David Hennessy talks to Conor Lovett and Judy Hegarty Lovett, the actor and director who are about to bring Pulitzer Prize finalist Will Eno’s Title and Deed to the Print Room for its London premiere
“You’re sitting in the audience and a guy comes along and starts talking to you. The first thing he says is, ‘I’m not from here but I’ll assume you are’,” Cork actor Conor Lovett describes how Will Eno’s Title and Deed begins. Playing the nameless traveller of the piece has already earned Conor the Stage Award for Acting Excellence at the 2014 Edinburgh Fringe Festival.
“He just starts talking about how he arrived here recently, he doesn’t say exactly when. He talks about coming through immigration at the airport and then something sparks him to talk about the different customs where he is now and where he’s come from.
“He talks about this very ritualistic custom they have back in his country when people fall in love and declare their love for each other: You go and you get an instrument that you don’t know how to play and you sit outside your lover’s place and you start playing the instrument as though you’re trying to express your emotions through music with an instrument you can’t play.
“It’s very funny and there’s a lot of him comparing things the way they are here with the way they are where he comes from. As the piece goes along, this is kind of a spoiler, you realise he’s not from any place you’ve ever come across. Maybe it’s some kind of made up place or kind of a Brigadoon style fantasy place. You get to know the guy quite well and you think either he has some issues or he is damaged goods and then you realise: ‘He’s just like me, he’s just like everybody I’ve met. We’re doing our best, we’re telling our stories and we probably can’t really hide that there’s one issue or another that we’ll never be done with’. That’s one way of looking at it,” Conor laughs.
American playwright Will Eno was awarded The Lucille Lortel Award for Best New Play Off-Broadway for his latest play The Open House in 2014. Another of his works The Realistic Joneses played to great success at the Lyceum Theater Broadway starring Toni Colette, Michael C Hall, Tracy Letts and Marisa Tomei in the same year. Both Title and Deed and The Realistic Joneses made the New York Times’ Best Plays of 2012 list. The New York Times have also called him “a Samuel Beckett for the Jon Stewart generation.”
On this comparison, Conor, who himself has been called, ‘One of the greatest Beckett actors of our time’ as the company is also known for its Beckett work, says: “I used to not see it. Will would be a huge Beckett fan for sure but I think they just do things quite differently at the same time. Will’s voice is very much his own unique voice and his characters have a particular way of speaking which I think Beckett’s people maybe speak about particular things but Will’s people very much have a very particular voice.”
Conor’s wife Judy Hegarty Lovett who directs the play adds: “No, I wouldn’t make the immediate connection between the two. It would be hard to compare Beckett to anybody and I think it would also be dangerous to do so but many people have. I think Will is a very different writer. The only affinity would perhaps be that he would have the same respect for language as Beckett, they really are wordsmiths. In terms of the philosophy, I would say Beckett’s work has a different way of telling and a different message to Will’s as well so I wouldn’t make the immediate connection myself.”
Described as a meditation on mortality and loneliness, this play is not as heavy as that description may suggest. Conor says it shares this misconception with the well known Irish poet and playwright: “I would argue that Beckett’s subject matter is very straightforward too but it’s true that some of his work has kind of got him that reputation of being intense. Will’s work, anybody could relate to it. It’s very much just about people dealing with being people on planet earth around about now. He talks about where he’s from.”
Judy adds: “I would say that principally it’s more light hearted than it is heavy, that’s for sure. I think the undercurrent, the subtext and the underlying message of it is very profound, very deep and very sad, hurt, damaged and bleak here and there but that’s all part of life and would be what I would consider probably necessary in any text to bring plenty of shades of both sides of life which are always there and always with us all.”
The theatre company Gare St Lazare Ireland tour internationally and have taken their work to 80 cities and 25+ countries that range from America, Europe, Asia, Africa and Australia. The Print Room will see Title and Deed’s premiere but it has already played for six weeks off Broadway as well as Geneva and Edinburgh. They have just returned from a sold out season in Shangai and will be touring in Sweden, Denmark, Greece and South Africa in October 2015 and in Australia and New Zealand in 2016. Many of these are return visits which are a testament to the work being of value and quality.
Among those who came to see it in its New York stint were Hollywood actor Edward Norton, Irish playwright Enda Walsh and Ireland’s President Michael D Higgins. What was it like to have such esteemed people in the audience? Judy answers: “It was a plus, of course always a plus. In particular to have President Higgins because not only is he just a genuinely lovely man but he’s also a very smart man and very responsive and very much engaged with the arts. He is the kind of person who would make it his business to stay on and discuss the work with you and have very intelligent remarks and criticism about the work which is very helpful but it’s also very encouraging to know that the president of your country is engaged at that level with what I would see as the fundamentals of presenting art. It’s brilliant.”
Asked if different cultural audiences receive the piece slightly differently, Conor says: “Because I’m doing it in my own voice, initially people are saying ‘it’s about Ireland’ and then fairly quickly they realise ‘that couldn’t possibly be Ireland’. Then they begin to wonder: ‘Where on earth is this guy from? Is he from anywhere? Is he from outer space?’ That’s nice because as an audience you’re wondering, you’re questioning and you’re trying to figure it out. But within that, you’ve got wonderful humour and word play. Will has a really special grasp of language and it’s lovely the way he turns regular things on their heads.
“When I did it in Ireland first, I was thinking to myself: ‘This is going to be weird now. They’re just going to have to get their heads around the fact that I’m speaking to them as an Irish guy but I’m telling them I’m not an Irish guy’. It was wonderful because I remember meeting people afterwards who said, ‘I thought he was eastern European’. Other people said, ‘No, he was from Afghanistan’. I remember a Polish woman saying, ‘he’s Polish. I’ve come across exactly this guy in Poland’.
“I think people get it pretty quickly that this guy could be any of us. I think what’s nice too in this particular period when there’s so much emigration and immigration and movement of people that at one time a refugee or an emigrant might have been somebody starting from scratch, down on their luck and trying to get up but nowadays, immigrants are at all levels of society and so it’s very open in its reach.”
Conor and Judy were once immigrants in London as they spent a five year period living in Pimlico. Both from Cork, they now live in France. Judy says: “I have a personal affinity with London. When we first left Ireland, we went to London and lived there. Our first child was born there so I love London and have lots of friends and relatives living there. It’s a great city and it’s always great to bring work there because the Beckett work in particular is always well received.”
Title and Deed is supported by Culture Ireland.
Title and Deed will be at The Print Room 103 Noting Hill Gate, London, W11 3LB from Wednesday 14 January to Saturday 7 February. www.the-print-room.org
For more information on the company, go to http://garestlazareireland.com/.