By David Hennessy
His screen roles include The Ice Cream Girls and Prisoners’ Wives in television and a memorable turn as a belligerent supermarket manager in the film, Intermission. Dublin actor Owen Roe can currently be seen onstage with Sex and the City star Kim Cattrall in Sweet Bird of Youth at The Old Vic.
The new production of Tennessee Williams’ Sweet Bird of Youth, directed by the renowned Marianne Elliott, sees Broadway star Seth Numrich play Chance Wayne, a gigolo and drifter who hopes to use Cattrall’s Princess Kosmonopolis, a faded movie star, to attain stardom himself.
“It’s been fantastic,” Owen says of his first time to be invited to act on the London stage although he has been here before with touring companies. “We’ve been getting full houses. It’s a fantastic company, we’re like a family now at this stage. It’s one of the best ensembles I’ve ever worked with and working with Marianne Elliott has been a great bonus as well.
“I’ve been given a great role in this play as well. I couldn’t feel more lucky to be honest with you as I am at the moment. I’m enjoying London. To come over and play a role like this at The Old Vic as well, I think it will only hit me when I’ve gone home, when I look back on it and go: ‘Wow, that’s an experience a half’.”
Sweet Bird of Youth was last seen in London in 1985 which is an indication of how little it is produced. Owen explains this is due to its challenging subject matter: “I knew of the play. I knew that it was problematic because Tennessee Williams was notorious for rewriting his plays so there was never one definitive version readily available, and also the themes in it like racism.. Maybe people saw it as too sensitive to start digging out and so that’s why it was rarely done. Because it’s quite hard hitting in a very universal way and still relevant today in the terms that you have the subject of racism, the whole celebrity culture that we live with nowadays it’s all there about self- delusion and how people will use each other for their own ends. It’s a very strong play and I think not an easy one to put on because those issues are very prevalent in it so I think it’s been avoided, not because it’s not a great play, it’s just been avoided by people because they don’t want to go down those roads.”
Owen has been lauded for his performance as the corrupt and ruthless Boss Finley: “It’s no mistake that they employed an Irishman to play this small town politician who rules the roost. We have our fair share of them at home. He has been instrumental in the castration of one or two black men in the area as a warning sign, if you like. He’s a complete bigot. He is holding these rallies to talk against the desegregation. He has this Youth for Tom Finley club which is almost like a Hitler Youth type thing where he is trying to preach his bigotry to them.
“He also has a daughter called Heavenly who had sex with Chance Wayne and she received a venereal disease from him. He (Chance) left town and rather than deal with the problem, she ended up having a hysterectomy at a very young age so these scenes are quite dark and disturbing but for that reason, he holds a grudge against Wayne and his main aim is to get Wayne removed from town.”
Owen’s character certainly sounds unpleasant but an actor must always look for the humanity of whoever they are playing. Does Owen find this in his protectiveness towards his daughter? “Hopefully he’s not seen as a complete monster but a man that does monstrous things, that’s important. It’s not difficult to play because the devil gets the best lines as I always say. I’m always fascinated by these outsiders who try to manipulate or control other people’s lives. He does have a strain of humanity in him but it’s very short lived. I have to say. He’ll turn on his children very quickly. You don’t know whether he cares for his daughter out of a sense of pride or does he really care for her and how she feels. I think it’s more to do with him to be honest with you.
“There’s some grubby little themes in here but it makes for a very compelling night and some of it’s terrifying. It’s quite a disturbing piece but it’s not without its humour as well because the two main characters, played by Kim Cattrall and Seth Numrich, their story is about this failing Hollywood actress who meets up with this guy who has designs on being a star himself. She is quite taken with the fact that he is taking an interest in her because of his youth but his main interest is to use her to get him on the first steps to Hollywood. What happens is kind of a love/hate relationship develops throughout the piece.
“It’s about small town life, it’s about the way in which that can become dangerous. It reminds me of The Faith Healer by Brian Friel where someone upsets a local and as a result gets put to death. It’s a very big night out in terms of theatre, it’s a large scale large cast and a fantastic set and towering performances from Kim and Seth as well.”
Speaking of the major star, how does Owen enjoy working with Kim Cattrall? “She’s brilliant, just an A1 person, she’s a fantastic ensemble player, definitely one of the gang. It’s been so easy and you forget her status very quickly. She’s just a woman who is enjoying the work, is great fun to be with and really enjoying the whole company.”
For the full interview, see the July 6 print edition of The Irish World.