The Night Ethan Hawke Performed at the Abbey Theatre

Over the last couple of days, I’ve been reading about Richard Linklater’s new movie Boyhood – which has been getting some great reviews, such as this one from Donald Clarke in the Irish Times.

For those who don’t know, twelve years ago Linklater cast a six-year-old boy called Ellar Coltrane. He shot some scenes with him, with Ethan Hawke playing Coltrane’s father, Patricia Arquette his mother, and Linklater’s daughter Lorelei playing his sister. Each year, Linklater would reassemble the group, shoot a bit more, until eventually the character reached the age of 18. The film thus shows us his development – physically, emotionally, mentally – over his entire boyhood.

It’s a bold concept, and a brave one too (for an example of what can go wrong with casting a child actor, look no further than The Phantom Menace, for example). And it’s notable that critics have been able to look beyond the innovative composition of the film to praise its plot and acting.

Anyway, I’m writing because I was struck by a line in Clarke’s review about Hawke:

The kids age in fascinating ways – sometimes undergoing dramatic metamorphoses, sometimes just gaining a little height – while the infuriatingly chiselled Hawke continues to look much as he did 25 years ago in Dead Poets Society.

This reminded me that back in 2003, one year into the shooting of Boyhood, Hawke had appeared on the stage of the Peacock Theatre – for one night only – in a staged reading of Sam Shepard’s The Late Henry Moss.

I remember that reading very vividly. It was directed by Peter Sheridan and most of the actors gave script-in-hand performances, rather than simply sitting and reading. What was notable was the commitment Hawke gave to the performance. He’s one of those actors who works very hard at making what he does seem effortless: to deliver lines as if with a shrug, to pace his delivery so as to find and reveal unusual nuances in the script, and to use a strange kind of passive energy to bring the other actors into the performance. Of course, Hawke had previously appeared in a full production of Henry Moss, but even so his performance that night was exceptional.  A few years later, I saw him in a full production of the Bridge Project’s Winter’s Tale, and all of those characteristics were again in evidence (the picture below is taken from that production, directed by Sam Mendes at the Old Vic).

Ethan-Hawke-in-The-Winter-002

In other words, he gave as much commitment to a once-off reading in the Peacock as he did to a full production in one of London’s most distinguished theatres.

Other actors in the reading were similarly memorable. Ned Dennehy gave a performance full of unblinking creepiness and, if I remember correctly, a thoroughly disarming Mexican accent. And Lorcan Cranitch was imposing and very witty.  I came away looking forward to what seemed at the time an inevitable decision to give the play a full production in the theatre (though this never happened).

The reading happened as one of a five-part series of American play readings at the Peacock in March 2003. The other plays included Homebody by Tony Kushner (later elevated to a full production), The Race of the Ark Tattoo (which later went on tour), Wallace Shawn’s The Fever, and a genuinely unforgettable reading by an all-white cast of Suzan-Lori Parks’ Fucking A – which was directed by Paul Mercier and featured an amazing performance by Eleanor Methven as Hester. I think Parks actually attended that reading – would have loved to know what she thought of it.

Those readings happened during a brief period when the Peacock was buzzing, shortly after Ali Curran’s appointment to the directorship of that theatre. They brought in Corn Exchange, who did a terrific production of Loilita with Ruth Negga playing the lead role. Blue Raincoat were also there a few times. And those one-off readings happened occasionally: another series I remember very clearly featured new work by Hilary Fannin and Michael West, for example.

Hawke, by the way, was not the only Hollywood actor to appear at the Peacock at that time. In 2002, Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon brought their production of The Guys (a 9/11 play) to that theatre for a very short run. I remember the queues around the block of the Abbey on the morning that the box office  opened – just as I remember Robbins and Sarandon’s mild look of surprise at the end of the performance I attended – when the audience failed to give a standing ovation…. Also in 2002, John Mahoney appeared in a very moving  play called The Drawer Boy, which  also appeared in that year’s Galway Arts Festival (again tickets sold out very quickly). Mahoney is back here in Galway this year for a new play with Christian O’Reilly, of course. There was also a reading of a play called Lovers Re-United which featured Ewan Bremner (Spud from Trainspotting) and Samantha Morton who had just been Oscar-nominated for In America.  Campbell, Bremner and Morton may not be well known now, but there was a lot of excitement about that reading at the time (it happened in 2002).

We’ve had a lot of talk recently about the Peacock, so I’ve often found myself recalling those times when that space was full of excitement and genuine innovation. It seemed to a be a place where world class actors wanted to appear, a place where you could do amazing things like stage a reading of a musical play about abortion, or a production like Fannin’s Doldrum Bay – which focussed on two ad men who had been hired to devise a recruitment campaign for the Christian Brothers. The theatre had even commissioned a play by Aaron Sorkin, right at the height of his fame for the West Wing… Of course, that model of the Peacock proved unsustainable and those energies quickly dissipated… But that’s another story.

And of course, the Peacock would later host two premieres of plays by Sam Shepard – Ages of the Moon and Kicking A Dead Horse.

As for Hawke – yes, alarmingly, he still looks almost exactly as he did in 2003…

Here’s a trailer for Boyhood:

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