ONETIME director of the Abbey Theatre, Ben Barnes has accomplished much during this past decade as artistic director of the Theatre Royal in Waterford. Most significantly, he has presided over the refurbishment of the city’s 430-seater venue.
Barnes has also managed to do something that not every regional theatre manages — to originate a number of productions at the Theatre Royal itself. The latest of these is a production of Eugene O’Neill’s A Moon for the Misbegotten, which — surprisingly, given O’Neill’s stature — is the Irish premiere of the play.
“There was a US production that was performed at the Abbey during Vincent Dowling’s time there,” notes Barnes. “But that didn’t originate in Ireland. So, to all intents and purposes, this is its Irish premiere, which is quite astonishing,”
The new show is a co-production with the Geva Theatre Centre in Rochester, New York, where it will tour after runs in Waterford and the Lyric, Belfast. The cast boasts Irish actor Mark Lambert alongside Broadway actors Kate Forbes and Donald Sage Mackay, the latter a familiar face from hit US sitcom Modern Family.
The play’s narrative centres on a calculating old Irish farmer in Connecticut (Lambert) who cooks up a scheme with his daughter to force the landowner to sell them the farmstead. But at heart, the play is a study of the bruised lives of the landlord, Jim Tyrone (Mackay), and the farmer’s daughter, Josie Hogan (Forbes).
The latter character, says Barnes, is one of the great female parts in American drama. The character of Jim Tyrone, meanwhile, is an older version of a character from O’Neill’s masterpiece, Long Day’s Journey into Night — a character famously based on O’Neill’s own brother.
“Most of O’Neill’s work is autobiographical,” says Barnes. “And this play — which was his last play — is focused on his tragic older brother who was an alcoholic and died young, and it’s very much an expiation of whatever guilt O’Neill felt around the relationship with his brother and his family.”
O’Neill’s Irish ancestry informed the many references to Irish-America elements in his plays and one of the main characters in Moonlight is an Irish emigrant.
“The character of the farmer, Phil Hogan, played by Mark Lambert, is actually from Donegal,” says Barnes. “And Mark plays him with a Donegal accent. The play is set in the 1920s, so this man’s parents and grandparents would have had a direct experience of the Irish Famine.
It was living memory for that generation of Irish people who went to America and it very much informs Hogan’s character and that of his children. They carry on that rebelliousness before authority and the ‘landed rich’ in the United States, who compare with the English landlords in Ireland.”
Eugene O’Neill’s own father, James, hailed from the Kilkenny village of Rosbercon. His parents left New Ross for the US when James was still a boy. The connection between O’Neil and the south-east is something that the region should more firmly acknowledge, suggests Barnes, himself a proud Wexford man.
Barnes has agreed to sit on the board of the newly founded Eugene O’Neill Trust and he believes a celebration of O’Neill could provide one strand in Wexford, Waterford, and Kilkenny’s joint bid for European Capital of Culture in 2020.
A busy man, Barnes is actively engaged in the latter campaign while still finding time to oversee the programming of Theatre Royal and to pursue his own independent directing work both here and abroad. One of his ongoing ambitions at the Theatre Royal is to strengthen the direct connection between the venue and the audience, preferably by originating more work within the region itself. “There is great pride in a region like this when we generate our own work, in whatever artistic format that takes,” he says.