By David Hennessy
Actor and playwright Eugene O’Hare has just launched his new play The Dry House at Marylebone Theatre.
Set in the Northern Irish border town of Newry, The Dry House centres around sisters Chrissy and Claire.
Chrissy promises Claire that after one final drink, she will go to the dry house to get sober.
The question is, Does she mean it this time?
The ensemble cast includes Derry Girls’ fan-favourite Aunt Sarah, Kathy Kiera Clarke, who plays the role of Claire and award-winning stage and screen actress Mairead McKinley who takes on the role of Claire’s sister Chrissy.
The cast is completed by the critically-acclaimed Carla Langley who is Chrissy’s daughter Heather.
The Dry House is described as a darkly comic redemptive play about love, loss and the possibility of hope after years of self-destruction.
Writer Eugene O’Hare, whose screen credits as an actor include Outlander and The Fall, has written for the National Theatre and worked for directors such as Ridley Scott and Sam Mendes.
Eugene originated the role of Magennis in Jez Butterworth’s The Ferryman in 2017.
The Irish World caught up with him to talk about The Dry House.
What inspired The Dry House and its characters? “It’s hard to say. I found the play writing itself in my head without any noticeable prompt or inspiration. For the most part that’s generally how a piece of writing begins with me.”
On his cast, Eugene says: “Kathy, Mairead and Carla are terrific actors with theatre in their bones. I know their work well and I knew they were right for this. So, I just direct-offered without meeting.
“They came to this job with open hearts and within days they sounded like a family. It takes real guts and courage to do a play like this. And every day in rehearsal they took a leap. I’m in awe of the three of them.”
Kathy Keira Clarke well known from Derry Girls. We asked Eugene his impression of what the smash hit show had done for the region as he brings Newry to the London stage, something that has rarely been done before if ever.
“It’s the perfect show to remind the world that laughter is a very useful medicine. Especially that undiluted Derry panacea.
“I can’t be sure but I think this may be the first time for a Newry play in London.
“And while the word Newry isn’t mentioned in the dialogue, the characters refer to certain shops and to the Sean Hollywood Arts Centre.
“I should say that without Sean Hollywood I would probably never have been an actor or writer.
“He discovered me when I was about 13 at his little free summer drama group for kids.
“He changed my life, and by the time he died and I turned 18, he had taught me everything I know about using my instinct to get inside a play.
“It would be a sad day if that arts centre were ever renamed. I’m unsettled by rumours that the name might be changed. I hope they’re not true.
“Sean was a gift to Newry. We must keep his name on a building in the centre of the town.
“As for the characters in The Dry House, they are unmistakably from Newry. People there have a distinct talk. Distinct phrasing and rhythms. I’ve always loved it.
“Even as a child, I listened in on conversations compulsively.
“When I was small and my mother had her mates around, she would always warn them, ‘Watch him– he’s taking everything down’.”
What has it been like to watch the story come to life over the rehearsal period? “Good actors often begin possessing whole sections of a play very soon in rehearsal. Once the play starts to feel like I can no longer see myself in it and it is transferring to the hands of the actors, I know things are going well. That started to happen during the second week of rehearsals.”
The play contemplates serious themes such as addiction and abandonment, have you been discussing these themes in the rehearsal period or what sort of discussions have you been having? “The text does all the work with these themes. When you have great actors, you don’t need to do the dreary conversations. They just need to get up and start looking each other in the eye and saying the lines. That’s how you begin.
“Our rehearsal room had plenty of laughter in it. But I work fast and instinctively– responding to the actors’ work over very short intense days with short lunch breaks. I don’t work the actors at weekends – we rehearsed the whole thing in twenty days. We don’t have time for lots of stories about addiction and abandonment. They aren’t needed to do the play.
“The humour, as you might expect, is character driven. Especially Mairead’s character– she has most of the laughs – and it is her character who is in the greatest danger. Make of that what you will.”
Eugene has been based in London for many years but gets to work at home more and more these days.
“I’ve been in London all my adult life. It’s an unforgiving place when times are tough, but it’s an addictive city. I will never tire of it. I work in Ireland a good bit as an actor – telly series like Dublin Murders and Marcella and The Fall.
“I have also been establishing myself as a playwright in London since my debut plays here in 2019.
“But I would like to have my work staged at home. Incidentally, my very first commission as a writer was at the Abbey Theatre. Only a small twenty-minute commission for a three-day festival but it was a big moment for me, especially as the Abbey is where I got my first professional job as an actor. The commission was thanks to Stephen Rea who sent a script of mine to Aideen Howard – the Literary Director at the time. Stephen is a great champion of new talent. We are lucky to have him.”
Is your directing style influenced by great directors you have worked for such as Sam Mendes and the late Howard Davies? What would you take from people like that? “Howard and Sam had a very clear and succinct way of giving notes. That’s important. To ask for something clearly and without fuss. And to remind actors when they are doing something you love. I wouldn’t say I have a ‘style’. I just watch and listen and respond at the right time.”
Eugene was the last person to play Austin in True West before the playwright Sam Shepard died and got glowing comments from him.
“Impressing Sam Shepard is the stuff of dreams. But I was nothing without Phillip Breen’s masterful production and without Alex Ferns playing opposite me. I’m thankful you can watch that production online through Digital Theatre, so in future people will see what Sam saw and loved.”
What’s next for Eugene, would he like to bring The Dry House home? “I’m hoping to be back home in the summer for a film I have written. Most of the funding got pulled during the first lockdown but we’re now gearing up to shoot. It’s an erratic business so who knows quite what the summer will bring.
“I’d welcome an Irish production of The Dry House – either a remount of our current show or give an Irish company a chance to originate an Irish premier. Methuen Drama have just published it, so the script should be in bookshops from this week. Maybe someone will have a read and want it at their theatre. It’s a tough time as there is a backlog of playwrights whose programming was messed up by the lockdowns and closures. But I hope a life for The Dry House in Ireland isn’t too far away.
“What I would like is for the Newpoint Players – Newry’s amateur drama group where I started out, to stage the first amateur production. I’d eagerly come home to see that.”
The Dry House is at Marylebone Theatre until 6 May.
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