Actor Kevin Hely speaks to Adam Shaw about travelling, performing and finding an identity
People have often searched for an identity, the feeling of holding shared values with a number of others and achieving a sense of belonging. Individuality is one thing, but many find it just as important to be part of something grander.
Kevin Hely is an Irishman living in London. He loves the arts and also possesses a computer sciences degree. His work has taken him to continental Europe and flung him to the other side of the world. But above all, he is an actor.
It might have taken him a while to get there, and it might not be his sole profession in life, but it is where his heart has always been.
“I had always wanted to get into acting but I had no idea how to become an actor,” he explained. “I had a relative, an aunt, who was an actress and she was always so glamorous and whenever I saw actors they always looked like they were meant to be there. I just didn’t have the confidence to get into it.”
You wouldn’t know it now. Kevin is coherent, enthusiastic and very self-assured. He admitted that at undergraduate level, despite a burning desire to get into drama, he could never bring himself to make that final leap.
It wasn’t until he was undertaking a postgraduate course that he plucked up the courage to approach the drama society at University College Dublin, described as “the equivalent of the Cambridge Footlights in Ireland”.
“I finally decided I wanted to get involved and my first performance was a lunchtime show in front of a handful of people,” he said. “I was absolutely petrified, I was so nervous as I was about to walk out. But as soon as it was over, I was like ‘right, can we do it again?’
“That it was it from then on; it had me hook, line and sinker.”
Such was Kevin’s passion for acting, writing and directing, he spent so much time at the university theatre that it took him five years to complete his degree. This degree has come in handy, however, as when acting jobs have been on the scarcer side, he has been able to venture into software work and teaching roles. But this additional work, though convenient, has never been his true calling.
In 1990, a scorching hot summer, rising costs and the feeling of “looking at a giant park from behind a fence” abruptly cut short his first journey to work the UK. A decade later he was giving some lectures on his specialist subject but was desperate to find a way out.
“In 2000 I was doing some teaching work in Ireland, but one semester was more than enough,” he explained. “I was planning on quitting anyway but then a friend came up to me and said he was taking a show to Australia and then onto France and would I like to be involved?
“The next thing you know, I’m going to the Adelaide Fringe and then heading off to Blois on the Loire River.”
This global adventure shaped Kevin as a person, and affirmed his belief that being onstage was what he wanted to do.
“It was a truly memorable experience. There were about six theatre companies travelling around and we did about ten or 12 shows in each place,” he said. “We were treated like Hollywood movie stars in every town we went to; it was fantastic – the true Bohemian lifestyle.”
His gallivanting through the Loire Valley also opened his eyes to the concept of national identity. He explained how it took being removed from Ireland – ignoring his brief stint in London at the start of the Nineties – to appreciate his Irishness.
He also noted how it was the palpability of French patriotism – a trend he later saw among Spaniards and Italians – that allowed him to develop his own pride in his homeland.
“Growing up and living in Ireland, I never had a strong sense of identity; I didn’t know what it meant to be Irish,” he said. It wasn’t until I went to France and saw how French the French were. You knew they were French, and so did they. They were defined as such and were proud of it.
“When you’re an outsider, that’s what you’re seen as, and you learn to appreciate that.” Living in London, Kevin might technically be an outsider now, but although he is very much an Irishman, he is much more settled in his new home second time around.
“I now feel like I am on the inside of the park, and although Dublin will always be my home, this is where my life is now,” he said.
He is finding success in the UK, travelling the length and breadth of the country with his partner, Francesca Martinez, and currently reprising his role in the one-man show The Rose of Jericho at the Edinburgh Fringe. The story, written by Francesca’s father, Alex, follows an ex-soldier as he tries to come to terms with the violence of his past.
Given his Irishness and the fact that it is the centenary of the Easter Rising, the play touches on the events of 1916, and also analyses the UK’s role in a number of subsequent wars. Kevin admits that it is an intense 50 minutes, but that it is bound to leave an impression on the audience.
“It can be upsetting, but there are so many magic moments, and they always come at the right time,” he said. “The wording is incredible; it’s crafted beautifully but it doesn’t feel like it’s been specifically crafted in any particular way. It’s almost impossible not to be moved by it.”
The show, as well as giving him a platform to express his talent, has also provided an appropriate reminder of why he got into acting in the first place; to connect with people through an art. “Lots of people have come up to me afterwards and told me what they thought. That’s what it’s all about, really, we want to hear about the play from their perspective,” he explained. “It’s very gratifying to see people get something out of it – we want to be able to reach in and touch somebody. And you would have to be made of stone not to be touched by this.”
The Rose of Jericho is playing at theSpace @ Surgeons Hall, Edinburgh, on August 8-13, 15-20 and 22-27.