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Living the dream

Theatre director Peter Kavanagh told David Hennessy about bringing Canadian classic Salt- Water Moon to the UK for the first time, being the last to direct the great Harold Pinter and how Bono made the hairs on the back of his neck stand up.

Theatre director Peter Kavanagh has directed many great names: Stephen Rea. Benedict Cumberbatch. Andrew Scott.

If you think of a member of the famous Cusack family acting dynasty, the likelihood is he has directed them as Peter directed four sisters and Cyril Cusack in Brian Friel’s Aristocrats. In fact he had the honour of directing Cyril not long before he passed. He has also had the honour of being the great Harold Pinter’s last director and directed Bono in a film.

Peter Kavanagh is currently bringing the Canadian classic, Salt- Water Moon by David French, to Finborough Theatre in London for its UK premiere.

Salt- Water Moon is a tale of young love.

Set in a remote fishing village in Newfoundland, it sees Jacob return home desperate to win back the heart of his beloved Mary that he abandoned only a year before.

Mary is engaged to be married to a man from a wealthy family but the question is, does she love him? And can she trust Jacob after what he did to her?

Jacob is played by Joseph Potter while the part of Mary is played by Bryony Miller.

Peter told The Irish World: “It’s a beautiful, touching play.

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“The story is a wonderful and simple situation.

“The boy has suddenly abandoned the girl a year ago in this tiny Newfoundland town.

“They had been dating and he suddenly disappeared and broke her heart and come back a year later asking for her hand in marriage, asking to reunite.

“And in the meantime a local rich land owner has a son who falls in love with her and has proposed to her.

“And she says, ‘Well, why on earth would I do that? You’re poor. Look at you, you’re a poor carpenter. Why would I go with you when I have this offer of marriage from a rich man?’

“And his question is, ‘Do you love him?’

“That’s the big question, does she love the guy? And does she love him (Jacob)?

“Can Jacob win Mary back when Jerome, her boyfriend, is by all accounts a terrible bore?

“And Jacob says, ‘Why on earth would you marry this stooge when you can have me?’”

But if he has already abandoned her, how does Mary know he won’t do it again? “He’s got to convince her of that. How can she trust him not to do what he did.


“The background is really important and it’s a lot to do with the Irish history as well.

“These are Irish Protestant families who have come over to Newfoundland, they are in a tiny minority there whereas in the north of Ireland and Scotland, the Protestants would be in the majority.

“Here, Catholics are the majority, a bit like the south of Ireland and they (Protestants) are very oppressed.

“So there’s religious tension between Protestants and Catholics and in this Protestant family, his father and her father had both gone to fight for the King of England in the Somme and her father has been killed so there’s a big political dimension.

“Here are two young people whose parents have died fighting for Britain.”

Joseph, Peter and Bryony discuss the material in rehearsals.

Although Jacob’s father did not perish in the same way as Mary’s, he came home a shell of himself.

“The play is absolutely grounded in that history, in the sense of terrible wrong that has occurred.

“That is the death of these people in the most appalling circumstances.

“He described what it was like in the fields of the Somme with men dying, gurgling in the trenches.

“He talks about the beauty of the day with the soldiers walking into German gunfire.

“First of all there were the British, and American people who walk into the line of fire, then the Newfoundlanders and the Newfoundlanders are mown down almost to a man.

“So they died fighting for Britain and yet have no acknowledgement.

“And then there’s a further plot involvement where the boy that she’s supposed to marry’s father was a very cruel employer to Jacob’s father.

“Jacob’s father came back much the worse for wear after the Battle of the Somme and the father-in-law to be gave him the most appalling time and humiliated him.

“That’s the reason that he went: A deep humiliation created by the would be father-in-law makes him take off.

“Then he has heard that Mary is getting married and he’s come back in a rush to propose to her.

“The play is about a boy trying to win back a girl whose heart he has broken and yet he is completely impoverished.

“It’s like a fable and it has a beautiful fairytale quality in there.

“It’s part of what’s called the Mercer trilogy, about the Mercer family.

“There are three generations and we meet them over three different plays.”

Salt- Water Moon was lauded when it was first performed in 1984 and another part of the series Of the Fields, Lately was adapted for the screen.

“This play was a huge hit.

“A subsequent play was filmed for CBC directed by Mike Newell, the big film director, in 1976.

“And other works by David French, the author, have gone to Hollywood including his translation of Chekhov that went to Broadway with Jon Voight, Laura Linney and Ethan Hawke.

“He was a very established writer in Canada, and considered probably the greatest Canadian dramatist of his period.”

Almost four decades after it was first performed, is it an honour for Peter to be bringing the play to the UK for the first time? “It is and there’s a bit of a story around that, which is that he was quite a difficult man, David French.

“There’s an interview with him on YouTube in which he warns directors and actors not to change a word of his script or he’ll come and get them.

“And when I saw that, I completely freaked out and then I learned that he has passed so there wasn’t that threat of him turning up and creating a scene.”

Does that mean there is a bit of license or would you still be faithful to the late playwright’s words? “No, we’re hugely respectful of the text.

“What had happened was various Canadian directors had taken liberties by introducing the ghost of a character into the play and he really hated that so he was on the watch.

“But he’s a beautiful writer. He writes characters wonderfully.”

A large island off the east coast of America, many settled in Newfoundland from Ireland and England making its accent a unique mix of different things.

“We’ve had to have two voice coaches helping us.

“Finally we ended up with a proper Newfoundlander and he knows the lingo and we’ve got this strange inflection which is largely Irish, but sounds a little bit Canadian sometimes and then it goes into what sounds like a little bit of West Country (English) and then it goes into Irish.

“And they’ve mastered it, the actors have mastered it after much work but they were determined, as we all were and the theatre was determined to make it authentic.

Peter, Bryony, Joseph and producer Alex Critoph in rehearsals.

“So we’ve done it really in a way that I think does him proud, I think he would be very happy with it.

“We want to be respectful to the culture from which it came. Give a sense of it, and give a sense of the bitterness that gives birth to this love affair, which is beautiful and very funny.

“It’s a wonderful comedy and the actors are getting that comedy just terrifically so it’s full of energy.

“It’s not like your kind of tedious, very long heavy going play.

“It’s light as a feather and it’s about wooing, a boy wooing a girl who doesn’t appear to want to be wooed.

“But the question is, does she love him?”

“The actors are really fabulous.

“It’s a joy to watch.”

This is a return to Finborough Theatre for Peter as he directed a sell out run of Not Quite Jerusalem which was lauded. He is fresh from directing Cyanide at 5 at the Kings Head Theatre.

Born in Belfast, Peter studied at Trinity College Dublin before spending time in Paris and now London.

“I’m a bit like these characters, I’m deracinated.

“Born in Belfast, Belfast Catholic, then went to Trinity in Dublin at a time when it was tricky for Catholics to go to Trinity.

“It was a very different world.

“It wasn’t an Irish university, it was very much European, Anglo-Irish and very upper middle class.

“And then I lived in Paris for a time. I did a bit of film work there.

“And then came back and joined the BBC, and I’ve done film, theatre and radio ever since.”

Peter working with the actors in rehearsals.

Among the impressive names Peter has worked with are Bill Nighy, Saskia Reeves, Helen Baxendale, Lisa Faulkner to name just a few.

He has directed all the great Irish playwrights such as Friel, McGuinness, Beckett.

Asked if he still any ambitions there, he says: “I’d love to do more Synge and more O’Casey.

“I particularly love O’Casey.

“I did Juno and the Paycock with Sorcha Cusack and she was stunning, it’s the most wonderful play.

“And Harold Pinter before he died, I did his last play. I did his last performance.

“That would certainly be one (career highlight).

“He wasn’t at all well, he was dying of throat cancer but he was still able to put in an amazing performance with Penelope Wilton.

“He was stunning to work with, a bit grumpy to begin with but then as soon as he got his first glass of white wine, he was flying and he was a dream to work with.”

Peter (centre) with the creative team behind Salt- Water Moon.

Peter has also worked with Richard E Grant and Benedict Cumberbatch ‘who was absolutely amazing’.

“They’re just amazing.”

His I Was the Cigarette Girl with Andrew Scott won awards.

“I did a film with Andrew when he was a young actor, wonderful and Benedict is just a complete dream.

“Also, Simon Russell Beale I’ve got a huge admiration for.

“I consider him to be one of the greats.”

Perhaps one of the biggest names on his resume is not a well known actor but a singer as Peter directed the U2 frontman in Sightings of Bono.

“He was a dream to work with again.

“When he walked on set, the hairs on the back of my neck rose. He exudes power.

“I’ve worked with wonderful actresses like Penelope Wilton, Lia Williams, Sinead Cusack, Sorcha Cusack.

“I did a play with all of them (Cusack sisters).

“I did a play by Brian Friel who is one of my absolute favourite Irish playwrights.

“I did Aristocrats and I had Sinead, Sorcha and Niamh and Catherine who played a small part as well and actually the father, Cyril played a dying father who you only hear over a speaker but he’s losing his mind.

“And he died very soon after that actually.”

So in Cyril Cusack and Harold Pinter you had the honour of working with them shortly before they passed..

“It was a gift.”

Peter plans to follow Salt- Water Moon with another play in the trilogy.

“The Finborough is wonderful and there are a lot of Irish plays on here.

“As there are in the ICC, the Irish Cultural Centre.

“These two places produce wonderful Irish work.

“The Finborough just puts on the most wonderful challenging plays.

“It’s so exciting and Irish theatre goers should come.”

Salt- Water Moon runs until 28 January at Finborough Theatre.

For more information, go to finboroughtheatre.co.uk.

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