursting forth. It really kind of struck me that it was all still in there. That man that I knew and loved was still in there even though he was journeying through to somewhere else.
“It’s quite an uplifting play because it’s just celebrating people. I just think people are marvellous. No matter what they’re faced with, we’re a strong breed. It’s the simple things in life and the strength in people that I find really inspirational.”
Deirdre was moved to pen These Halcyon Days when, working with a local arts centre in 2009, she toured Cavan and Meath nursing homes bringing a play to those who couldn’t get out to attend the theatre: “You met incredible characters and they had such stories to tell. That generation are an amazing generation. They took us from a very dark, conservative, brutally Catholic Ireland kicking and screaming into the 21st century. They were the women who brought us emancipation and financial independence and divorce and contraception. They were an amazing generation and I just wanted to put them up there and say: ‘You still have a place in our world, you still have a lot to teach us. We just want to celebrate who you were and where you’ve taken us’. Because there is the sense, and I’m not the first to say it, that elderly people are kind of cordoned off and once you retire, you’re kind of put out to grass. I think that’s such a mistake. When you go to countries like Greece, they have respect for older people. They really engage in a way that doesn’t always happen in Ireland.
Deirdre’s previous plays Be Carna and Moment have dealt with prostitutes and the family of a guilty criminal respectively. Turning her attention to the elderly for These Halcyon Days, the playwright is once again concentrating on a section of society that is often ignored: “I did a talk at a playwrights’ summer school the other day and a member of the audience who seemed to know many of my plays very well, said: ‘You seem to shine a light on people in society that don’t normally come to the fore or aren’t necessarily given centre stage in theatre’. And I thought that was an interesting observation. Sometimes people who see a lot of your plays tell you more about what it is you are trying to do then you actually realise yourself because you’re quite instinctive in what you’re writing about.
“Be Carna, the very first play that I wrote, was about women working in prostitution in Dublin and about how prostitution impacted on their lives. That came out of the fact that I was working with Ruhama at the time and I just had met a lot of these women. I thought they were amazing people. They didn’t fit into any box, it broke through any notion you would have about what it is to be a prostitute so that’s where that that play came from.
“These Halcyon Days is another play about people that wouldn’t necessarily take centre stage. They’re kind of thrown together in unlikely circumstances and on one level they look like they’re about to fade away into the night but there’s something about the connection that allows them to open up. It’s very unexpected for both of them and it shows that there’s always the possibility of love and hope for the future no matter how desperate things may seem. I suppose it’s those kind of buried stories or not limelight stories that just capture my imagination or interest me.”
Taking one of her newer plays to Scotland’s second city represents a coming full circle for Deirdre who took her very first play Be Carna to Edinburgh in 1999. With These Halcyon Days produced by Landmark Productions who last year brought Misterman, starring Cillian Murphy, to the National Theatre, this experience promises to be different: “It’s such a thrill to go back there. It’s such an amazing festival and such a great showcase so I’m really eager to be in the thick of it. It’s great to go over now with a really good production company and to a really good venue. When we went over in ‘99, it was kind of two in a bunk and we hadn’t a sausage and kind of did it all on blind belief and pennies, but it was great craic then and I’m sure it will be amazing now.”
The play’s female lead Anita Reeves was nominated for an Olivier Award in 1991 for her portrayal of Maggie in the Abbey Theatre production of Dancing at Lughnasa which transferred to the National Theatre and West End. Among his many other stage credits, Stephen Brennan acted with Reeves in Boucicault’s The Shaughraun with Anita Reeves at the Albery London in 2005: “People come out of the play and they’re just so enwrapped in the stories and the lives of these characters and I think they recognise incredible acting when they see it. I’m not overstating it when I say that is what you get with this play and it’s written for that: Two magic performances from senior actors. I could ask for no better than Anita and Stephen. It’s very special, get up the front if you can.”
For the full interview, see the July 20 print edition of The Irish World.