David Hennessy spoke to the director and cast of Conor McPherson’s Shining City at Theatre Royal Stratford East- its first London revival since it premiered to acclaim in 2004.
Downton Abbey star Brendan Coyle leads the cast this week for the first London revival of Conor McPherson’s Shining City since it premiered to critical acclaim at the Royal Court in 2004.
Regarded as one of Ireland’s greatest ever playwrights, Conor McPherson is known for plays such as The Weir and The Seafarer.
Nadia Fall will direct Brendan, Rory Keenan, Curtis-Lee Ashqar and Michelle Fox for the production at Theatre Royal Stratford East.
Shining City is described as a poignant and unsettling exploration of guilt, loneliness and the spaces between us.
Brendan, known for playing Bates in Julian Fellowes’ hugely successful period drama, plays John who is recently bereaved and believes himself to be haunted by the ghost of his dead wife.
Plagued by secrets, John is slowly reveals his story and his truth to Ian, a psychotherapist and former priest who has lost his faith. Ian is played by Rory Keenan.
Rory Keenan has recently been seen in Katherine Ryan’s Netflix comedy The Duchess. His other screen credits include BBC’s War and Peace, Peaky Blinders and Birdsong.
Many may remember him as Brendan Gleeson’s young partner in The Guard.
In the play, the two men struggle to make sense of their place in the world and find they are bound in ways they could never have imagined.
Nadia Fall is Artistic Director of Theatre Royal Stratford East. Prior to this she worked at National Theatre where the George Bernard Shaw classic The Doctor’s Dilemma was among the pieces she directed.
The cast is completed by Michelle Fox from Limerick and Belfast actor Curtis-Lee Ashqar who play Neasa and Lawrence respectively.
Michelle, from Caherdavin, has been based in London for eight years now and has been nominated for a WhatsOnStage Best Actress Award for her work in Translations at the National Theatre in 2019.
Her screen credits include A Very English Scandal, Overshadowed and Casualty.
Curtis-Lee’s credits include Game of Thrones, Into the Badlands, Torvill & Dean, The Gift. He will also be seen in the upcoming BBC series Hope Street and feature film Ballywalter.
Brendan told The Irish World: “It’s a very, very special piece.
“He has this uncanny ability to weave this spell and bring the audience in quite quickly.
“You know the word they always use in reviews, ‘spellbinding’? That’s what he does. He does it in A Dublin Carol, he does it in The Weir, he does it in St Nicholas and he absolutely does it here.
“We don’t know where it’s going or what’s happening but he hooks the bejaysus out of us very, very early on and then we go into this extraordinary domestic breakup scene and this journey throughout the whole play with these revelations.
“These revelations and experiences that all these characters have, it’s mind blowing.
“And the description of grief and trauma is magnificent.
“It’s never obtuse, it’s never confusing. It’s not a thesis of a play, it’s visceral and real.
“And like a lot of particularly Irish writers, he brings the humanity and humour into the gravest of situations.
“He’s an extraordinary craftsman.”
Michelle continues: “He’s one of my favourite playwrights ever.
“And he’s one of the few playwrights that I actually just love to read, because some playwrights come alive on stage.
“I have to read it in one because I’m just already there.
And he paints the picture so wonderfully.
“I’ve always loved his stuff.
“So when I read it before the audition. I was like, ‘I absolutely have to be in this’.”
Rory adds: “It’s a joy to be able to do him in this town.
“Obviously, he speaks very vividly about Dublin and the language is very much Dublinese but the cities and the characters he writes about could be absolutely anywhere. And that’s a real skill, I think.”
Curtis- Lee says: “Conor’s a real actor’s writer, I feel.
“There’s other amazing Irish playwrights but I feel Conor has this amazing understanding of humanity.
“He really portrays the rawness of certain things.”
Director Nadia continues: “It might be a revival but most of the audiences will be seeing this play for the first time and possibly Conor McPherson’s work for the first time.
“I’m unashamedly a Conor McPherson superfan.
“He’s definitely one of the great playwrights of our time.
“What makes them so good is he has his own unique way of encapsulating the world.
“He’s really fascinated with everyday people. They’re not kings and queens, they’re ordinary people like we all are and that’s why it really is relevant to our theatre.
“I’ve watched his work in various theatres around London for years and admired it and thought, ‘I’d love to direct one of his plays’.”
So why has the piece not been done since 2004?
Brendan explains: “I revived St. Nicholas a couple years back and it was touch and go whether we would get those rights.
“I inquired about the rights to Shining City out of curiosity and they were being sat on for quite a while.
“Sometimes they do this, they hold these plays. They think it’s not worth reviving until there is at least a ten to 15 year gap to do a big revival.
“So that’s what was happening: The rights were owned and I understand Nadia approached Conor very, very vividly about her ideas and her vision for the piece.
“And he’s gone with it and he got those rights released. And here we are at roughly 15 years later.
“That’s why it hasn’t been done for so long.”
Nadia continues: “I did notice that Shining City hadn’t been on for a while and I just wrote a very passionate love letter about why I wanted to do it.”
Rory continues: “I think that’s to our advantage actually.
“Because in his cannon, it’s one of the lesser known plays.
“But it’s by no means less in terms of, of quality. It’s an amazing piece. Actually the timing has worked out really well for us doing this play because I think we will welcome people into the theatre who, even though they might know Conor McPherson, don’t know this play.
“It’s going to be a real treat for people I think who know his work and also people who don’t know his work.
“It’s about time that this was remounted. And I think so far we’ve done it justice.”
Shining City launched at the Royal Court in 2004 with Stanley Townsend and Michael McElhatton in the central roles. Both Brendan and Rory saw that production.
Brendan adds: “As Rory was saying, we have the element of surprise really because anyone who did see it 15 years ago won’t remember any fine detail, but it has stayed with me 15 years later.
“It was and remains an amazing play.
“It’s very exciting for us to be able to offer it up.
“I was reading back on a few of the reviews of the original London production and a very successful production in New York.
“I think two or three of the reviews say, ‘Arguably his best play to date’.
“Now they say that about all his plays, ‘Arguably his best play’.
“But certainly, it is arguably his best play.”
Michelle says of the piece: “I recognize these people. These people are my sister and my parents, these are my cousins.
“These are the people who live in my housing estate.
“And that’s what I think is really enjoyable.
“Because it doesn’t matter where you’re from, everyone knows these people.”
Nadia echoes this sentiment as one of her motivations: “One of the reasons I wanted to do it was I really recognized the people.
“And I was particularly fascinated, I think, with how men hold their pain, and how they express grief, which is different to us women, I think.
“We’ve talked a lot in recent years about high suicide rates in men and mental health and all of the things in contemporary parlance now.
“Conor was before his time and really highlighting how difficult it is for men to say certain things because it’s not seen as macho, masculine.”
Although on the surface John and Ian are very different, they have more in common than they could have ever suspected.
Rory explains: “How it starts is actually pretty smart.
“Essentially, this is probably Ian’s first client and this is certainly, or maybe certainly, John’s first session with a therapist.
“So this is the audience’s first experience of the first session. So everybody starts on a parity, if you like.
“No tricks are being pulled anywhere. It’s a very kind of welcoming, seductive opening, like a therapy session should be. You should feel at home in the room, you should feel comfortable, you should be able to purge, and be honest and speak.
“And I think, how he’s structured particularly that opening scene, it allows the audience’s irises to adjust to what’s going on, as it does for John’s character, and as it does for Ian’s character.
“And we kind of go on this journey together right from point zero.
“And these extraordinary jumps in time then take us so many other places.
“So even though it’s quite a lean production, it goes through an extraordinary journey in these people’s lives, and then the other two characters who come into play, Neasa and Lawrence, also have this incredible rich story behind them as well.”
Brendan adds: “I think loss is a big thing with Conor.
“They’re men connected in ways that you wouldn’t assume at first.
“They come from different worlds, they come together in this profound way, they go on this journey from the opening moment to the closing moment.”
Nadia says: “I think what Conor does so beautifully is he joins and overlaps different human experiences that all the characters in the play have in common.
“You see things that happen to Lawrence, who’s the sex worker, happen to John and, and things that Neasa goes through are similar to what someone else has. They’re all connected.
“I think that’s what Conor is doing, showing us how we think we’re different, but we’re actually the same.
“Theatre is the act of empathy and it does this amazing thing which is almost therapeutic in itself.
“It gets an audience, people from different walks of life, engaged in the act of empathy. It’s like a cheap group therapy.
“And we look at other people’s lives and recognize each other’s and our own.
“It’s kind of quietly profound in that way. It looks like a very simple play, but actually there’s so much depth to it. He’s very, very clever.”
The last time Brendan was onstage, it was also in a Conor McPherson play. He starred in his monologue play, St Nicholas in 2018 earning acclaim at the Donmar Warehouse before going onto Dublin Theatre Festival and Chicago.
And that was not his first time starring in Conor’s work either as he played Brendan in the original production of The Weir at the Royal Court in London back in 1997. The cast also included Michelle Fairley, Jim Norton and Dermot Crowley and would go on to Broadway.
The play would win the Olivier Award for Best New Play while Coyle himself would take the award for Best Supporting Actor.
He also won a New York Critics Theater World Award for Outstanding Broadway Debut for his work in the play.
This was all a far cry, he tells us, from when the show first appeared at the Royal Court in borrowed premises at the New Ambassadors with a tiny nightly audience perched on barstools.
Brendan says: “It was quite a long journey. We first did it as a kind of installation, as an art piece.
“The Royal Court didn’t know what they had.
“They had this piece they thought was perfect. It was the only play they had ever done where they hadn’t asked for any rewrites.
“They said, ‘It’s faultless, we can’t do anything with it’.
“But they didn’t know how to pitch it.
“It was a different kind of venture.
“And then it just went bananas, it just went nuts. It became this big thing.
“But we still had no idea. Like I said, we were only performing to a small number of people and by the end, were in front of 1500 people and all that.
“It was a landmark thing.
“In a way, it introduced Conor McPherson to the world really.
“Prior to that, I had seen This Lime Tree Bower at the Bush.
“It was like nothing I’d ever seen before. I’m dragging people down, ‘What is this? Who is this guy? Listen to this’. So he was already in there with me, and The Weir got people going, ‘Jesus, what is this? Who is this?’
“We knew we had something special as we were rehearsing it.
“It’s the same experience here. We are unearthing something, we’re realizing what this thing is. And that was the same with The Weir.
“I hope this is going have the same impact.”
This is an important time for the theatre industry and the creatives involved believe that Conor McPherson’s work might be the right tonic to get people back enjoying theatre after so long.
Nadia says: “This is very important to us that we’re getting back in the saddle of opening the house to full audiences.
“Quite frankly, theatre isn’t viable to socially distanced audiences.
“We really need the support of audiences coming in and seeing this play not just because it’s a great piece of work, but because we need to support our theatres right now or we will lose them. It’s as simple as that.”
Rory says: “And it’s just really amazing to be able to do him at this point as well.
“Theatres are opening up in a very careful sense.
“I think people really want to see rich, rich drama, because some will consider it a risk to go to the theatre, some haven’t gone to the theatre in a long time.
“But for them to come back and for this to maybe be the first show that they see after being away for so long, I think it’s going to be a real treat.”
Brendan says: “It’s great for all of us to be back in a rehearsal room again.
“I think this process, we love it as much as any other part of our job.
“I think we’re in a very good place, we’re confident that we’re delivering this extraordinary piece.
“We don’t know what’s going to happen with this bloody plague but measures are in place, all protocols are being followed so our audience is going to be safe.”
Nadia adds: “And I really, really, really want the Irish community to come out and support this play because they’re going to get even more from it than everybody else, because there’s so many recognizable things within it.
“Because it is for Conor, I think, an ode to Ireland and an ode to Dublin.”
Although the story is primarily John and Ian’s, the roles played by the supporting characters are crucial to the story.
Michelle says of her role as Neasa: “I’m Ian’s partner. The relationship is not going well. They’ve just had a baby. She’s a new mother dealing with the breakdown of a relationship. She’s extremely tired.
“And I think this is a scene that a lot of people will relate to.
Basically it’s the big make or break moment for a relationship.”
Curtis- Lee says: “I suppose Lawrence is kind of at a crossroads in his life.
“He needs to make money and he’s quite happy to use his body to do that.
“He battles addiction problems, he’s somewhat homeless, definitely homeless when we meet them. He’s kind of burnt all bridges.”
Michelle says of working with Brendan: “I could listen to him read the phone book.
“He just gets so much out of the text.
“If you have someone at the helm of this play in the John character, Conor’s set them a big task.
“They actually need to have craft. They need to have the skill, they need to have the naturalism and when you have someone like Brendan there, you know the play’s in safe hands.
“I do all my stuff with Rory. He’s amazing.
“It’s really just really lovely to do a modern show with people I’ve seen before who are great.”
Shining City plays at Theatre East Royal Stratford 17 September- 23 October.
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