Though set in Liverpool, Lewis Gilbert’s 1983 film used Dublin as a backdrop, with Michael Caine and Julie Walters gadding about a time-capsule Dublin.
The facade of Trinity College may look the same, but the past, aka Ringsend pre-Google, truly is another country.
Last year, Willy Russell’s play was given a new Irish twist at the Lyric Theatre, with directors Emma Jordan and Oisín Kearney setting it in another place close to home, but, in historical and political terms, now seeming light years away: 1980 Belfast.
It was a hit, and the new Northern Irish-flavoured version is now touring south of the border.
“It’ll be interesting to see how it works outside of Belfast,” says Michael James Ford, who plays alcoholic academic Frank, “but it has played really well there. Emma Jordan has put in little things that locate where we are: Mentions of the hunger strikes, authentic radio broadcasts from the time — so that’s looming.”
It being Troubles-era Belfast, another obvious question looms. Rita, played here by Kerri Quinn, is a sharp-witted, fiery woman from the Belfast working-class. But there’s the rub — which Belfast working-class, so to speak?
It’s a question the production doesn’t answer directly, says Ford.
“It’s not specifically stated which community she comes from,” he says, “but I think most people would say she is from a Protestant, east Belfast community.”
The spirit of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion looms large over Educating Rita, as the titular heroine crosses the class divide between her narrow, red-brick streets and the leafy groves of academe.
Seeking to educate herself in literature, she meets Frank, her embittered, hard-drinking tutor. It’s a clash of personalities that’s even more apparent on stage than on screen, says Ford.
“Structurally,” he says, “the play is more compact. It’s a two-hander, where as much is told as shown.”
Rita’s problems with her violent husband, her scenes in her hair-dressers, her new and trendy friends, all scenes familiar from the film, take place off stage in the play.
“It’s all in the dialogue between Rita and Frank,” says Ford. “In a way, in the film, that dilutes the intensity of the relationship. And it is very intense for both of us. The way Willie Has written it, it’s cracking dialogue played at quite a pace. It’s exhilarating but absolutely exhausting too. You need to be in the full of your health at 7.30 every night!”
Much of the play’s fizz comes from a clash-of-cultures comedy. But there’s a journey towards darker themes that, says Ford, is unsparing.
“Frank is not just a lovable rogue, but a serious alcoholic with all those inherent problems,” says Ford.
“His life is going badly downwards through the play, while Rita’s is going in the other direction. In the design there is one scene change when Frank, who has disgraced himself, is being sent to Australia by the university for a couple of years, and he’s clearing out his book-lined study.
“All these empty whiskey bottles are revealed and get lit up. And you might expect that to be a visual gag but in fact it’s a chilling moment, brining home the full devastation of his illness.”