Just so good at being bad

THE past 18 months have seen Mark O’Regan putting together some gallery of rogues on the Irish stage. In the Abbey Theatre’s Alice in Funderland he played an insidiously smug politician, the ‘Minister for All Your Needs’.

Just so good at being bad

A few months later he was Rich, the grotesque bank boss in Anglo: the Musical. And now, scoring a hat-trick of sneaky, oily feckers, he can be seen onstage at the Gate playing that most impeccable of corrupt capitalist bastards, Mr Peachum, in a new production of Bertolt Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera.

“Yeah, I suppose they’re all a bit wacky,” says O’Regan of the three characters, his Cork brogue undiminished by two decades living in Dublin’s big smoke.

The actor loves playing such strong outlandish characters – characters “that take charge” – but, he adds, Jonathan Jeremiah Peachum is by far the most testing. Unlike the other two cartoonish characters, Peachum — this self-styled beggars’ friend who controls a panhandling racket in a benighted 19th century London — is no pantomime villain.

“He preys upon the generosity of people,” says O’Regan, “sending out his beggars with their false wounds and artificial limbs. Yet he’s an advocate of traditional morality as well. He’s a terrible hypocrite and there’s lots of humour in the character. He’s quite demonic and he’s a good antidote to Mack the Knife.”

Mack the Knife is Brecht’s great anti-hero, a gangster who falls foul of the powerful Peachum when he marries his daughter Polly.

“When Peachum finds out he moves to resolve it fairly smartish,” says O’Regan. “Not out of any fatherly concern for his daughter but because this guy could move in on his business. It feels very contemporary in that sense. He says, ‘Mack the Knife could have us in his claws before the confetti hits the registry office floor’.”

This is a line from the production. It’s worth pointing out that it’s not one penned by Irish playwright Mark O’Rowe. When the project was first announced, the acclaimed Dublin writer had been recruited to adapt the 1928 classic. Somewhat mysteriously, that hasn’t come to pass. One wonders why.

“I honestly have no idea whatsoever. We’re working off a couple of translations and the director himself, Wayne Jordan, has adapted it to his specific liking as well.”

With or without O’Rowe on board, any new production of The Threepenny Opera makes for a thrilling prospect, and it is one of the highlights of this year’s Dublin Theatre Festival. A landmark of 20th century theatre, Brecht’s play is an exemplary piece of the epic theatre that the German pioneered, in which various devices compel the audience to think for themselves as the narrative unfurls. More famously, the play — with its famous musical compositions by Kurt Weill — is also the daddy of the big stage musical genre. In the Gate production, eight musicians will belt out the jazzy numbers, the most famous of which is ‘Mack the Knife’, while the action plays out.

“Despite all the agitprop of the piece, as an audience you’re not going to be harangued,” says O’Regan. “It’s not some Marxist dogma or anything like that. It’s highly entertaining. But what I do find interesting is that in these frightening and confusing times there is a desire for stories that address where we are. Theatre doesn’t answer a whole lot of questions, but these issues of prosperity and poverty — the issues of The Threepenny Opera — are still the dominant tone in our society. It’ll be very interesting for a Gate audience as well. Some of the lines, like ‘The middle classes are more corrupt than the lower classes’, are very much in your face.”

O’Regan has been working in Dublin theatre for over two decades. (One of his earliest turns was as one of Mack the Knife’s henchmen in the Abbey’s 1991 production of The Threepenny Opera.) Before moving to the capital O’Regan earned his acting chops in Cork, founding the dramatical society at UCC and working with the influential Cork Theatre Company in the 1980s.

They’ve not managed to beat the Cork out of him yet, it seems, and it’s a phrase of another Cork native, Roy Keane, that O’Regan turns to when he describes his approach to rehearsal: “Fail to prepare,” he says. “Prepare to fail.

“I love sporting analogy. I love getting in the zone — all that kind of stuff. I’m really interested in sports psychology and how people prepare for competition. I always use it, particularly with younger actors. Walking on to a stage is like the sound of studs in the tunnel before the players walk on the pitch. ‘Get ready now. You’re on. This is not a time for pussies’.”

It’s an interesting comparison. Theatrical performance is certainly akin to a sports performance and it involves a similar demand that actors reach a certain pitch or intensity.

“Throughout the evening I’ll know when I’ve hit the bar,” says O’Regan. “Or maybe I’ve made a run too early and the audience weren’t sure what I was at. And then backstage, during the interval you might hear someone ask, ‘What do you think?’. And someone else will say, ‘Well, we’re two up’. Some of the people I’ve been working with in recent years are also very interested in the whole notion of ‘taking your opportunities’. An actor I know says you only have two or three opportunities in a show to really make an impact. So you have to make sure that you really take those opportunities and follow through on them.”

O’Regan’s certainly taken his opportunities in recent years with his show-stealing turns in Anglo and Alice in Funderland. Hopefully, The Threepenny Opera will make it a hat-trick.

* The Threepenny Opera runs at the Gate until Nov 2

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