Keeper of the flame

Druid’s acclaimed collaboration with Tom Murphy gave his work a new lease of life. Now it is reaching new audiences with a national tour, writes Pádraic Killeen

Keeper of the flame

IT was the theatre event of 2012, a stunning reclamation of the work of Ireland’s finest living playwright by the country’s most consistently daring company. Drawing on an incredible ensemble cast, DruidMurphy staged three of Tom Murphy’s greatest plays — Conversations on a Homecoming, A Whistle in the Dark, and Famine — with unerring style and intensity. The show was rightly hailed both at home and abroad, touring to huge plaudits in the US and London.

What added an unmistakable charm to the project was the sense that the production itself marked a sort of homecoming, re-igniting as it did the mercurial symbiosis that the Druid Theatre Company fostered with the Tuam playwright during the 1980s. To see the great Marie Mullen, for instance, playing Missus in Conversations, knowing that she had played the younger female character, Peggy, in the 1985 version, added its own undeniable charm to proceedings.

Fortunately, for those who missed DruidMurphy last year, the production kicks off a new national tour in Galway’s Town Hall Theatre next week. Notably, Famine has been dropped from the 2013 bill. But A Whistle in the Dark and Conversations on a Homecoming together pack more than a fair wallop. Whistle is a fierce tragedy about a clan of hardened Mayo men in Coventry undone by machismo and a brutal tribal identity, while Conversations stages the intense clash between romanticism and cynicism in a small-town Irish bar.

“We’d love to have kept the entire trilogy but we didn’t have the financial resources to tour all three,” says Druid’s artistic director Garry Hynes. “But we’re pleased that at least we’ve managed to get the other two out. I think DruidMurphy has been the first time for a very long time that any company has toured more than one play in repertoire. And it’s great for us to be able to offer audiences the opportunity to see one or the other play, or both on successive evenings, or both on the one day.”

In a year of remarkable success, the project opened as part of the cultural strand of the Olympics in London last June. By the season’s end it had won Best Production prizes both at home and in Britain. Hynes and Murphy even found themselves invited to Áras an Uachtaráin to chew the fat with President Higgins.

“It’s all been terrific,” says Hynes. “Opening the show in London with the Irish president in attendance was a huge sense of achievement, because it was such a huge and terrifying project to stage. Overall, to see the reaction of the audiences in Ireland, London and the US has been very satisfying. And it’s been particularly satisfying to see Tom acclaimed internationally, as he should be. That was part of the purpose of the whole project.”

Murphy and his contemporary Brian Friel are icons of modern Irish theatre. Yet Murphy’s reputation has flagged somewhat behind Friel’s abroad. DruidMurphy has helped reassert his reputation internationally.

“He is revered here but not as well-known as he should be outside of Ireland,” says Hynes. “So to see the Financial Times, in its review, describe him as ‘probably the greatest living writer working in the English language today’ was very satisfying.”

Murphy, now in his late 70s, has been delighted with the response, says Hynes.

“Tom has been entirely supportive,” she says. “And his delight in it and his support of it has been part of the pleasure of it all. It’s fantastic just to be back in a working partnership with him.”

The upcoming run sees most of last year’s cast returning as well as a few new faces, including that of Maelíosa Stafford. A Druid veteran from the company’s early days in the late 1970s, Stafford has flown from his adopted home of Australia to take on the part of Dada in A Whistle in the Dark. (The part was played wonderfully by Niall Buggy in last year’s production.) Stafford’s involvement is another example of the sense of continuity that has marked DruidMurphy. In Druid’s Murphy plays of the 1980s Stafford, played Hugo in Whistle and Junior in Conversations.

There’s a great sense of history and tradition in the company, says Hynes, and she confesses there is nostalgia when working among old accomplices like Mullen and Stafford. “Of course there’s nostalgia, but it’s also a connection between us. It’s like we’re going back to the same well again and our responses to the Murphy plays now are made up of our engagements with him in the past and our continuing engagement with him.”

The current production is producing its own new wave in the “Murphy collective”, she says. “I think Murphy’s work lives in them now and it will live on in them into the future in a way that’s very important.”

The notion of working with an ensemble of actors on specific theatre events such as DruidMurphy has been a mark of Druid’s work for many decades. The company had huge success touring Martin McDonagh’s Leenane Trilogy in the late 1990s and a few years ago they were acclaimed for their six-play-strong production DruidSynge.

Hynes credits much of the company’s ongoing success to that period in the 1980s when Druid — though it has been around since 1975 — stepped up a gear when Murphy became the company’s writer-in-association.

“I’ve always characterised it as the time when Druid ‘grew up’,” she says. “We were in the presence of one of the great writers of English language theatre and it forced us to grow up in a way that no other experience could have done. And we benefited from that in the later work we created. It affected the Synge work and it affected the McDonagh work. All of these things are part of the soil that helps us do what we do today.”

Though Hynes is very much focused on DruidMurphy, she says the company is, as ever, discussing exciting plans for the future. One wonders if a second set of Murphy plays might be something that could happen down the line.

“Well, Murphy has a huge canon,” she says. “There has always been a lot of talk about a revival of Bailegangaire with Marie Mullen in Siobhan McKenna’s part. That’s obviously potentially interesting. And Tom has other great plays. So will Druid be doing Murphy again in the future? I have no doubt we will.”

RETURN FROM OZ: UNDER DRUID’S SPELL

The new run of DruidMurphy sees the return of Maelíosa Stafford, a pivotal figure in the history of the Druid Theatre Company. Stafford returns from Australia, where he has been living for the past 20 years, to play Dada in A Whistle in the Dark. For Stafford, who has continually returned home to work with Druid, as well as the Abbey, it’s very much a return to his roots.

“When Garry [Hynes] brings the likes of Marie Mullen and myself back to do a project like this, it’s more than tactics,” says Stafford. “There’s a need for that feeling of continuity. And you feel privileged, because Marie is the senior member of the Conversations cast and I’m the senior member of the Whistle cast. It’s not that you’re out there to command respect, but you get it. You feel like you’re passing on skill and advice to the younger actors, without interfering, and it’s great to be able to give it. I was sitting in on a rehearsal of Conversations the other day and I could still hear the rhythms. They’re in my fucking DNA. I still remembered every single line and if there was a beat missing I felt it.”

Stafford vividly recalls Murphy’s impact on Druid in the 1980s. “It was inspiring,” he says. “It was rare to have a writer in the rehearsal room every day and initially I felt it was a bit intimidating, because he was picking us up on every point. But then the penny dropped. One day Tom said, ‘I’ve written a libretto and it’s to be sung. If you miss the beat it’s as if the conductor has dropped the baton.’ He was talking in musical terms and I thought: ‘Oh for fuck’s sake, we are singing an opera here, without us going into song.’ And I learned a huge amount from that.”

Stafford — a Galwegian whose parents were influential figures in the city’s Irish language theatre An Taibhdhearc — performed with An Taibhdhearc and in student productions before falling under the spell of the recently formed Druid in the late ’70s. He became a full company member after Hynes, Mullen, and McGinley came to see him in a student production in what was then University College Galway.

“They took me for a pint afterwards and asked me would I consider doing some stuff with them,” he recalls.

Stafford never looked back — though he did leave the company briefly during the 1980s to join the ranks of the Abbey Theatre’s acting ensemble. He later enjoyed a four-year stint as Druid’s artistic director in the early 1990s when Hynes took the helm at the Abbey. When that finished, he moved to Sydney with his wife Carolyn and their young family. (He had met Carolyn while touring Conversations on a Homecoming in Australia in 1987.) In Sydney he runs his own company, O’Punksky’s, with John O‘Hare and Patrick Dickson. It has produced works by Murphy, Friel and Frank McGuinness. Last year it won a prestigious Glug award for Most Outstanding Production for the Australian premiere of Conor McPherson’s The Seafarer, in which Stafford reprised the part he played with aplomb in the Abbey’s production in 2008.

“I come back here every other year and I find that it just tops up my battery in terms of staying in touch with new writers like McPherson and Enda Walsh,” says Stafford. “And, of course, it also keeps you in touch with a master craftsman like Murphy.”

DruidMurphy dates

- Town Hall Theatre, Galway, Apr 12-20.

- Siamsa Tíre, Tralee, Apr 23-27.

- The Gaiety, Dublin, Apr 30-May 11.

- Dunamaise, Portlaoise, May 14-18.

- Glór, Ennis, May 21-25.

- An Grianán, Letterkenny, May 28-Jun 1.

- Backstage, Longford, Jun 4-8.

- Pavilion, Dún Laoghaire, Jun 11-15.

- Lime Tree Theatre, Limerick, Jun 18-22.

www.druid.ie

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