Denis Conway looks like many of us still feel on emerging from a pandemic. He peers out from the screen, bearded, bewildered and bedraggled as he slowly peels and then eats a banana. Not to worry though, it’s not a Zoom call with the Cork actor but rather a YouTube clip teasing his upcoming performance in Krapp’s Last Tape at the Everyman.
Like most of Samuel Beckett’s plays, the themes of Krapp’s Last Tape are timeless — ruminating as it does on existence, selfhood and the passing of time — but the writer’s work certainly hits harder right now.
“He is spot on for the time. People kind of go, ‘yeah, I know what that means now’,” says Conway.
Krapp’s Last Tape is seen by many as one of Beckett’s finest works. The one-man play was a welcome challenge for the actor, especially emerging from the theatrical shutdown due to the pandemic. He was on an English tour with the play Alone In Berlin when the first lockdown hit and he returned home to Dublin. It turned out that the former science teacher, originally from Whitechurch, Co Cork, had some skills that came in handy during the pandemic effort.
“I volunteered to do contact tracing, then somebody found out I had a chemistry degree so they brought me in to do something different — researching a computerised system to contact-trace health workers — and paid me, which was great. I worked on that for about three months. Then I got bits and pieces of film and TV — I was in Amsterdam for a while. It was quiet — thank God for the PUP — but I wasn’t completely out of work. I tend to do mainly theatre and once you commit to that, you are not available, so I did a lot more TV and film in the past two years than I would normally do."
The 60-year-old had dreamed of being an actor since he was a child but never saw it as a possible career. He attended secondary school in Cork city, with the intention of becoming a Christian Brother. “I went to Coláiste Therese in Greenmount, which was a novitiate, with a notion of joining the Presentation Brothers but it didn’t work out, I changed my mind, although I had good times there,” he says.
He acted in the local Macra na Feirme drama group and later also in UCC and the Meridian theatre company in Cork city. After spells teaching in Zimbabwe, Limerick and Cork, he decided to head to Dublin to try his luck as an actor.
“It wasn’t until I was 30 that I decided, ‘I’m going to give this a go’. But it was always there, since the age of nine, to be honest. I knew then what I wanted to do. I have no regrets though. My ‘real life’ outside of this business has stood to me in terms of playing parts and realising how other people live. I enjoyed the work I did anyway. And I’m not burnt out yet, even though I’m an auld fella,” he laughs.
Indeed, being a relatively late starter has worked in his favour, Conway believes. He has had a steady run of theatre, television and film work, including award-winning roles in Richard III and Tom Murphy’s The Gigli Concert on stage, and parts in movies such as Brooklyn, Oliver Stone’s Alexander, and Michael Collins.
“My agent said to me years ago that I would come into my own in my 40s. I was never a juvenile lead, I was always a character actor and the parts for character actors just get better and better as you get older.”
One of those great parts is the iconic role of Krapp, who, on his 69th birthday listens to tapes of himself at 39. Conway and the director Geoff Gould put a great deal of work into getting both the taped and live aspects of the show right.
“Rather than just reading it and taping it, I went away and learnt it as if I was going to do it live on stage as the young man. Myself and Geoff worked on it for three or four days and then we put it down on tape. We are very very happy with it.”
As with his approach to life, Conway says he is constantly learning while performing.
“When I do it in The Everyman, it will be different to how it was the last time. It is a work in progress and I’d like to think I will still be doing it in my 80s, if I am lucky enough to be that age.”
- Krapp’s Last Tape, presented by Blood in the Alley Productions, is at the Everyman Theatre on Tues, May 3. www.everymancork.com