Conway getting Gigli with it

Cork actor Denis Conway: 'When you get to play a great part like this, you always want torevisit it, because you never feel you've done it justice.'

A REVIVAL of Tom Murphy’s magnificent play, The Gigli Concert, begins in the Gate Theatre tonight, and for Denis Conway, the show is a case of déjà vu.

The Cork actor plays the ‘Irish Man’, a roughly hewn property developer who washes up in the office of a ‘dynamotologist’ (Declan Conlon) and asks to be taught how to sing like the great tenor, Beniamino Gigli. Conway excelled in the role six years ago in a previous production by Druid, and he is relishing this second bite of the cherry.

“When you get to play a great part like this, you always want to revisit it, because you never feel you’ve done it justice,” says Conway. “But, more importantly, the Gate, for me, is the perfect venue for this play. Of all the stages that Gigli has been done on, this is the best one, because the Gate is like a music hall. It has lovely acoustics. It’s very intimate. You could imagine Gigli himself singing at the Gate.”

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Intriguingly, when Conway played the part in 2009, it was in the thick of an economic crisis partly caused by developers such as the Irish Man. Thus, the deflated character cut a rather apt and poignant figure onstage. The new Gate production, however, revives the character at a time when the country is suddenly afloat again and all the developers are dreaming once more. Significantly, this is a recovery (of spirit) that the play also dramatises.

“It’s like life imitating art. I was only mentioning all the SUVs all over the place again to Declan Conlon. It’s as if the whole thing is starting up again. And, without giving too much away, that does resemble the Irish Man’s journey in the play.”

Significantly, this is the first time a Tom Murphy play has been produced by the Gate. It’s all the more momentous because, a decade or so ago, the very possibility of such a thing seemed unlikely given the rumour that, during a row at a dinner party, Murphy had emptied a plate of food over Gate director Michael Colgan.

“But what’s more interesting,” says Conway, “is that Tom first brought The Gigli Concert to Michael 30 years ago, when he wrote it. Michael said, ‘Send it to me and I’ll read it’, and Tom said, ‘No. I’ll read it to you.’ So they spent a day in Michael’s house, drinking coffee, and Michael was the first person to hear the play read.

“Now, as it happened, Tom put it on with the Abbey, which was his natural home in some ways. But Michael had always wanted to do it. And so, to mark Tom’s 80th birthday, Michael wrote a long letter to Tom and, at the end of it, he said he’d like to do Gigli. And he got a one-line reply from Tom saying, ‘I thought you’d never ask’.”

Once Gigli is concluded, Conway will make his way to Enniskillen for the Happy Days Beckett Festival, where he’s performing a revival of Jack McGowran’s one-man Beckett show, Beginning to End. He’s excited by the prospect, particularly as it’s his first time doing Beckett, a fact that — given Conway is one of the country’s finest actors — seems a little strange.

“It’s just one of those things. I suppose some people have the curious idea that to be a Beckettian actor you need to look ganglier or something. But I’m a bit Irish, like; I’m a bit solid.”

Well, perhaps there are still worse fates than that of being a quintessential Irish man.

The Gigli Concert runs at The Gate Theatre, Dublin, from today to June 26

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