LIKE any venerable institution, the Abbey Theatre has acquired its own lore over the years. A prominent figure in its annals is Joe Dowling, the actor and director who worked there for 17 years, and served as its youngest artistic director between 1978 and 1985. His stewardship ended abruptly when he resigned in a stand-off with the board of management.
Dowling went on to helm famous productions while also founding the Gaiety School of Acting. Since 1995, the Dubliner has served as artistic director of the renowned Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis, where he has overseen a $125m redevelopment. He is back on the home sod this Christmas to direct the Abbey’s new adaptation of James Joyce’s short story The Dead. It’s not Dowling’s first return to the Abbey — he directed All My Sons here in 2003 — but this latest return to the old stomping ground remains an emotional experience.
“There are a lot of ghosts and a lot of memories,” says Dowling, sitting in the Abbey bar. “Many of us put in blood, sweat and tears into the walls of this organisation over the years. You can’t walk in here without that resonating to some extent.”
Dowling even has the Abbey to thank for his wife of 38 years, Siobhan Cleary. “She was a student in the Abbey School of Acting and I was in the company at the time and, as a very young man, also teaching in the school,” he says. “So she married her teacher.”
The new production reunites Dowling with Frank McGuinness who has adapted Joyce’s original story. McGuinness’s signature play Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching towards the Somme was Dowling’s final commission at the Abbey before his sudden departure in 1985, and McGuinness was perhaps the key writer to emerge during Dowling’s tenure. According to Dowling, the Donegal playwright has remained true to the spirit of Joyce’s story.
“Frank has a passion for it and he does not subvert it in any way. Of course, he has made choices. There are things that we highlight and things that we don’t and this has a flow and an energy to it that is very much theatrical.”
As the title indicates, one of the themes of Joyce’s story is the weight of the past on the present. Yet, while it is coated with melancholy, The Dead is also graced with a vivid humanity. Set at a Christmas dinner party in the early years of the 20th century, it hums with the vigour and high spirits of its characters.
“There is a lot of gaiety and humour, especially during the party when everyone is having a good time,” says Dowling. “I think it’s a perfect show for Christmas.”
The music and song in Joyce’s original story are also elements the new production brings to the fore, says Dowling.
“Music is a big, big part of it,” he says. “Frank has taken some of the Thomas Moore songs — which, of course, were exactly the ones that these characters would have sung and played — and he has interspersed them throughout the piece.”
Dowling says that the world of middle-class Dublin that Joyce captured in The Dead was still very tangible during his own childhood in 1950s Dublin.
“The memory of those musical parties was still there,” he says. “My grandmother on my father’s side was a music teacher, as are three of the main characters in the story. So I feel a very close connection to the world of the story. It’s part of my background.”
In the lead roles of Gabriel and Gretta Conroy are two wonderful Irish actors, Stanley Townsend and Derbhle Crotty. As Gabriel, Townsend is tasked with portraying one of Joyce’s most brilliant characters. Gabriel is a sensitive man who doesn’t quite know himself, in spite of his introspection, and a man who is fundamentally good even though he is prone to condescension.
“Stanley is such a good actor and what he and I are working on is the mixture in Gabriel of tremendous insecurity and yet also arrogance,” says Dowling. “He’s a good man and he’s a rational man who is capable of making decisions about his life. But he is shattered by the evening the story depicts. It’s the night of the epiphany and Gabriel does have a real epiphany that night.”
Of course, in John Huston’s acclaimed 1987 film adaptation of The Dead, the role of Gabriel was played by the late Dónal McCann, with whom Dowling had a close alliance. There must have been some poignancy for Dowling when he took on the gig.
“Well, of course,” says Dowling. “I was very close to Dónal. To some extent, when he had troubles, I sort of helped to resurrect his career a number of times. We had a very enigmatic, strange relationship, because Dónal was a very proud man and those interventions weren’t always welcome, even though it meant he was working. And then, before he died, he was very clear that I had helped him. So I miss him all the time. But I have no longing for him in this role. Stanley is going to be superb in this role. I do have more difficulty when Brian Friel’s Faith Healer is done again though, because Dónal and I were extraordinarily close when we worked on that for the Abbey.”
Dowling says he has “a lot of regrets” about the manner in which his tenure at the Abbey ended, though he believes his resignation did prompt structural changes that have empowered later artistic directors. One aspect of his Abbey years that he takes pride in is his designation of the venue’s second stage, the Peacock theatre, as a space for new theatre. “When I came in I said, ‘This is going to be the home of the living writer. We’re not going to produce the classics down there’.”
After The Dead, Dowling returns to Minneapolis where the Guthrie Theatre celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. He aims to leave the position in 2015, whereupon he will be a free agent once again. Perhaps the Abbey will see Joe Dowling back at his old haunt a few more times yet.
* The Dead runs Dec 5 – Jan 19