What Makes Stephen Brennan a Great Actor? – Thoughts on Halcyon Days

Last night I went to see Deirdre Kinahan’s Halycon Days at the Town Hall in Galway. It’s playing until Saturday and is well worth going to if you’re in that part of the country.

The audience, as sometimes happens on Tuesdays in theatres, was a bit chatty. This can happen in any theatre, really. You’ll get people who give a running commentary on the action (“Oh Jesus, look what he’s after doing!”). And then you get some who gently mock the dialogue or the characters, as happened last night when in the fourth scene one of the actors moved a cup of tea poured in the first scene – prompting one person behind me to whisper to her companion “your tea has gone cold mister!” And then of course you get people who comment between scenes – “what do you think”, “that was good”, etc.

None of this really bothered me – Halcyon Days is the kind of play that puts people at their ease and involves the audience thoroughly from the start, so to a certain extent people were responding as they would to a good movie on TV.

One of the things that struck me was that after each scene change, I kept hearing different people around me saying the same thing: they were all saying variations of “he’s very good, isn’t he?” to each other. The “he” in question was Stephen Brennan, and it was clear that while many people knew who he was, many others didn’t. But almost everyone was very impressed by him.

I found myself wondering about this. The play is about two people in an old folks’ home, one played by Brennan and the other by Anita Reeves. And I thought both performances were excellent. On a technical level, the two were equally good – and I thought both parts were equally well written. Yet it was Brennan’s performance that the audience kept talking about. It wasn’t that they didn’t like Reeves’ performance – quite the opposite. But there was just something about Brennan that people kept responding to.

This experience emphasised to me that it’s very difficult to define what makes a great actor great. In the Dublin theatre scene at the moment, I find myself consistently being impressed by the performances of Denis Conway, Declan Conlon and Owen Roe, to give just three examples of male performers. But while they have all given ‘great’ performances during the last 10-15 years, they are not all ‘great’ in the same way. In fact, they are very different from each other: Roe and Conway have both played the Irishman in The Gigli Concert, for example – and while I was astonished by both performances, they were also very different from each other. And one of the best performances I’ve seen on a Dublin stage in the last decade was Tom Vaughan-Lawlor’s Arturo Ui at the Abbey a few years ago. And what made it great is that the only person who could have played that part that way was Vaughan-Lawlor himself.

So in thinking about Brennan’s performance last night, I can point to things that seemed admirable. I admired the physical discipline that allowed his character to seem about 20-30 years older than Brennan is himself. He also showed that the character’s apparent infirmity was partly based on fear rather than any genuine physical problem – and he did this by allowing the character sometimes to lose his self-consciousness and move without thinking. And there were just some nice details: for instance, he wore pants that seemed just slightly too big for him, so we had the sense of his character becoming thinner, fading away slightly. Some of this of course is the work of the playwright, director and designers too. Yet the audience kept talking about how good Brennan was.

He has, I think, been great in many performances, but there are three that really stand out for me.

One is his performance of Hamlet, in a mid-1980s Abbey production directed by Michael Bogdanov. I was too young to go at the time but have watched it on video, and was very struck by the dignity that Brennan gave his Hamlet in what was otherwise a (deliberately) chaotic production. At the time of watching the video, I jotted down a note saying that ‘his movements seem deeply felt’. That phrase doesn’t make much sense, I suppose, but what I meant by it was that Brennan didn’t actually need to say anything to communicate Hamlet’s thoughts – they were evident in whether he chose to stand up straight or not, in how he held his head, in the determination and pace of his steps, and so on. And I also liked that he delivered the words in his own accent: that doesn’t happen often enough in Ireland, even now.

Another that I remember very vividly is his part in the second play in Nancy Harris’s No Romance, which appeared at the Peacock a couple of years ago. That production involved three inter-linking but separate plays. The first part was good, but among the people I chatted with at the interval there was a definite sense that we weren’t sure how things would go for the rest of the production: there was promise there but also a few problems. Then Stephen Brennan came out in the second play and within five minutes of his appearance, there was a definite sense that the audience had forgotten their hesitation and were now fully involved in what they were seeing. This was probably because Brennan was so funny, brilliantly capturing the self-loathing and self-deception of a feckless middle-aged man in a funeral parlour. By the time people emerged from the theatre after the third play, there was a definite buzz: a real sense of enthusiasm for the play and for Harris’s future as a writer. And I think a lot of that was due to Stephen Brennan’s performance. That of course was made possible by Nancy Harris’s script (male ineptitude is something she’s especially good at, as evident from her other play Love in a Glass Jar). But I wonder if the play would have been as successful if someone else had played that role.

Finally there was his performance in Conor McPherson’s monologue play Port Authority, which was staged about 10-12 years ago. Brennan played one of three men who delivers a monologue directly to the audience. And in some ways he had the toughest job because his character was the least likeable, and his story the least credible (in the sense that it was so unbelievable it actually rang true).

On the night I saw the play in the Gate, there was a woman in the audience who had a very distinctive laugh. Whenever one of the actors cracked a joke, the audience would laugh – including the woman with the funny laugh – and so then the audience would laugh again at the woman’s laugh. So many of the jokes were generating two bouts of laughter. The other actors didn’t really pay much attention to this (it wouldn’t have suited their characters) but Brennan started to work around the woman’s laugh – timing his jokes around it and at one stage improvising a simple “I know” in response to her. It was as if he was saying that only a character as feckless as he was could have wound up in a theatre being laughed at by someone like her. This wasn’t in any way mean-spirited: there was actually a moment of identification between the woman’s discomfort and Brennan’s character’s perpetual state of self-loathing.

What made that impressive is that Brennan’s actions – far from being a crowd-pleasing breaking of the fourth wall – actually made the play work more fully. McPherson’s stage direction in Port Authority is that the action ‘takes place in a theatre’. That meant that the characters are actually talking to us – so Brennan’s responsiveness was entirely appropriate. And it also made sense in terms of his character – who had enough self-knowledge to know how ridiculous he was to other people (including the audience) but not enough awareness to actually change.

A lot of what I am describing is the craft of acting. And I’m also, I think, writing about the art of acting too, which (to generalise) happens when the actor gives something of himself or herself to a role, at once making it individualised (we believe this is a real person) and universalised (we believe that these feelings or experiences could be ours, at least potentially). I think Brennan does both of those things very well: his Hamlet is not necessarily the best I’ve ever seen, but it is one of the more memorable because it was different from any of the others. No-one but Brennan could have played the role that way. In contrast, most of the other Hamlets I’ve seen tend to blend into each other.

But I’m also trying to describe one of the things that makes a stage actor different from a film actor. Brennan has an extraordinary ability to listen to and thus to guide an audience. (Rosaleen Linehan is also brilliant in this respect.) He knows when to withhold a line and when to give it, when to drop the tone of his voice to fill a space made empty by audience inattention or some distraction in the auditorium, and when to hold back on the expression of a character’s emotions. I think people nowadays tend to see him as a comic actor, and while it is certainly true that he is very funny, he does many other things very well too.

I don’t want to romanticise acting in stating all of this. But I do think we could do with more writing about acting and actors in this country – about how they do what they do, about the decisions they make from one night to the next, about why audiences will feel compelled to whisper to each other during scene changes that someone was good. I’ve been thinking about what is meant by those whispered ‘isn’t he’s goods’. Do they represent surprise? Appreciation? Delight? I don’t know. But I see this happen all the time when Brennan is on stage, and I’m not sure how to describe what he does – how to record it, if it can be recorded.

I’m struck by this issue every time I read a review and see performances described as ‘compelling’, or as a ‘tour de force’. I think these are words that reviewers or academics use when they don’t actually know how to describe what they are seeing. For instance, I’ve called both Reeves and Brennan ‘excellent’ in this post but that word doesn’t really say anything about how they do what they do, how and why it works, and what makes Reeves excellent in ways that Brennan is not – and vice versa

And finally… the play itself is enjoyable, and it’s great to see Deirdre Kinahan doing  well: there’s a definite sense at the moment that her time has come. I’m going to be interviewing her on Friday at the Synge Summer School (together with Mark O’Rowe and Owen McCafferty) and am looking forward to that a lot.

One other observation I had is that a lot of Irish writers have plays that in some way tackle dementia – Bailegangaire, Dancing at Lughnasa, Friel’s Aristocrats, Morna Regan’s Midden, and quite a few others. This underlines for me the way that Irish writers remain very focussed on memory, and how they see memory as metaphor for the construction of a character’s identity.

But that’s another topic.

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Shush at the Abbey

Last Wednesday night I attended the opening night of Elaine Murphy’s Shush at the Abbey.

There’s something very exciting about seeing new writing on the Abbey’s main stage, especially from a young dramatist who’s not very well known yet. Most of the Abbey’s recent main stage premieres of new writing have been by established Irish writers, and many of them have been adaptations – productions such as McGuinness’s The Dead and John Gabriel Borkman, Tom Murphy’s Last Days of a Reluctant Tyrant, Roddy Doyle’s Government Inspector, and the ill-fated Adigun/Doyle Playboy of the Western World. There are exceptions, of course: Bernard Farrell’s new play Bookworms has appeared twice, and most recently Richard Dormer’s Drum Belly caused a bit of a stir at the theatre.

All that said, it’s very unusual – and perhaps unprecedented in the contemporary period – for us to see a writer’s second play debuting on the Abbey’s main stage.

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Elaine Murphy’s first play was Little Gem, which was co-produced by Guna Nua and the Civic Theatre back in 2008. That play proved a (somewhat unlikely) commercial success, transferring to the Olympia and later to Peacock stage of the Abbey itself; it also toured nationally. I describe the success as unlikely because it was a monologue play by a then unknown author, but audiences actually responded very positively to Murphy’s presentation of different generations of women – and to the quality of her language and her humour. Those traits appear again in Shush, though this time we move from monologue to dialogue, in a play about five women who gather in a suburban house to celebrate a birthday.

I’d imagine that Shush could match and potentially even exceed the success of Little Gem. But what I found most exciting about the opening night was that I was seeing a new play by a woman on the Abbey’s main stage. That’s something I’d only ever experienced three times previously, when I saw Marina Carr’s By the Bog of Cats in 1998, Marina Carr’s Ariel in 2002, and Marina Carr’s Marble in 2010. In other words, Elaine Murphy is only the second woman to have a new play on the Abbey’s main stage during my lifetime.  [note – after publishing this post, I got a note from a reader to say that in 1988, Jeane Binnie had a play on the Abbey stage, making her a third Irish woman dramatist – http://www.abbeytheatre.ie/archives/production_detail/702 ]

After the 1930s, Deevy’s plays were revived on the Abbey’s main stage from time to time, notably with Katie Roche, which appeared there in 1975 (it was also revived in the Peacock in 1994). And Lady Gregory’s (unduly neglected) Devorgilla was revived in 1949 and 1966, while her best known plays such as Hyacinth Halvey, Spreading the News, the Rising of the Moon and the Gaol Gate had occasional main stage productions right up to the early 1970s. After that, Gregory more or less disappeared from the repertoire, most noticeably in 2004, when the Abbey’s centenary celebrations featured a play about Gregory (Colm Toibin’s Beauty in a Broken Place) but neglected to produce any of her own works – a poor tribute to a woman who had not just established the theatre but kept it open for almost thirty years of her life. So the Abbey’s main stage has not been hospitable to women dramatists, both historically and more recently.

The story is a little different in the Peacock, where there have been some very good plays by Irish women, especially recently. Since the turn of the century, at the Peacock I’ve seen new work by Stella Feehily, Hilary Fannin, Paula Meehan, and Marina Carr. And in 2010/2011 that theatre staged plays by Marina Carr, Carmel Winters, Nancy Harris, and Stacey Gregg. I’d be curious to know if that was the first time any Irish theatre has staged four plays by different women consecutively: I certainly can’t remember anything comparable happening.

So in the last five years or so, the Abbey has been addressing the neglect of women dramatists historically, and has been making a concerted effort to redress the problem. It’s a pity that their attempts to do so have not generated much comment or coverage, if only because the Abbey is doing something that could be more widely imitated.

In Irish theatre generally, the relative absence of women dramatists is a serious problem. Ireland’s second biggest theatre the Gate produces relatively few new plays; the only time I can recall their producing an original play by a woman was when Yasmina Reza’s Art appeared there in the 1990s (though Anne-Marie Casey wrote a version of Little Women there a couple of years ago, and Joseph O’Connor and Conor McPherson have respectively adapted Daphne Du Maurier’s My Cousin Rachel and The Birds for the theatre).

Druid has produced work by Geraldine Aron throughout its history, and in more recent years premiered Leaves by Lucy Caldwell, but a majority of its productions are by male authors like Synge, Murphy and McDonagh.

Rough Magic has the strongest record in this regard, having premiered a number of important plays by women – many of whom are also actresses, as it happens. Liz Kuti’s Sugar Wife and Gina Moxley’s Danti Dan stand out, but they’ve also produced very good plays by Ionna Anderson, Rosemary Jenkinson, Morna Regan and others.

Likewise Fishamble have brought us work by Sonya Kelly, Abbie Spallen, and Rosalind Hassit – while in the north Tinderbox has recently produced work by Lisa McGee, Rosemary Jenkinson, Stacey Gregg.

But the overall picture is not good. A few years ago, I went through the Irish playography, counting the number of plays by women. Roughly one in four Irish plays produced between 1990 and 2005 were by women. And most of those plays were produced in smaller venues. Plays by women were therefore much less likely to be published, to be reviewed, to be written about by academics, to win awards… And while there have been some improvements lately, things haven’t changed much since then.

It’s not as if women aren’t writing plays, of course. Ursula Rani Sarma and Stella Feehily can be pointed to as examples of very successful Irish women dramatists. But both of them are produced mostly in Britain, and it would probably be fair to say that Feehily in particular is better known in London than she is in Dublin. Similarly, Nicola McCartney is from Belfast, but she appears far more often in surveys of Scottish theatre than in discussions of Irish drama.

So for these and other reasons, it’s great to see the Abbey taking a chance with a new play by a young female dramatist.

As for the play itself… Well, I agreed with Peter Crawley when he stated in his Irish Times review that the play tends to avoid metaphor or significant events; he also pointed out that it’s not very dramatic. He gave it two out of five stars, though, and I thought that was a bit harsh.

Watching the play, I would have liked to have had a sense that there was a bit more going on beneath the surface, but the lack of dramatic action didn’t bother me. This is a play in which characters with no sense of direction sit around talking for hours, contemplating whether they have the will to go on, and engaging in inconsequential games in order to pass the time. Shush is not trying to be Waiting for Godot, but Murphy does show an awareness that Irish audiences don’t necessarily need something to happen regularly. As with so many Irish plays, the drama lies not in the action but in the dialogue. And while the primary theme here is the relationship of these women to each other and to the (off-stage) men in their lives, there are also some interesting explorations of themes like emigration, alcohol abuse, and middle class materialism (and vulnerability to economic shock). Inevitably – perhaps too inevitably – there is a moment in which dance is used to express emotions that are unable to be articulated verbally. So we never feel too far away from another Irish play about five women: Friel’s Dancing at Lughnasa.

Murphy also does something that we don’t see often enough in Ireland: she writes five good parts for women of varying ages. The performances here are very funny: the roles could easily enough turn into caricature, but Deirdre Donnelly, Barbara Brennan, Niamh Daly, Evan Bartley and Ruth Hegarty all flesh out their characters in interesting ways. And Jim Culleton as director allows the laughs to come naturally: his direction is unforced and unhurried, and he pays Murphy the compliment of trusting her work. I’m not sure many other directors would have been so generous, and the production is all the better for that.

I suspect that some of my fellow academics may debate, and perhaps even condemn, the play’s gender politics during the coming years. Murphy gives us five women who are for the most part self-fashioning and self-directing; they’re also (mostly) interesting and individualised. But there is also a tendency for the characters to judge and assert their value in relation to whether (and how much) they are noticed by the men in their lives. For example, without wishing to give anything away, there is a moment in the play in which the suggestion seems to be made that the only thing that makes one of the character’s lives worth living is the prospect of attending a significant event in the life of one of her male relatives. We’re used to this kind of characterisation from film and novels, of course, but Murphy leaves those generic conventions largely untroubled.  Again a comparison with Lughnasa feels apt: Friel’s five women are to a large extent influenced by how they are seen by men like Gerry Evans, Father Jack and Danny Bradley. But Friel’s play is formally so original that it gives us many other ways to see the characters.

I also wondered about the decision to have the play’s least intelligent character deliver its most insightful speech. The passage works well in performance, and helps to bring us towards the conclusion, but someone could argue that the play seems to be suggesting that the way to be happy is to think about things as little as possible.

These are minor criticisms, though, and they don’t detract much from the many positive qualities of the production.  Shush is an entertaining play, and it’s often very funny. And if the genre is familiar, the dialogue itself is very original – it literally sounds like no other play I’ve seen before. I think it will be seen as offering a very good night out, and should be very successful on that basis.

But the real significance of the production, for me anyway, is that it’s a step towards normalising the presence of women dramatists on the main stages of our theatre. We still have a long way to go, of course – but Shush feels like a good start.