The man from Uncle Vanya

Ciarán Hinds took time out of his relentless work schedule to talk to us about Uncle Vanya, the National Theatre production of Translations, why we have to do better for the next generation regarding peace in Northern Ireland and finding his daughter has a gift for acting that makes him proud.

The new adaptation of Chekhov’s timeless Uncle Vanya, in the West End, is a must see for lovers of modern and classic drama alike. It reunites one of Ireland’s finest actors Ciarán Hinds, and a brilliant cast, with one of Ireland’s best living playwrights, Conor McPherson.

You are sure to recognise Ciarán Hinds from any number of things you have seen him in on stage and screen, although some of you may not necessarily recognise his name straightaway. Hinds has acted for Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, Danny Boyle, Kathryn Bigelow, Paul Thomas Anderson, John Boorman and Sam Mendes – to name just a few.

You may know him as the wildling commander Mance Rayder in Game of Thrones or Julius Gaius Caesar in Rome. He also played a hardened detective in Above Suspicion and a shady underworld contact for Cate Blanchett’s Veronica Guerin. Stephen Spielberg’s Munich featured him as a Mossad agent on the search for the assassins responsible for the murders of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympic Games. In the Harry Potter films he was Aberforth Dumbledore for the final instalment in the series and he was Daniel Day-Lewis’ right hand man Fletcher in the Oscar-winning There Will Be Blood.

Fresh from starring in Brian Friel’s Translations at The National Theatre, Ciarán is now starring in Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya. The high-calibre cast includes Richard Armitage, Toby Jones and fellow Irish actor Dearbhla Molloy.

This brand-new production of the Russian classic sees Hinds reunited with Dublin playwright Conor McPherson who has adapted the Russian dramatist’s work. McPherson and Hinds have worked together on The Seafarer, The Birds, The Night Alive and, more recently, Girl from the North Country.

Ciarán told the Irish World: “I just feel extraordinarily blessed that when he has a project going, he gets in touch with me.

“I just do because he is extraordinarily- Not just gifted, but he tends to look at the world in a way that’s kind of gently profound and it infiltrates through his writing.

“There’s a group of us that he keeps coming back to and somebody suggested, ‘You should get out and see more actors, there’s a load out there’. His idea is, ‘Well we’re alright together, aren’t we?’

“I’m very grateful for that actually because we are alright together and it’s always a real mad adventure setting off on one of Conor’s pieces because who knows where we’re going to end up but it’s always thrilling.”

Ciarán in Uncle Vanya rehearsals. Richard Armitage looks on. Credit: Johan Persson

Conor himself told the Irish World, a few months ago, that adapting Chekhov for a modern audience essentially means making it accessible to people who are used to drama coming at them in today’s different rhythms.

On this point Ciarán says: “Because of its nature, it’s slightly punchier.

“Some translations of Chekhov from the Russian into different cultures, into English, sometimes you find them rather lyrical and there’s a poetry about them.

“The play can languish a bit but the feelings are very energised.

“These people in Vanya, they’ve all got so much going on and dialogue coming from an Irish playwright, it’s kind of just punchier, you know?

“I wouldn’t say it’s hard, but it is punchier, and you’ll find some odd expressions in there that will come from his mind as opposed to somebody translating it from the ‘50s or the ‘60s, for example.

Ciarán with Rosalind Eleazar who plays his young bride Yelena. Credit: Johan Persson

“I think Chekhov generally for writers is a thing they don’t wish to take on because he is known as the master of writing of the human condition.

“It’s always the same people but people are always dying to explore, and actors as well.

“I think what was interesting to me being involved in this project – apart from the amazing actors that are in it – was, one, the piece is by Conor but the director is Ian Rickson who directed Translations so I’ve really just been working with him over the last year.

“He was responsible for giving (McPherson’s) The Weir its first production so his connection with Conor goes back a long way and he was a great supporter of Conor at the Royal Court in the ‘90s when Conor was starting to write.

“They have a very old and trusted connection and even though Ian would direct Conor’s work and now that Conor directs his own, Conor has always asked Ian to a preview to have a look to see if he wanted to have any ideas.”

Conor is often drawn to the supernatural in his work but like Chekhov finds drama in the mundane areas of life. To this suggestion Ciarán replies: “I can see the connection. Conor studied philosophy and psychology. He understands the human heart, I think.

“Beneath something we might say is mundane or banal, there’s always people frantically trying to connect with needs and survive and they’re often fighting against the wind.

Ciarán rehearses a scene with Aimee Lou Wood who plays his daughter Sonya. Credit: Johan Persson

“They’re trying to take on the wind and it’s like a duck that you see sitting on the top, they’re going somewhere but they’re peddling like f**k underneath the water.

“There’s that tremor that Conor has in his characters and Chekhovian characters have got all this stuff going on inside them about wasted lives, missed opportunities, desires that they have but they don’t know why, frustrations. It’s all in there.”

As previously mentioned Ciarán has just finished playing hedge master Hugh in Friel’s Translations at The National Theatre. He says he was blown away by the reactions to the story of a small Irish town seeing its traditions being gently crushed by an imperial force.

“It’s very interesting, Translations, because it played extraordinarily well with audiences of all cultures.

“A lot of people came over from Ireland to see it because they had heard that there was something about this particular production that had really opened the play up again in a big way.

“But there was also a huge amount of English people who were just knocked sideways by the brilliance of the play itself: The writing, the structure, how much is in there, how much they missed because there was so much in there and how much they were informed by the presentation of it. “Because the Irish are a very emotional and tenacious race, the British are more rational and stuff like that, there was an interesting mixture of the Irish connecting with it emotionally but also the English connecting with it in a kind of rational sense of, ‘This is terribly wrong to do this at that time’.

Ciarán as hedge master Hugh in Translations. Image by Catherine Ashmore.

“You look back with hindsight but it’s just rationally looking at it and seeing the characters that Brian created, this living breathing community and suddenly, as happened all over the world, being swamped by the marks of time.

“It happens to be redcoats, English Redcoats in this case, but it is the history of the world, it doesn’t have to be British redcoats, can be any imperial nation going into any culture and dominating it.

“I think that resonates for everybody today especially because of broader things, cultures seem to be closing down and going more insular while a lot of us are hoping for the next generation to come that it’s able to open out again.

“It is a timeless play, actually, that Brian Friel wrote.

“In the business of theatre, as actors we usually, when we audition for something, it’s ‘(Show us) a modern piece and a classical piece’.

“I think Translations is a modern classical piece, it actually weaves somehow deftly with two strands of poetry and theatre together and it’s kind of a masterpiece. I only know that because so many people are knocked out by it which is thrilling.”

Translations seemed especially timely when it opened at the National in September because of the Brexit debate taking place across the Thames in Westminster. It was the 1970s, a dark time in Northern Ireland’s history, when Ciarán left Belfast to study acting in London. Since then much has been done to bring peace to his home, which Brexit has threatened to undo.

Ciarán with Seamus O’Hara and Fra Fee who played his sons in Translations. Credit: Catherine Ashmore.

How has it felt to watch the ongoing car crash of Brexit and its threat to Northern Ireland’s peace? “It makes me despair slightly. We live in hope. You’re going to have to dig deep into your reserves of hope.

“There’s something in the air that’s not very healthy I think for Irish-English communication and Scotland as well, they’ll find out soon enough about how people are now unhappy with the situation that has been presented.

“I think it’s going to be difficult: All the stuff that has happened in the north and the south in the last 20 years, forming some kind of gentle way of nourishing each other, trying to make that happen.

“I think it doesn’t take many people to make things kick off again. There’s a whole generation up there, a whole generation who have lived, they don’t even know about it actually, they don’t realise.

“Generally, whether you’re Irish or English, what does it matter? You’ve got souls. You’re all people. Get on living together. You can be both actually, you can be both Irish and English. It’s okay.

“Some people are so adamant about what’s wrong and right in this complicated business but for the sake of, and this is really Chekhovian, for the sake of our children and our children’s children and the generations to come, we must do better.”

In November, the Irish World featured Ciarán’s daughter Aoife (with his French-Vietnamese wife the actress Hélène  Pataro) for her starring role in i will still be whole (when you rip me in half) at The Bunker.

Aoife also made a memorable, scene-stealing, appearance in Derry Girls and has a role in the forthcoming BBC adaptation of Sally Rooney’s award-winning coming of age novel Normal People.

Aoife Hinds acts in i will still be whole (when you rip me in half) with Tuyen Do who played her mother in the background. Credit: Fran Cattaneo

The proud father says of his daughter: “I was of course wary of her following me into the business. We kind of kept her away from it only because we know how it can turn their heads and things like that.

“She might have toured with her mum once. She went to one film set that I was working on, just one. Apart from that, we didn’t encourage it, knowing how seductive it can be or how supposedly glamorous it could appear to a young girl.

“But, in fact, it’s not: It’s hard work and long hours. Sometimes it’s a great honour and joy to be in something and sometimes it’s a nightmare.

“She came to it late. She was studying something else and suddenly she discovered something in herself and thought there was something nagging at her that she wanted to try this thing called acting which came as a surprise to me.

“I wasn’t unhappy about it. I just knew that it was going to be tough, incredibly tough because I see also there are some brilliant young actors out there. They’re much better than we were at that age.

“Her first play, she was thrilled. She’s done bits of television and long may that continue. I found that night that she had a gift when I watched her. I was very nervous (beforehand), I was a wreck actually, I was really nervous to see it.

“Then I just saw that she could do it and it was a great not just relief but great joy for me to see her hold her own. I was just so pleased for her and I was quietly proud as well.”

Uncle Vanya is at the Harold Pinter Theatre from 14 January until 2 May. haroldpintertheatre.co.uk/

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