Brian Friel's classic play, Translations, is currently playing to packed houses at the National Theatre in London.
Getting rave reviews in the character of Jimmy Jack Cassie is seasoned actor Dermot Crowley (one UK newspaper described his performance as “perfection”). It’s the latest step in a long and successful career.
But a long time ago, in a galaxy far far away from the National — well, Cork city, actually — a small boy sat furiously in an auditorium and thought “That should have been me. I should be up there!”.
Crowley laughs as he recalls himself as a four-year-old. “I was cast in this play at nursery school but I got measles so I couldn’t be in it. I was better in time to be taken to see it by my mum, but I didn’t enjoy it one bit. I was absolutely raging because I couldn’t be up on that stage. Before that I had no idea of what acting was, but from then on, I knew it was the life for me.”
He was fortunate enough to have John O’Shea as English teacher, which led to leading roles in school plays, and later at Everyman. But in late 1960s Ireland, progressing from there was no easy task. There were no tried and tested paths to follow. After UCC, he reluctantly yielded to parental pressure (“They were horrified at the very notion of my becoming an actor”) and started to teach at his old school. But not for long. Three weeks in fact, before a newspaper ad from RTÉ caught his attention.
“It said they had acting posts available and those interested should write and give reasons why they considered themselves suitable. I sat down and wrote a letter that makes me blush to this day, giving details of my experience to date and ending by saying ‘I hope this application will receive the attention it deserves.’ It worked! About 760 people applied, they auditioned 50, and offered places to 7. I got a two year contract and was off to Dublin.”
Playing rep on RTÉ radio was his real drama school, says Crowley. “I met Chloe Gibson who was starting TV drama, and she wanted me to work with her, but RTÉ Radio wouldn’t release me. I thought that was the end of everything, but it was only the beginning.”
Siobhan McKenna was doing Juno and the Paycock at the Mermaid in London and, knowing Crowley already, cast him as Jerry Devine.
“That was about 1974. It was my first time going to England, but it ended in complete tragedy as Sean Kenny who was directing died of a brain haemorrhage on the very first day of rehearsal. He was only 39. McKenna took over the direction, though, and was very good to me and then I got a London agent who got me work at the Crucible.”
After that came a spell in Edinburgh followed by a return to London for a Sean O’Casey play.
“I did The Plough in the Olivier, back in 1977. And then I ended up staying in the company for about three years, and I did something like 12 productions in the Olivier. That included the original production of Amadeus. It was incredible as a young actor to stand backstage and watch people like Paul Scofield, Ralph Richardson, Robert Stephens, Michael Bryant all at the top of their game.”
Since then, Crowley has never stopped working. Stage, cinema, television, radio, he’s always in demand, both in the UK and the States. He is rather proud of the Los Angeles Drama Critics’ Award for his role in the fabled Druid production of The Cripple of Inishmaan on tour, as well as The Weir.
That last-named play makes him laugh again. “The Weir had gone from the Gate to the West End and was a sell-out, and now it was going to play nine months in New York. I came home to Cork to see my mum before that long break, and called into the Opera House where they were advertising the touring production coming up. By mistake they had my name in the cast instead of the actor who would be playing it in Ireland. The girl in the foyer recognised me and I had to explain that it wouldn’t be me in Cork, because I had to be in New York. ‘New York?’ she said, shocked. ‘But you’ll miss Cork, so!’ And you know, I did understand what she meant. I would be missing playing in Cork and I would have loved to.”
As well as stage performance, Crowley has played innumerable roles in film and television. He’s popped up in shows such as Luther, Father Ted, and Poirot, while movie credits include The Death of Stalin, Octopussy and Star Wars: The Return of the Jedi (see panel).
So which does he prefer? “I love working in the theatre, especially on new plays, as you are creating something that has never been seen before. And once the play starts, it’s straight communication between you and the audience, and each performance will always be slightly different. In film and television on the other hand, everything is edited, polished and honed, before being released to the public. They also preserve performance for posterity.
“However, on film, most actors have very little input into how their performances will turn out in the end, and I think that’s why they love working in the theatre. I suppose the perfect solution is to do as much of both, as often as possible, and that is what I do!”
Acting as a career? “It’s not a one-off sprint, it’s a marathon, a vocation. If there is anything else in the world you want to do, then for heaven’s sake do it. But the rewards are glorious. You’ve created a life and you get paid for it! Could anything be better?”
Translations runs at the National Theatre, London, until August.