Beckett specialist turns his hand to other roles

Cork-bork actor Conor Lovett is acclaimed for his work on Samuel Beckett's plays, but  has taken a break from the Irish playwright for this show.
Cork-bork actor Conor Lovett is acclaimed for his work on Samuel Beckett's plays, but has taken a break from the Irish playwright for this show.

Conor Lovett is performing a work by a contemporary American playwright for his new show, writes Colette Sheridan.

ACTOR Conor Lovett and his wife, director Judy Hegarty, who are best known for their acclaimed productions of Samuel Beckett’s oeuvre, are well used to hearing lavish praise of their work.

But it was still a special thrill for Lovett when the late singer Lou Reed and his wife, musician Laurie Anderson, coming to see him perform Beckett’s First Love at the Public Theatre, in New York, some years ago.

“They came to see it twice,” says Lovett, a Cork-born actor whose family were proprietors of a fine-dining restaurant in Ballinlough. “The next time we were in New York, we invited Lou Reed to see The End. When Judy spoke to him, he said he loved the production. He was a big Beckett fan, who admired how we made his work fresh and immediate.”

Lovett and Hegarty have been fans of Reed since they were teenagers. “Judy and I were over the moon when Lou Reed praised our work. You follow a certain artist, because you identify with their work, and then that turns around and the artist we’ve been admiring comes and sees our work.”

Actor Edward Norton also became a fan. “He came to see me in Title and Deed at the Signature Theatre in New York in 2012. He’s a big fan of Eno. We went out to dinner with him one night after the show,” Lovett says.

Lovett and Hegarty’s France-based company, Gare St Lazare, is staging Title and Deed at the Everyman in Cork from Thursday in association with Signature Theatre, New York. Pulitzer Prize finalist playwright Will Eno wrote the one-man show especially for Lovett. “In 1999, Will came to see Molloy [starring Lovett] at the Irish Arts Centre in New York,” explains Lovett. “A fan of Beckett, he said he was blown away by the show.

“It was the first time he saw our work and, later, he sent us some scripts. We really liked his work, so we hooked up in London, where he, like us, was living at the time. We work-shopped one of his plays, but it had a big cast and we didn’t have the wherewithal to produce it. But we stayed in touch.”

In January, 2011, Eno saw Lovett in Beckett’s The End in New York. “While he was watching it, he suddenly had this idea for a play that he might write for us. We said we’d be very interested.”

Later that year, Gare St Lazare produced Title and Deed at the Kilkenny Arts Festival. In 2012, Signature Theatre staged it, having made Eno one of their residency playwrights. “It was a huge success for us. Although we had played in New York before, the production was in a very well-known venue on 42nd Street.”

The New Yorker magazine’s now retired drama critic, John Lahr, described Lovett in Title and Deed as a “subtle, superb Irish actor”.

The play, a monologue, is about a nameless traveller seeking connection and solace in an alien country.

The play has been described as funny and sad, a meditation on mortality, loneliness, innocence, home, family, love, and words.

Lovett describes the work as a direct address to the audience. “The traveller speaks of how he has recently arrived in a town, where he is trying to adjust and get used to some of the differences between this new place and where he’s from. He talks about having met somebody. It’s simple, casual and revealing. It’s not the sort of thing where audiences are following a thriller or a plot,” he says.

Describing it as tragic in a way, Lovett says audiences have described how the play resonates with them. “That’s because there is a huge movement of people through emigration and immigration. It’s the biggest movement of people in history. We used to say that New York was the main melting pot, but anywhere now is a melting pot.”

Lovett says it also has a deeper meaning. “It looks at how people, even in their own milieu, don’t always find it easy to connect.”

The play has been described as Beckettian, complete with the absurdist playwright’s trademark silences, in between the verbiage. But Lovett doesn’t make that comparison. “I don’t see it as Beckettian; but, then, I’m steeped in Beckett. It’s a very contemporary piece. It’s fair to say that Will Eno is a Beckett fan and is influenced by him, as he is by many other writers. Will has a very interesting take on things. He has a total mastery of language. I think we’ll be hearing a lot more about him in the future.”

Lovett and Hegarty say it’s important to take a break from staging Beckett plays. “We love doing Beckett and we have plenty more Beckett shows scheduled, but we think it’s important to do other stuff, so that we don’t get caught up in a particular thing. Also, we want to stretch ourselves as artists.

“When Will came to us with his play, we were delighted to be a given a chance to work on a new piece of writing,” Lovett says.

Having performed monologues adapted from Beckett’s short stories and novels, Lovett is unfazed by the level of concentration and intensity that this style of theatre demands. “The first time I did a monologue, it was pretty scary. It’s a lot to do. But you’re never alone. You’ve got the writer, who has done most of the work, and you have the director, who has really worked on the piece with you.”

Gare St Lazare are taking its production of Waiting for Godot to Shanghai this year and are hoping to bring it to the US and Canada next year.

“I first went to China in 2004, with the Gate Theatre’s production of Godot. We’ve been back twice since then. We brought Molloy and our production of Moby Dick there,” Lovett says.

The globe-trotting Lovett and Hegarty are taking Title and Deed to the Edinburgh Festival this summer. They are very much key players on the international stage.

* Title and Deed is at the Everyman theatre in Cork from Thursday to Saturday.

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