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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New British Drama and Playwriting in Ireland

Last week I was in London for a few days, doing some research. When I visit that city I always try to make time to visit the Royal Court bookshop. It doesn’t have as wide a selection of new plays as can be found in the amazing shop at the National Theatre – but what it does have is cheap scripts. Almost every new play the Court produces comes with a playscript that is usually priced somewhere between £2 and £5. So it’s possible when you visit to stock up on some great new writing for an affordable price.

That’s exactly what I did last week, coming away with new work by Lucy Kirkwood, Martin Crimp, Polly Stenham, Bruce Norris, and Bola Agbaje. Since then I have been reading and enjoying those plays – some of them very much.

I’ve been struck by a few thoughts while reading through that new work. The first is that so many of the best new British plays are being written  by women – not just people like Agbaje, Stenham and Kirkwood, but also really interesting writers like Laura Wade and Alecky Blythe. As I’ve already stated in this blog, that situation contrasts with Ireland, where women dramatists seem to find it more difficult to have their work put on.

I was also struck by the variety of styles and perspectives employed. Stenham’s No Quarter is about a well to do pair of brothers’ attempts to come to terms with their mother’s death; Kirkwood’s NSFW is about the way in which women’s bodies are used to sell magazines not only to men but also to women. Norris is not even a British writer, yet the Court chose to premiere his play The Low Road earlier this year – and that too contrasts with Ireland where we rarely see new British and American plays.

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These plays were all produced by the Royal Court, and it’s only fair to say that this theatre does not necessarily represent the entire British theatre sector. But we’ve been saying for some time now – really since the mid to late 1990s – that British playwriting is undergoing a renaissance or a new ‘golden age’. And it’s showing no sign of abating. Many British theatres are producing excellent new plays by exciting new voices – and when I see those plays being staged, they are usually in theatres that are close to being full, and usually there are a significant minority of younger audience-members present (people under 40 I mean). That’s particularly true in Scotland, where there are some brilliant new plays being produced.

Now, I know that every tourist risks idealising what he or she sees abroad, especially when those sights seem to contrast with deficiencies at home. And I am aware of the problems faced by the British theatre, especially in terms of funding and the desire of the British government to instrumentalise everything from education to culture.

Nevertheless, I found myself wondering why things aren’t quite the same in Ireland – a country that is supposed to have a reputation for producing great writers.

Of course there have been plenty of good plays in Ireland over the last few years – and last year’s nominees for the Irish Times best play award were all very strong (they were Deirdre Kinahan’s Halcyon Days, Owen McCafferty’s Quietly, Morna Regan’s The House Keeper and The Life and Sort of Death of Eric Argyle  by Ross Dungan). But there doesn’t seem to be quite the same level of excitement about new writing as would have been the case from, say, 1995 to about 2003.

One explanation is that Irish theatre has taken to devising during that period. We’ve had quite a bit of debate about the “play vs. devised piece” distinction over the last year – and I don’t want to add to that debate except to say that I don’t think the distinction is all that necessary or helpful. Michael West’s Freefall was devised with Corn Exchange, but it’s also a brilliantly written play, for example.

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FREEFALL BY CORN EXCHANGE

And as Dylan Tighe has pointed out on a number of occasions, his No Worst There Is None may not be a literary text such as a Friel or a Tom Murphy might write but it was still written by someone who sought to meld its constituent elements into something artistic. Likewise, the most important work of the last decade is by common consensus the site-specific work of Louise Lowe – and although you can’t buy the script for Laundry or The Boys of Foley Street – and although you wouldn’t come close to understanding the performances by reading a script, the action can still be committed to print.

So I don’t worry too much about the amount of devised work in Ireland at the moment, simply because we’re kind of playing “catch-up” with the rest of Europe in introducing these practices anyway.

But I do worry that we are missing out on the exciting work that is being written in the UK and to a lesser extent in the US. We’ve seen some of it, especially at the Galway Arts Festival which has in the last decade brought in new plays by Craig Wright, Bruce Norris, Bruce Graham, Che Walker, and David Greig. The Dublin Theatre Festival has brought in some of the bigger British hits of recent years – Black Watch, The Pitmen Painters, and Enron. And Rough Magic and Prime Cut – not to mention such practitioners as Annabelle Comyn and Tom Creed – did much to introduce us to new writing from abroad. But we’re not really seeing much evidence of such work inspiring comparable developments in Ireland in the way that David Mamet did in the 1980s and early 1990s.

I’m very excited by the devised work that’s being done in Ireland, especially by some of the younger companies. But I’m struck by the fact that there seems to be an imbalance now. For example, this year’s Galway Fringe Festival has a great programme, but from a quick glance at it, I don’t see any evidence of any company producing a play that has already been produced professionally somewhere else. And that hardly ever happens in the Dublin Fringe either.

In short, I’d just like to see a few more plays being produced in Ireland – not just new plays by new Irish writers, but also Irish productions of some of the great new work that’s appearing abroad. I really feel that Irish audiences and young theatre-makers would be inspired by this work: inspired to write new plays, inspired to visit the theatre more often. But they need to have access to it first.

The arguments we’ve been hearing over the last few years about devised work are actually muddying the waters, I think. We can continue to have great devised work and should appreciate and value it. But we should also do more to encourage the development of new plays, and to encourage the appreciation of what’s happening abroad. The devised work vs. new play argument is not an either/or – we can have both/and.