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Lovers in the air

The team behind a new production of the Brian Friel classic Lovers: Winners at the Irish Cultural Centre spoke to David Hennessy about the playwright’s enduring appeal.

Rosalind Scanlon, Cultural Director of the Irish Cultural Centre in Hammersmith, is directing a new production of the Brian Friel classic Lovers: Winners.

Winners tells the story of two teenage lovers Joe and Mag who are due to be married in three weeks.

In the play we see them meet one afternoon on a hillside overlooking their home town of Ballymore

There they study together for their final school examinations.

But there is more to their story.

Mag is pregnant and they are not at school because of the ‘disgrace’ of it and are only allowed to take the upcoming exams after parents’ pleading.

William Foote plays the role of Joe while Lauren McGarvey takes the role of Mag.

The cast is completed by Dan Mullane who has appeared in Brookside and Margaret Moore who has done much Irish theatre in London.

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Rosalind Scanlon told The Irish World of the play: “I think it’s just extremely beautiful.

“There’s something magic about it.

“It’s got a sheer beauty of lyricism to the writing which really strikes me every time I do it.

“Even though I’m directing these two actors, I get so enchanted by it.

“When they say give me a cue I’m just like, ‘I don’t know where I am now’.

“It’s very beautiful. His writing is so beautiful and I love the way he respects his own people.

“I just love the fact that he loves his land and his people and that area of Ireland which is County Tyrone and North Donegal.”

William Foote says: “Brian’s written a play that, in many ways, is ahead of its time focusing on two people of that age, what life was like in the 60s and the sort of problems around the church still.”

Lauren McGarvey adds: “The one location as well is really interesting.

“You have the narrators telling the future of their story so you’ve got that contrast of ‘we’re in love, we’re in this moment’ atop the hill trying to study whereas the audience know what’s going to happen and their futures.”

Joe and Mag have been rocked by an unplanned pregnancy that alters their life plans before they’ve even started.

“They’re getting pushed up the aisle in three weeks’ time,” Ros says.

Lauren says: “They’re young lovers, boyfriend/ girlfriend.

“Then suddenly, ‘Oh, I’m pregnant. Oh gosh, here we go. What is our future?’

“There are the expectations of the small town, people around them obviously finding out, the typical themes of family.”

Ros says: “He’s dreaming to be a teacher and getting Mags pregnant.

“It’s put that at risk.

“What you do get from the script is even though they’re under these pressures and this has happened, there’s this tremendous amount of love between them.

“It really is a love story.

“He’s captured young love so purely.

“Even today (Valentine’s Day), I saw this young couple holding hands and they just looked so in love and I thought of the characters in the play.

“There’s something about young love that he’s managed to capture which is so pure.”

Will says: “It (the pregnancy) sets the ground for where they are, why they are where they are as well.

“Without that hammer piece of information, they would just be at school. They wouldn’t have this situation that they’re in.

“You wouldn’t have this day that they’re on top of the hill studying together.

“It was 1966 and the schools were run by nuns and priests so you know exactly what the reaction was from the teachers.”

Lauren adds: “They don’t know normal anymore.

“Suddenly they’re completely off centre and everyone’s trying to make choices for them, what’s their choice? What’s put upon them?

“They were individuals and now suddenly they’re stuck together.

“They are on top of this massive hill overlooking their town so there’s that kind of isolation between themselves up on this hill and everything that’s going on in their life is just down there.

“It’s trying to make sense of it and connect with it, but also understand each other in the moment when they’re on their own on top of the hill.”

William said: “I think what it highlights is the progression.

“It was 1966 and here we are in 2024.

“If this was to happen anywhere in Ireland now, the reaction would not be what it was so to have that move in 60 years is quite exceptional as well so there’s a bit of commentary on that in the sense of what that represents.”

Can you tell us about your character of Joe, William?

William says: “He’s very focused. He tries to be as good a student as possible.

“He has a dream of growing up and becoming a teacher and seeing where that will take him.

“I think he’s also very grounded in reality.

“When there are moments of argument, it’s because he’s been pushed into the place where he just snaps a little bit but it’s not because he’s that person.”

Can you tell us about Mags, Lauren?

Lauren says: “She is quite different to Joe.

“She is a big dreamer and she’s full of energy.

“Her emotions are very extreme.

“She’s either delighted or remorseful but it never stays for too long.

“She is on board for the future with Joe.

“She just sees the positive side and doesn’t quite get his social cues.

“If he’s ignoring her, she really wants his attention and that comes across very much in the story to the point of a lot of frustrations and bickering.

“But she means well, she’s got a good heart.

“She’s ready for the family life. She’s up for it.

“I think Mags would follow Joe wherever he was going to go to be fair, she would just follow.

“But I don’t think she has her own individual dreams of travelling or going to London or studying, that was never really part of her thought process.

“She’s just very much in the moment here and now.”

Friel’s other plays include well known pieces like Translations, Dancing at Lughnasa, Faith Healer and Philadelphia, Here I Come.

Ros directed Lovers: Winners at Bush Theatre in 2016 when Lauren McGarvey also played the role of Mag.

Ros says: “It’s beautifully structured.

“He really is a master at playing with structure in a play.

“He’s an extraordinary writer.”

William says: “When the revelations come from the narrator, they are very specific in their timing.

“They come at times either of great affection or arguments.

“So when that information is leaked to the audience about what the future holds it’s deliberately placed there for a reason to get-“

“The full impact,” Lauren offers.

“It’s just so much fun to play.

“I was in Ros’ original production in 2016 at The Bush Theatre and it was such a joy.

“I was a recent graduate from drama school and to come back and do it again, you still have that love for the character and the story because it is so much fun to play.”

William Foote is the director of Irish Cultural Centre in Hammersmith but also a trained actor.

He says: “I trained at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland and worked for two years professionally as an actor in different things.

“I performed at Shakespeare’s Globe and went on a tour that took me to the states and did a few short films and did a very silly thing for BBC Radio Ulster, so I had a career in some ways, but as acting sometimes can just stop, and there may be no reason for it to stop.

“I moved to London for a whole host of different reasons, acting being one but when I first applied for the job here as assistant manager back in 2018, my acting career had sort of slowed quite rapidly.

“I graduated in 2015 so I had about three years of doing alright acting stuff and making enough to live in Glasgow and travel back and forth between Belfast and whatnot.

“(But) when I came down to London, I knew I needed something extra.

“This place popped up and thank goodness it did because a year and a half later, we were in COVID.

“Without this place, I would have probably had to move home and not have the life I have at the minute.

“It’s been a godsend in that sense, but I was always taught that at drama school.

“We actually had a few lectures on the plan B and I’m sure Lauren did as well.

“We had people coming in and telling us the statistics of it which is 98% unemployed, 2% in stable work.”

Lauren, who attended Courtyard drama school in London, also found another occupation that she is passionate about while remaining passionate about acting.

Lauren says: “I graduated in 2015 too, but I’ve always known I’ve needed a plan B.

“I made a complete change since COVID.

“I realised I wanted to have something a bit more stable so I retrained and I’m in mental health.

“I currently work and help adolescents and children with mental health.

“That’s my day job.”

Just a stone’s throw from the Irish Cultural Centre, the Lyric Theatre are about to stage Brian Friel’s Faith Healer.

Yet it wouldn’t be right to say Friel’s work had made a return as it hasn’t ever gone away. It was just last year that we had Dancing at Lughnasa at the National Theatre who had done Translations just prior to the pandemic.

“He’s ever popular,” Will says.

“It’s great that our friends at the Lyric- We know Rachel (O’ Riordan, creative director) very, very well- are doing Faith Healer, which a bit like Lovers (Winners) is maybe one of his lesser known plays.

“It’s fantastic.

“It’s just great to see that.

“People talk about the timelessness of Shakespeare in many ways, but Friel is timeless as well.”

Ros says: “I met him once at the Irish embassy: Beautiful.

“Very quiet, shy man. Very reserved.

“He was really, really shy.

“He didn’t like being in public life at all.

“He liked to be in the background.

“I think that’s why he’s such a brilliant writer.

“He didn’t want to be up  front.

“He was lovely, it was a pleasure to meet him.”

Lauren: You acted in this for Ros in 2016 but were you familiar with the piece beforehand?

“No,” Lauren says. “I knew of Translations and Dancing at Lughnasa, everyone knows about them but Lovers was unknown to me.

“I saw the casting and I thought, ‘That sounds like me’.

“Got the job which was fantastic and when Ros contacted again I was like, ‘Yes, I’ll do it’.

“Full circle moment.”

Ros says: “That was a tribute to him actually because he’d just died.

“To acknowledge the greatness of his work.

Ros says: “Friel’s such an interesting writer because he was also writing about the troubles during the troubles.

“His plays are real social commentary on not just the people of the north and the people of Donegal but also the troubles.

“It was part of Field Day Theatre Company which he formed with Stephen Rea and Seamus Deane.

“They were there to be sort of be conscious about what was happening in the north.

“Very important playwright, one of Ireland’s leading playwrights, without doubt.”

Is there an ironic edge to the title?

William says: “Yeah, I don’t know who the winner is.

“I would doubt if there are any winners.”

Ros says: “Maybe it’s the laughs they have…”

Lauren adds: “Or the hopefulness they have.

“At the end, they are full of hope, which is a win.”

Will you also do Lovers (Losers), the play it is paired with?

“No,” Will says. “We came at it with the sense of doing Winners first.

“When you read the play, Winners sticks out. Losers is still a nice play but it doesn’t have that same level.

“We just thought it was right to only do Winners.

“Hopefully everybody will enjoy it.

“I saw the original brochure and when I read it I said, ‘I think we should do this.”

Ros says: “We’ll definitely do another Brian Friel play at some point but we have yet to choose which one it will be.

“He’s got so many brilliant plays.

Will you do more productions like this?

Ros says: “We will.”

Will says: “It’s started the idea of maybe every six months to eight months maybe having something in rep here.

“The idea’s there and we’ll see what we can do.”

Lovers (Winners) by Brian Friel  is at The Irish Cultural Centre in Hammersmith on Friday 23 and Saturday 24 February.

For tickets and more information, click here.

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