Stephen Dillane praises Cork actors for Beckett adaptation

He may have starred in Game of Thrones, but Stephen Dillane insists the Cork company he’s now acting with should get the credit for their adaptation of a Beckett novel, writes Marjorie Brennan

HE HAS starred in critically acclaimed films, Hollywood blockbusters and in some of the most prestigious television dramas of recent years, including the cultural phenomenon Game of Thrones, but when we meet, Stephen Dillane is very much in unassuming stage actor mode.

He is in Cork to rehearse for How It Is, a production of Samuel Beckett’s little-known 1962 novel. It has been adapted by Gare St Lazare Players, the Irish theatre company who have been to the fore in interpreting and performing the writer’s work for almost two decades.

Dillane is keen to deflect attention to the company’s Cork-born founders, Judy Hegarty Lovett who directs the production, and her husband Conor Lovett, who co-stars with Dillane.

The English actor says he took on the project because of his admiration for their work.

“I did First Love [Beckett short story] on the radio…. very very badly. I came and saw Conor do First Love on stage, I think it was at the Brighton Festival and then saw Here All Night which I also loved,” says Dillane. “I was very happy to be asked, I knew that we shared an aspiration to liberate the text from all sorts of things that get in the way of it.”

“It has been a really good match,” says Judy Hegarty Lovett. “It is not every actor who will come on board for such a long period of time and we have been working on the piece for nearly three years. At the beginning, we invited Stephen to join us in our studio in France; it was almost an audition for all three of us, just to see if we could work together, did we have a common language. We found immediately that it worked beautifully and very easily. Ultimately, it is Beckett that brought us together.”

Dillane says he is relishing the opportunity to work with, and learn from, Gare St Lazare.

“One of the great things about being at my point of life is that I have enough time and money to afford to devote time and energy to things that are really important, like this,” says the 60-year-old. “This has been a labour of love for Conor and Judy for so many years and it should be honoured… more important for me is what I can take from Conor and Judy. It is no longer possible for people who are passionate about this stuff to go off and do it themselves, have fun and explore because everybody is desperately trying to make a living. It is a great shame. I feel privileged to take part in this way.”

BEGINNING OF THE ENDGAME

Dillane has been interested in Beckett’s work since his acclaimed turn as Caliban in a production of Endgame in 1997.

“It was fascinating, I felt that by the end of the production, I understood something. I found myself in sympathy with what the writer was talking about… if I knew.”

While the words ‘if I knew’ points to the challenging nature of understanding and interpreting Beckett’s work and language, that is not something that particularly occupies Dillane.

“I’m not sure that is where I come from. For me, it’s one text at a time. For this one, I am here to understand what the text is as much as anything. One of the reasons we do this work is that it imposes a sort of reading discipline on us, it makes us read deeply in a way that we wouldn’t normally. In the ordinary run of things, I don’t think I would ever read How It Is.”

Dillane, however, can easily find the humour in Beckett’s text. “I think it is very funny, yes. Part of the difficulty of what we are doing is whether that is communicable. I don’t think we will know until the night.”

Beckett’s unpunctuated novel is in three parts and features a ‘narrator’ engulfed in mud, pondering life before, with and after ‘Pim’. Dillane acknowledges that learning his ‘lines’ is a very difficult task.

“It is sort of outside all the existing labels for what a text is and how it works. Its use of language is not conventional. It has an impact which is indescribable and I would say that maybe is the point — it is Beckett’s attempt to reach beyond language. Conor is carrying most of it. We are both in some sense the vessels for the text.”

Lovett says the “gorgeous” nature of Beckett’s language helps him to perform the work. “One of the things that helps me always is that I want to be able to say these words because I just find them so beautiful,” says the native of Ballinlough in Cork.

“I want to be able to say it so I can say it but I also want to be able to say it in a way that allows people to hear it, ideally without them having to hear my opinion on it.

@It is very hard to describe it, I want to say it in a way that has an energy, and an investment so that people can hear it. Also, what Judy is doing in terms of the presentation is also going to give space for it to be heard.”

For Hegarty Lovett, questions about the meaning of How It Is are almost superfluous.

“In some ways it’s about everything, I don’t mean to be facetious when I say that. It genuinely feels like it covers every angle. As Stephen mentioned, the non-conventional language, or the deconstruction of language, certainly helps me and I think it might do the same for other people as well, it makes you rethink what is being said because it is almost like music, it’s a new way of hearing language.”

CORK PREMIERE

How It Is is a premiere production for the Lovetts’ native city of Cork and for the Everyman Theatre, where they have been artists-in-residence for the past two years.

“It really has been from the beginning of the residency that we have begun this piece,” says Hegarty Lovett, who hails from Monkstown, Co Cork. “It very much lives within this space. We are thrilled with the venue and to develop the work in situ has been a huge advantage.”

The couple also acknowledge the contribution of producer Maura O’Keeffe and long-time collaborator and sound designer Mel Mercier, in realising this production.

“It feels great to be premiering work in our home city,” says Hegarty Lovett.

Adds Lovett: “Mel [Mercier] has also been in it from the get go. He is very instinctive and creative and, like Stephen, he is giving a huge commitment with his time.”

Dillane is on cinema screens at the moment in the Churchill biopic Darkest Hour and in recent years has also appeared in John Adams, for which he received an Emmy nomination, The Crown, The Tunnel and Game of Thrones. Before his demise as Stannis Baratheon, he vied for the title of most unlikeable character in Thrones, which admittedly is a pretty wide field.

His last stage outing was in 2016, in another work by an Irish writer, Faith Healer, by Brian Friel.

“I loved doing Brian Friel, he seems to me to have taken a great deal from Beckett. There are similarities in what he is trying to do in a very different way,” he says.

When I ask if television is where it’s at now for actors, Dillane gives an answer of which Beckett himself would surely approve.

“I don’t know. My mind is not in that world at the moment. This takes up all of that space. We’re in this now… it takes everything to just keep the mind involved in this. Other questions are meaningless at the moment, I’m afraid.”

He says he is apprehensive but excited about the production.

“This is unknown territory for me. I am treating it a bit like an installation, it’s a work of art and any reaction is appropriate. The hope would be that we can create the space in which the audience is invited to examine its own reaction to whatever it is experiencing.”

How It Is runs at the Everyman Theatre, Cork, Feb 1-4. Here all Night runs at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, April 11-14, then tours nationally.

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