Tom Vaughan- Lawlor told David Hennessy about returning to the National Theatre for Brian Friel’s Dancing at Lughnasa, seeing Barry Keoghan’s talent in one scene years ago and resisting the suggestions to not ‘be identified as an Irish actor’.
Tom Vaughan- Lawlor is well known to Irish audiences for playing gangster Nidge in Love/Hate.
His other roles include playing PJ Mara in Aidan Gillen’s Charlie Haughey study, playing Padraig Pearse in Trial of the Century and playing Republican Larry Marley in the true life prison escape drama Maze.
He has also appeared in Peaky Blinders, Bryan Cranston’s The Infiltrator, ITV’s reimagining of The Ipcress File and, perhaps bigger than any of these, as Ebony Maw in Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame.
However, it was on the stage that Tom first learned his craft.
He was appearing in Brian Friel’s Translations on the National Theatre stage as early as 2005, five whole years before Stuart Carolan’s gangster drama would hit RTE screens.
Now 18 years since that production, Tom is back at the National Theatre and back in Ballybeg, the fictional Donegal town that is the setting for much of Friel’s work, for a new production of Dancing at Lughnasa.
Josie Rourke directs a cast that also includes Siobhan McSweeney, Louisa Harland and Ardal O’Hanlon, all of Derry Girls, as well as Alison Oliver of Conversations with Friends, Justine Mitchell of Smother and two time Irish Time Theatre Award winner Bláithín Mac Gabhann.
This will be Tom’s fourth time performing at the National Theatre after doing Juno and the Paycock in 2011 and The Plough and the Stars there in 2017.
Tom told The Irish World: “Being here feels very apt with this play.
“The inspiration for the play came from here.
“It’s a fascinating story that Friel was doing production of Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons here at the National, and he and Tom Kilroy were leaving the theatre one night and as they were walking down the embankment, they were passing lots of homeless people and they could hear Irish voices.
“Friel said, ‘Well, two of my aunts ended up homeless on the embankment’.
“And Kilroy sort of said, ‘You should write a play about it’.
“And that’s where the story began so being here doing the play at the National feels very poignant.”
Dancing at Lughnasa is the story of the five Mundy sisters.
When it was first launched in 1990, first at the Abbey before coming to the National, it won the Olivier Award for Best Play. It would go on to Broadway and win the Tony for Best Play before being adapted for the screen with Meryl Streep.
“I think what’s so moving about it as a play is that two of the sisters’ story and maybe the rest of the sisters too, there is great sorrow in their lives but in spite of that sorrow, they celebrate and they live and they defy.
“They sustain and they are full of passion and wonderment and intelligence and defiance.
“So even though it’s underscored or undercut with sorrow, it’s a play full of hope and full of love.
“This play is a play full of love and full of hope and full of humanity.
“I think it’s a celebration of the human spirit in the face of the unknowingness of life and the fact that we’re all on the journey of ups and downs, and wins and losses and heartache and joy.
“Often what’s precious about life is to not be defined in the face of loss, and to love and to live and to hold each other up in the face of life’s hardships.
“And although it’s underscored with sorrow I think fundamentally, it’s a play about hope.
“It’s quite a play.”
Tom plays Michael who is Christina’s son and also our narrator.
Christina is an unmarried mother. In fact, none of the sisters are married despite all being older than 26.
In 1936, there would have been stigma attached to being unmarried especially in the cast of Christina.
“(The stigma) underscores their very existence.
“They’re five sisters, one who’s had a child out of wedlock.
“It’s 1930s Donegal and the only buffer they have is that their oldest brother is this lauded, loved priest.
“That’s their only protection against being social outcasts.
“And Kate, the eldest sister, who’s a schoolteacher in the town so that thing of them being unmarried is a big factor.
“Straightaway they are not adhering to certain codes and certain rules, they are outside the town and they’re rebels and they’re incredible people and they’re strong and they’re amazing.
“There’s reference to Kate being involved in the war of independence and you always wonder, ‘God, what was her role in that?’
“She has this other secret history that was again full of rebellion and defiance.
“They’re astonishing women.
“I think Friel’s fundamental humanity is timeless and that’s why people love doing him: Because the world can be a scary place and he gives us pause to remember that we’re humans and basic humanity and basic kindness and love, care is important.”
Tom first came across the play when he was studying drama at Trinity College, Dublin.
“I remember reading it for the first time and being shocked by the courage and innovation of the structure and just the poetry and the language.
“It’s got this kind of hypnotic beauty to it.
“I remember reading it at university and finding it quite shocking and powerful so that when it came up I was like, ‘I just have to do it’.
“Rehearsals have been joyous. Josie is obviously amazing and the cast are astonishing.”
With Sister Michael and Father Dougal in the same rehearsal room, are you having a bit of a laugh? “Yeah, you have got to be careful sometimes with Irish casts.
“You’re a bit like, ‘Guys, we actually have to do the play. They are selling tickets to this thing. The posters are up. We actually have to do the play, remember that’,” he laughs.
“Because sometimes it’s so much laughter and just joy.
“And it’s a joyous play, so you hope a rehearsal room will feel that way and will inform the production because of that joy.
“It’s a joyous rehearsal room so that’s a very good sign.
“I think it’s a joyous play for all the kinds of sorrow that’s there.
“It’s a play full of joy and a play full of celebration and full of defiance and rage in the best sense of the word.
“It’s a play about bravery in the face of hardship, and so that’s why I think it’s a celebration and it’s a joy.”
The play has brought about a reunion for Tom and Louisa Harland who long before she played Orla in Derry Girls played Kayleigh, John Boy (Aidan Gillen)’s daughter in Love/Hate.
“So sweet,” Tom says of getting to work with her again having met her as a very young actress the first time around.
“She came up to me on the first day and asked if I remembered her.
“And I was like, ‘Of course I remember you and of course, I know who you are’.
“I’m thrilled for her success because she’s brilliant and she’s such a lovely woman.
“It’s lovely to see her become this brilliant actor and become this recognisable face and have this great career.
“I feel proud of her.
“She’s fab and I remember her so clearly.
“Even then I remember going, ‘She’s very good’.”
He may be working with three cast members but Tom has to admit he is one of the very few people to not have seen Derry Girls.
“To my shame I have not watched it,” he holds his hands up.
“My defence is that I have two children. Most of our evenings are spent making dinner, doing bath time and crashing out on the sofa.
“But me and my wife are gonna watch it because I’ve got loads of friends in it not just Louisa, Siobhan and Ardal.”
Love/ Hate was not only a breakout role for Tom but also an Irish TV phenomenon that ran for five series from 2010 and also launched the careers of Robert Sheehan, Killian Scott, Charlie Murphy and Ruth Negga.
“It was a very special time,” Tom says of it.
“It was a very special job but these things have to end unfortunately.
“It was an amazing school of younger actors. It was a wonderful time.”
Someone else who was first seen in the Dublin crime drama was the now BAFTA-winning and Oscar- nominated Barry Keoghan who Tom worked closely with when Nidge took his young character under his wing.
“I remember the first day being on set with him.
“I didn’t know who he was.
“We did the first take and I was like, ‘Who’s this guy?’: Just undeniable, really undeniable.
“You just go, ‘This is the real deal’.
“It’s thrilling to see and so deserved but you can see it from even one scene years ago, you could see the talent.
“Sometimes you come across a young actor and you can see their potential and with him, it was very clear.
“It didn’t surprise me that that his talent would be realised in the way it was because he was stunning.”
Tom has got the Hollywood call himself playing Ebony Maw in two Avengers movies.
What was it like to be part of something on that scale? “Wonderful. Also kind of bonkers.
“From beginning to the end of my experience in that not a single interaction with anyone was anything other than happy and positive and joyous.
“It was a really special experience.
“And I got to take my son to the Endgame premiere in LA and that was the cherry on the top: A lot of brownie points there as a dad.”
Was it a pinch me moment for you in terms of Hollywood red carpets etc? “I don’t find that stuff that interesting.
“The pinch me stuff was the stuff on set when you look around you and everywhere you look is a Hollywood A lister and you’ve got to hold your nerve.
“You’ve got to reduce it to the fact that they’re an actor, and you’re an actor.
“You’ve got to reduce to that level, otherwise you’re going to lose your mind with being starstruck and you’re going to not be able to do your job.
“So you’ve got to kind of very quickly get that out of your head and do the job.
“But I would still have to take a few deep breaths before doing a scene with say Robert Downey Jr. and just steady myself because of who he is or what he is.
“I’m saying to myself, ‘Just be calm, be calm’.
“Because you’re looking to this guy, this extraordinary, extraordinary actor.
“But equally what’s amazing is working with actors who aren’t superstars, but who are proper pros, who are properly brilliant actors who just don’t happen to be international superstars.
“It makes me very proud to be an actor because it’s a very noble profession and you see men and women give their lives to a craft.
“I feel very proud to be part of a journey like that.
“You have older actors who’ve seen it all and done it all.
“You work with older actors, and you say, ‘Must look up their CV’.
“And you look them up and you see what they’ve done, the people they’ve worked with, the jobs they’ve done, and you just go, ‘Oh, my God’.
“It’s astonishing, people’s journeys.”
Perhaps someone in this category is Kathy Burke. Burke appeared in the Dancing at Lughnasa film and also gave Tom his first ever stage role in the UK.
“I’m sure she would hate it- I’m sure people have said it to her lots- Her being a national treasure.
“I’m sure she hates that expression.
“We went on tour with that play, Behan’s The Quare Fellow and it was amazing to be on tour, and do Q & As because all the audience really wanted to see was Kathy. They were so excited to meet her because she’s a brilliant actor but she’s also very relatable.
“She’s got great humanity and that’s why I think people respond to her.
“She was wonderful to work with and that was another joyous experience.
“She gave me my first job in the UK so I’m forever indebted to her for that.
“She’s an actor’s director.
“She obviously is an actor and is a director, but she knows your instinct as an actor and what you need as an actor.
“She was directing a room of 18 Irish men, and she’s just so funny and irreverent but also rigorous and smart and demanding in the best sense of the word, in terms of wanting to give Behan’s work its full value.
“She’s wonderful. Amazing woman.”
Who else inspired you in your early days of your career? “Howard Davies gave me early work.
“I worked with him a few times and he was amazing.
“I worked here with him twice here (NT) and once in the West End.
“He passed away in 2016 so he’s had a huge impact on my life as a director.”
Did you always know you wanted to act? “I didn’t always know.
“My dad’s an actor so I’ve always been around actors and around theatre especially.
“I just kind of loved film and TV and theatre as a teenager because I was around it, but I didn’t really necessarily want to be an actor but then went to university to study drama, and then I kind of got sucked into it and I’ve been sucked in since.”
Having completed his drama studies at Trinity, Tom came to study at RADA. He has remained based in the London area ever since.
“I came here in 2000 and my first move in this country, I came to see a play here.
“I came to study acting at RADA and I think my dad still thinks I’m a student and I don’t really live here.
“I met my wife Claire doing a play in Manchester.
“She’s English, and my kids are half English.
“I miss Ireland greatly but next year, I’ll have been here longer than I ever was (in Ireland) which is a very strange thing and quite a heavy thing to deal with and quite a complicated and confusing thing.
“But doing this play in London with this cast makes me very proud to be Irish.
“Doing an Irish play in London gives it something because there’s such a huge Irish community here, it gives the experience for me as an actor greater poignancy.
“Being here as an Irish actor sometimes people are like, ‘Don’t be identified as being an Irish actor, you’re gonna be specifically identified as an Irish actor’.
“But I want to be identified as an Irish actor because I am Irish and I’m proud to be Irish.
“If I’m going to be in a Russian play, what do you want me to do? Pretend to be English to pretend to be Russian?
“I don’t want to run away. I remember at drama school being told to kind of lose my Irish accent.
“I understood because you have to learn other accents but it’s a huge part of your soul.
“I miss Ireland greatly and I’m lucky to be able to go home to work there so I feel lucky.
“But I also feel very at home here.”
Dancing at Lughnasa is at the National Theatre until 27 May.
For more information and to book, click here.