FEW in the Irish theatre world have come under the same level of public scrutiny as Michael Colgan, who is departing the Gate Theatre in Dublin at the end of the month after 33 years as artistic director. His salary of over €200,000, his choices, the kinds of plays his theatre puts on or should put on, whether or not the Gate’s public subsidy is exorbitant or justified: Everyone has an opinion.
You feel that’s the way he likes it: He’s an old-style theatre impresario, synonymous with the elegant building on Parnell Square that he has steered for so long.
But he’s also a man of artistic conviction, a man whose love of the work is often overshadowed by the public persona presiding over yet another buzzy opening night.
But to spend time in his company, in his elegant Georgian offices across the street from the theatre, is to revel in the words and worlds of great plays and great playwrights. It’s a passion he has married to a producer’s eye, delivering a steady stream of coups over the years, from Ralph Fiennes’s celebrated role in Faith Healer in 2005 to his renowned seasons of Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter.
Yet, he admits his time is passing. “If I’m not past my sell-by date, I’m definitely past my best-before,” he jokes. The Irish theatre landscape, in step with wider trends, has shifted from being a literary to a more director-led one, in which “theatre-making” is the mot du jour. It’s not a trend Colgan feels comfortable with.
“I don’t look down on it, I’m not against it,” he says. “You have people doing concept theatre and they are not as obedient or, if I may say so, respectful to the text. I want to do A View From the Bridge as it was written; I want to do All My Sons, Death of a Salesman, A Streetcar Named Desire…What I don’t want to do is Hedda Gabler and have her coming in dressed as Spider-Man. I really don’t want to set Endgame in an abattoir or Happy Days in a hair salon.
“That type of theatre is now in the ascendancy. It’s certainly the one that is more popular with young people but I can’t really reinvent myself for that.”
The Gate is something of a hybrid. Colgan calls it the theatre of “permanent opposition”. Its public funding gives it certain duties, but Colgan has always known he’d had to put bums on seats. He’s grown an audience that can be nudged toward a Pinter or a Beckett, but which also must be kept coming back for regular doses of Noel Coward.
To an extent, he picked up where the theatre’s sole previous directorship, of Micheál Mac Liammóir and Hilton Edwards, left off. As he puts it, “The real power was the building, the theatre itself. The physical building is a determinant. You don’t want to do plays about crack cocaine in Crumlin. But you do Oscar Wilde, Noel Coward.”
The next chapter for the Gate, to be written by his successor Selina Cartmell, is going to be fascinating to watch unfold. For the next few weeks though, the Gate will feel very much as it has done for the last three decades, with Colgan welcoming guests to a season of plays devoted to what he calls his three heroes: Beckett, Pinter and Friel.
Memories are made of this: Michael’s magic moments
“I went to see Sam [Beckett] in Paris. I wanted to get the rights for Krapp’s Last Tape and Endgame. I suppose I could have done it through the agent, but we were chatting away and I said, ‘Sam I’d like to do one of your plays. To be honest I said I’d love to do them all.’ He said, ‘You can’t be serious? ‘And I said, ‘Actually I am.’ I could have asked just for Endgame, went home and done that. But because he said ‘You can’t be serious?’ I thought, yes, I am. That was a terrific time for me. Then in New York in 1996 I was like Caesar in Rome. Paul Newman ringing me up, all the stars trying to get a ticket. Time magazine came and wrote the best line: ‘They came to the plays in limos or on Rollerblades, in bright summer colours or basic Beckett black.’
“I was working on the South Bank and I got a phone call to say Donal (McCann) was on the drink again. I had to come back and he was on the rehearsal floor and people were stepping over him. I had to get him into St Pat’s and I used to collect him every morning. He was a tricky man, but he was magnificent. In 1988 on Broadway they said you could run for three years, but Donal wanted to go back on the drink.”
“With the three Cusacks (Sorcha, Sinead and Niamh). You could say it was your idea, but, when they were running around the garden as children you could have said that. So I don’t clap myself on the back for the idea: it was obvious. I clap myself on the back for getting them to do it, with Cyril in it. That was terrific.”
“That night was just mesmeric. On the opening night, late night, they went crazy, someone fainted. I had a great affection for that. That’s what I’m going to miss — the Becketts with Barry (McGovern). But we might do some. It’s easy to do, just ourselves. I’ve just done First Love with Barry. I know Beckett very well but he knows it 10 times better than I do. He is the real expert.”
“I was with Brian (Friel) and we were talking about it opening on Broadway in 1979 and closing after 17 performances. I said James Mason must have been terrible. He said ‘No, he was magnificent. He was so persuasive.’ He said it was Mason’s wife, Clarissa Kaye, who was awful ‘a contortionist, not an actress’. But he got me thinking about who’d played the part — big mountainy men like Donal McCann. Friel led me to reread the play, and see the faith healer not as a big mountainy man. He’s a persuader, and illusionist, an actor who has to go out and perform this magic. That’s when I thought about Fiennes. There’s something charismatic about him.”
“That is the best thing I’ve ever done. It’s because of Penelope Wilton’s voiceover. It’s just her voiceover. It’s a performance by her that to me would match McCann’s Captain and Sinead’s Masha. And we have it. I listen to it, and listen to it, and listen to it.”
“It was an extraordinary time with Steven Berkoff, who was very difficult. He was a strange beast. He rang me up in the second week of rehearsal saying ‘I can’t bear to look at their little faces looking at me for guidance. I’m going home. I don’t know what to say.’ He asked me would I mind going into the rehearsal room and telling them I’m gone. I said, ‘Oh no no no, Stephen, you go in and tell them. That’s your decision but I’d asked you to go in and fire everyone.’ I then had to wait anxiously, but of course he went in and started working again. He did a brilliant job.”