AY SCANNELL is fast becoming a fixture of Rough Magic shows. Having starred in recent productions of Declan Hughes’s Digging for Fire and Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins, the Cork actor is front and centre again in the Dublin-based company’s new show, Famished Castle.
Directed by Lynne Parker, the play is a drama about family and love, written by Hilary Fannin, who also penned the company’s very successful production of Phaedra in 2010.
The play hinges on the chance encounter between Scannell’s character, Nathaniel, and his old flame, Angie (Aislín McGuckin), in a Dublin Airport that has been brought to a halt by a snowstorm.
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Ten years has elapsed since they broke up and the characters are in different places in their lives, Nathaniel working abroad in Berlin, Angie still at home in Ireland, now married with children.
“In typical Irish fashion, there’s a bit of snow and the whole country closes down,” says Scannell.
“Nathaniel is returning to Ireland because his father is unwell. Through Angie’s memory, we experience what went on between them before, and so the play takes place in the present and in the past. It’s a play about memory. It’s melancholy and it’s poetic but it’s got a very wry sense of humour, too, a bit like a Morrissey song. And it’s served up with this cracking harsh dialogue and some really gruesome but human characters.”
The play’s title stems from an old Irish proverb, ‘Is fearr bothán biamhar ná caisleán gortach’ (‘It’s better to have a hut filled with food than a famished castle.’) The same seanfhocal was referenced by Enda Kenny during his speech at the inauguration of Michael D Higgins, and Fannin draws on it here to address the fundamental idea of lives in transition.
“It’s about moving on from this era of the famished castle,” says Scannell.
“We bought into this fairytale idea of opulence. That may make the play sound weighty or a state-of-the-nation play, and – in a subtle way – it is one. But it’s left in there for the audience to chew on, without it being shoved in your face.”
Insomuch as Famished Castle is a play about memory, and about the necessity of engaging with the past in order to move forward, it resonates with Scannell’s own work in his hit one-man show, Deep.
The latter – which has earned the actor enormous plaudits since its debut in 2013 – summoned the spirits of the house music scene at Sir Henry’s nightclub in Cork during the 1990s. It was a play that examined cultural memory but it also conjured an important sense of the potential that always feeds the present moment.
“I think there’s a time for everyone to look back and a time to look forward,” says Scannell.
“We’re definitely in a transitional period in Ireland now where we’ve done that, we’ve looked back on it, and now the question is ‘What’s next?’ Things seem to be bubbling up again, if you’ll pardon the terrible pun. But have we learnt anything from last time? With Deep it was the right time to look back. Enough time had elapsed. There were a lot of complaints during the Tiger that playwrights weren’t reacting to what was going on around them, but The Plough and the Stars was written ten years after the 1916 Rising, because that was enough time to look back and digest it.”
A radio version of Deep was recently recorded by RTÉ and is available via podcast. Scannell continues to get offers to mount a new tour of the play, but it’s currently in the vault. In the meantime, he is hoping to develop a new piece, one that again will call on his skills as an actor and musician.
“It’s a soundscape monologue that embraces contemporary traditional Irish musicians. It’s trying to turn the idea of Irishness on its head and to show what Ireland is really like, behind the tourist shop-front.”
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