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Doing him justice

Downpatrick actor Shaun Blaney told David Hennessy about the new play that tells the story of The Guildford 4’s Gerry Conlon after he was released from prison.

London-based Downpatrick actor Shaun Blaney has been lauded for playing The Guildford 4’s Gerry Conlon in the stage play In The Name of the Son.

Written by Richard O’Rawe and Martin Lynch, Green Shoot Productions’ In The Name of The Son tells the story of Gerry’s extraordinary life following his release from prison in 1989.

Gerry Conlon spent 15 years in jail in England after being wrongfully convicted of being an IRA bomber.

The image of him proclaiming his innocence and vowing to fight on to exonerate his dead father outside the court following his release have become iconic.

His story has already been immortalised in Jim Sheridan’s In The Name of the Father when he was played by Daniel Day-Lewis.

But if you thought Gerry would have been free in every sense of the word following his release, you would be wrong as he was plagued with the guilt of believing he was responsible for the death of his father Guiseppe in prison.

The play tells of how he received and spent over £1million, became a cause-celebre at the Hollywood Oscars and ran in the same circles as Johnny Depp, Shane McGowan and Daniel Day Lewis.

But at the same time he was addicted to crack-cocaine and his life was spiralling out of control.

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Shaun has already been nominated for Best Actor at the Irish Times Theatre Awards for bringing Gerry’s remarkable life to the stage, losing out to Stanley Townsend.

Shaun told The Irish World: “It’s a beautiful, beautiful play but it’s a crazy life story.

“You have to do the man justice.

“He had the most amazing life and that’s all you have to think about every night.

Gerry Conlon’s dramatic release in 1989

“I decided I wasn’t going to do an impersonation of him but I wanted to listen to all the speeches that he gave towards the end of his life when he was campaigning for human rights abuses across the world.

“It’s almost like he is forced to relive his torture over and over and over again, when he starts talking about it and just listening to the man speaking, there’s not a way in hell that I can understand what he went through.

“But just knowing that he did, and that he kept going is massively inspirational.

“So no matter how knackered you might get doing the play, all you have to do is remind yourself, ‘Well, Gerry did so much worse’.”

Shaun and the team have brought In The Name of the Son to the Lyric in Belfast where of course it struck a chord due to what Gerry means to people there.

“He is a Belfast son.

“He spent most of his life outside of Belfast just due to the regret he felt about his father dying in prison.

“He found it very, very hard to go home and look his mother in the eye and be in Belfast.

“He never really felt at home in Belfast because of the violence and the conflict.

“He wanted to get away from that. But he also never felt at home anywhere else.

“But doing it at home, everybody feels like they’ve got an ownership of Gerry and I couldn’t believe the amount of people that came up and told me stories about him- Like they’d met him, they grew up down the street from him, they had seen them in a pub one night and he was nothing but lovely.

“He touched so many people and everybody loved him.

“I think everybody wants a night with Gerry and from the first second I open my mouth onstage, it makes my job an awful lot easier.

“There’s some moments that really, really sneak up on me in the show and it’s different every night, like the scene where he’s talking to his mother and he’s essentially apologizing for getting his father in prison and his mother says to him, ‘You’ve never had anything to apologize for’.

“It always hits me like a tonne of bricks because it’s somebody realizing that it’s not their fault, but still not ready to hear it.”

You might think Shaun has some castmates when you hear him mentioning a two handed scene between Gerry and his mother.

You would be wrong as it is a one man show and in addition to playing Gerry, he also takes on his mother, father, Jim Sheridan, Gabriel Byrne, Daniel Day- Lewis and many more.

Gerry’s story is well known from the Oscar-nominated film but there is much more to his tale than In The Name of the Father.

Daniel Day-Lewis and Pete Postlethwaite as father and son Giuseppe and Gerry Conlon in In the Name of the Father

“His time in prison is well documented and well covered so that’s just the first ten minutes of our play, the play is two hours.

“So the rest of it is the making of the movie, falling in love, being addicted to crack cocaine, going to the Oscars and doing crack cocaine in the toilet of the Oscars because it was more interesting than watching the ceremony, recovery, getting his heart broken, going back to Belfast, it just keeps going and keeps going.

“I think there was enough material to write four plays.

“One of the things we wanted to do was cover a full life on stage so it goes at 100 mile an hour, because we’re trying to do it all.

“We like to think that you need three laughs for every cry and Gerry’s a very funny man.

“Anyone you talk to tells you he’s a very, very funny guy and he’s surrounded by massive characters.

“You read his life story, his autobiography, and it’s hilarious.

“I think that’s one thing Irish people do really well- We laugh and have dark humour to cover up horrible history and shared adversities, we just laugh our way through it.

“Anyway, I think that’s something that Gerry had in spades.”

Shaun’s performance has been described as a ‘tour de force’ by BBC Radio Ulster, ‘powerful’ by Irish News and ‘Sublime’ by Belfast Live.

Shaun has been nominated for Best Actor at the Irish Times Theatre Award when he was up against Hollywood star Domhnall Gleeson, Matthew Malone as well as eventual winner Stanley Townsend.

Shaun says of the reaction: “It is lovely and it’s absolutely mad.

“It’s lovely company to be included in with Domhnall Gleason and Stanley Townsend.

“Oh, we were just so happy that anybody actually enjoyed the play to begin with and that it made sense.

“Every night, I kind of have to just lose myself in it so by the time the play is over and you hear people clap you go, ‘Oh, thank God’.

“It’s absolutely nuts.

“I can’t really get over the reaction to it.

“The boys working in the team kept going, ‘You’re going to get nominated. You’ve got to get nominated’.

“I was like, ‘Na, it’s not happening’.

“And then it kind of felt like a vindication for all the work we’ve done for three or four years on this play.”

In Gerry Conlon’s time, things were considerably bleaker in Northern Ireland and between Ireland and the UK.

Shaun, who is based in south east London, believes it is important to not forget this especially with current events.

“Yeah, I think that (history)’s always very important to hang on to, hang on to it in terms of an educational tool because the one thing I’ve learned from being over here is that not everybody of my generation here in London understands or was even taught about what was going on in Ireland when Gerry was arrested.

“They have very little knowledge but want to know.

“So I think doing plays as honestly as possible that depict those times is nothing but helpful because you learn more from understanding somebody else’s side of the story and somebody else’s pain.

“Gerry had absolutely nothing to do with the conflict.

“He wasn’t involved in it and still got wrapped up in it.

“So I think that this play is a lovely way to show people over here, ‘This is what it was like, don’t want you to feel bad about it, just want you to know about it’.

“And if you know it a wee bit more, you may understand what’s going on now just that little bit better when people talk about tensions and the Irish border.

“I remember sitting in the living room when the ceasefire was broken in Northern Ireland, and I just remember the fear in my parents.

“I was very, very young when the ceasefire collapsed and didn’t know what was going on.

“I still remember British Army would check our car on the way to the airport.

“The first time we went to the airport and they weren’t there I was like, ‘Where’s the army?’

“And my mother or father knew that that wasn’t a normal thing.

“And I was like, ‘Oh no army today. They’re not going to check our car for bombs. What if we have a bomb?’”

Shaun says much of his training came on the job and more experienced actors who were ‘generous enough’ to give him tips.

But he has also taken the initiative to write his own stuff and make things happen.

He has written and directed for both screen and stage.

He was awarded a IAWTV award in Las Vegas in 2015 for his role in the crime series Farr which he co-created for RTE’s Storyland series.

“I think it’s a brilliant way to learn.

“Me and my mates used to make short films all the time because we weren’t getting those parts.

“So we’d all just get together if we had a script and do it, and that kind of builds and builds to the point where we would get a wee bit more proficient that people that you were coming up with start to get a bit of momentum or they become producers.

“And then all of a sudden you have the ability and the means to make something half decent by yourself without having to wait for the job to come.

“I fully encourage any young actor to make their own work, you have to get in front of an audience or in front of a camera if you want to do it.

“You can’t read about it.”

Although he has written and directed, does Shaun remain an actor first and foremost? “Everything is a means to act.

“Even when I write, I’m writing a part that I want to play.

“I very rarely write a part that I give away. But everything is trying to make that performance on stage or in front of a camera as good as it can be.”

Why would you give a part away when you can play all the roles in In The Name of the Son? “I’m so greedy,” he laughs.

“It was originally a 15 person show.

“I’m doing a show at the Lyric at the minute.

“It’s the 25th anniversary of  Marie Jones’ Stones in his Pockets.

“I finish that, I get a week off and then I’m straight into rehearsals for In the Name of the Son.

“So I think by the end of the summer, I should be pretty fit.”

Shaun does some recreational boxing but says,“I’ve cancelled the gym for the next three months because I’m like, ‘Right between these two shows, I should be getting my exercise in’.”

Shaun will also be filling some big shoes when it comes to Stones in his Pockets.

“It has been going for 25 years in various iterations.

“I play Jake who was originally played by Sean Campion in the original cast and I’m alongside Gerard McCabe who is playing Conleth Hill’s part, Charlie.

“And that’s the part that Conleth Hill won Best Actor in the Oliviers for.

“So yeah, massive shoes to fill there as well.

“It’s another multi-role. I only play seven characters this time. I think Gerard has to play 12.”

Shaun’s clearly got a lot of work to do so we decide to let him go but before we do, we ask if he wants to share a funny story of Gerry Conlon who he has mentioned being hilarious a few times.

“Yeah, he was on a road trip with Johnny Depp and they were trying to talk Johnny Depp into In The Name of the Father.

“They put him in a car with his cousin David and David doesn’t have any arms.

Guildford Four scandal revisited
Gerry Conlon of the Guildford Four. Photo: Sasko Lazarov/RollingNews.ie

“They were driving all around Ireland but one night in Dublin, Johnny Depp and Gerry Conlon handcuffed David’s fake arm and chained him to a bridge in Dublin and just left him there.

“And came back half an hour later with a Guinness for him and unhooked him and all laughing, and they said he was laughing his arse off as well.

“And now that I’ve said it I’m going, ‘That’s mad. You just chained an unarmed guy to a bridge in Dublin’.

“But when you read about it in the book it’s like, ‘Of course you did. That was perfect, right thing to do that night’.

“And then Johnny Depp turned down the movie.

“He loved being around Gerry but he couldn’t keep up with the amount of drinking that he did.”

In The Name of the Son comes to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival 3- 29 August.

Before that it is also at the Millennium Forum in Derry on 23 July and the Grand Opera House in Belfast 25- 30 July.

Stones in his Pockets is at the Lyric in Belfast in June.

For more information, click here.

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