Mark O’Halloran explains to Padraic Killeen how the central character of Davoren in The Shadow of a Gunman echoes O’Casey’s view of his younger self
Karl Marx’s dictum that history repeats itself, first as tragedy and then as farce, was never lost on Irish playwright Sean O’Casey.
A committed socialist, O’Casey revelled in exposing what he regarded as a simultaneously tragic and farcical romanticism that undermined the spirit of revolution in Ireland. His famous Dublin trilogy (The Shadow of a Gunman, Juno and the Paycock, and The Plough and the Stars) repeatedly expose this element of romantic escapism and, of the three plays, The Shadow of a Gunman is arguably the most pessimistic, in that it pitches Irish revolution itself as something on the very edge of farce.
Set in a Dublin tenement building during the War of Independence, the play centres on Donal Davoren, a soapy poet and craven “poltroon” who is mistaken by the tenement’s residents as a fugitive IRA gunman in hiding. The dilettantish Davoren never disabuses them of their fancy and – while this produces considerable mirth for the audience – the consequences onstage are devastating.
First produced by the Abbey in 1923, the play is being revived this summer by the Abbey. The central part of Davoren is played by Mark O’Halloran, who, as a writer of deserved acclaim, has a good window on his character. Davoren’s problem, he suggests, is a common artistic one; that of discovering the beauty in the banality of one’s immediate surroundings and figuring out how to respond to it.
“Davoren’s idea of poetry is totally taken from Romantic poets like Shelley,” says O’Halloran. “Yet, he doesn’t recognise the poetry of everyday life that keeps breaking in to his room. This is the poetry of Mrs Henderson and the poetry of Mr Gallogher’s reading, and all of this other lovely stuff that goes on around him. But Davoren doesn’t recognise any of that as poetry.
“And I think that’s very much a portrait of where Sean O’Casey once was in his own life. O’Casey used some of own published poems for Davoren’s poetry, and, as a poet, O’Casey was very much taken with romantic notions of poetry. But as a playwright he found the poetry in where he was living and he transferred all of that into his beautiful lyrical dramas.”
The show is a co-production with the Lyric Theatre in Belfast and it arrives in the Abbey off the back of a successful run there.
O’Halloran notes that the political elements of the play may have had “a fresher folk memory and resonance” there than they will for a modern Dublin audience. But he also notes that the enduring appeal of the play resides in its vivid characters.
Certainly, the central duo of Davoren and his cynical roommate Seamus Shields (David Ganly) are two of O’Casey’s finest creations.
“They are quintessential Dublin characters,” says O’Halloran. “Davoren is a frustrated poet and you only have to sit in a café in Dublin to see a Davoren.
“When I was in drama school there were a lot of frustrated poets sitting around Bewleys, and they were all Davorens, each and every one of them. Struggling, struggling, struggling, and possibly not doing very much.
“In Ireland, we love our own verbosity and we can get carried away by our own storytelling, and this play is all about that.
“It’s about two people who are prisoners to their own raging ideas and who are eventually strung up by them.”
At the moment, O’Halloran himself seems to be a hostage of his own raging ideas, with seemingly a million and one projects on the go, all in different phases of development.
Among other things, he has two theatre projects in the furnace with the Abbey and Druid, as well as a film adaptation of his hit play, Trade, due to begin production next year. Meanwhile, he and director Paddy Breathnach recently completed a new film, Viva, which they shot in Havana late last year.
With a script by O’Halloran, it’s a “high drama Latino belter” about a young drag artist who rebuilds his relationship with his long-lost father, a troubled ex-boxer and convict.
“It’s a strange one because it’s in Spanish and it’s got a lot of music in it, and yet it’s an Irish film, because Paddy and me made it,” says O’Halloran.
“I actually act in it – in Spanish – which is my claim to fame. I had to learn all the lines in Spanish, which was good fun.”
Mark O’Halloran in History’s Future, a forthcoming film from Fiona Tan.
The Ennis man can also be seen shortly in another film, History’s Future, which cast him alongside cult actor, Denis Levant, an all-round legend of French cinema.
“He’s one of my heroes,” says O’Halloran. “And I can’t tell you how nervous I was meeting him.
“He’s this very eccentric, very kind-hearted, lovely person. He doesn’t really speak much English, and I don’t speak much French, so we sort of sat around talking international gibberish at each other. But he was an incredibly generous performer. And once he came on the set he was just ‘on’ straight away. It was a glorious thing to watch.”
LENNY & MARK
Intriguingly, as if O’Halloran wasn’t busy enough, plans are also afoot for a new collaboration with director Lenny Abrahamson, with whom he made such a memorable splash with Adam and Paul and Garage.
“It’s a story set in the 1980s about a year in the life of a young boy,” says O’Halloran. “I hope to have finished the script by September and then maybe to shoot it in May next year. I’d be very excited to work with Lenny again. The only thing is to try to tie him down because Lenny’s about to become a global superstar once his adaptation of Room comes out. So I’d better hurry up and finish it!”
The Shadow of a Gunman runs at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, from June 12 to August 1. www.abbeytheatre.ie
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