Lunch with Garry Hynes: The magic of Tom Murphy and why Mick Lally's spirit is always with us
The first female director to win a Tony Award tells her secret ambition to make a movie
It's hard not to suspect some skulduggery is afoot when Garry Hynes, founding director of Druid Theatre, chooses the Fumbally café for our lunch. I suspect she has chosen it not for its proximity to her home nearby, where she has lived for the past 20 years, but for its lack of intimacy.
Fellow diners casually plonk into spare seats beside you and colonise corners of your table, while the conversation reverberates off the bare walls and means we have to hold our conversation at a level of sustained vocal projection. There will be no confidential tête-à-tête here, I fear.
The Fumbally is a Mecca for Dublin hipsters, who descend on the place in droves, with their laptops and iPhones, their dark-rimmed glasses and their exquisite facial hair. Hynes fits right in with her tightly cropped pixie cut and her tiny blue-framed glasses.
We order from the nobly simple menu of fresh food – soup and bread for Garry, mixed salad for me – and settle down to discuss her new run of DruidMurphy, a two-play performance of Tom Murphy's Conversations on a Homecoming and A Whistle in the Dark.
She describes Murphy as one of Druid's "house playwrights" and has been directing his plays since the 1980s. "I think I'm attracted to writers who tell us something about ourselves.
"I think Tom has spent his life writing about how do you live as a person in a world that's often so compromised, whether it's compromised in a financial sense, in a spiritual sense or a moral sense. How do you live a good life?"
Is that something she strives to do? "I think it's what most people strive for and it's made increasingly difficult in a society that so often sees money as the primary indicator of anything . . . I've been very lucky running a theatre almost all of my life, not only the income but the freedom and creative dignity that it gives me."
She knows enough about not having that freedom to appreciate it. She was artistic director of the Abbey Theatre from 1991 to 1994.
"The Abbey was in need of serious change. While I've never regretted those three years and am very proud of some of the things I did, it was a difficult time where it seemed to me the important things, like theatre and the making of theatre, was not at the centre of my life in a way that it is with Druid.
'It's all so long ago now but there were big, fundamental questions that needed to be asked, and that process of defining a theatre for the 21st Century wasn't happening and so therefore it was a frustrating place to be."
Is that how she thinks of Druid now then, as a 21st-Century theatre? "Druid has reinvented itself about five times and that's what is necessary. As long as we keep doing that we probably have a role to play. As soon as we stop doing that we don't have a right to exist."
This statement reflects a fierce practicality. It's an attitude that doesn't allow much time for self-congratulation. "It's great to be proud of what we've done but the only thing that really matters is what we will do."
This despite the fact that she made history on Broadway in 1998 by becoming the first woman to win a Best Director Tony Award. "I was the first woman to win a Tony for directing but the second woman came along five minutes later," she says, quashing any unnecessary pride.
She says there is a glass ceiling in theatre but it is changing. What was stopping women getting into theatre?
"The same thing that is stopping women everywhere. Women are still paid less than men, women are still the people who have to do more to reconcile the conflicting needs of having a career and raising a family." Hynes never had children. "I never married," she says by way of explanation. Was it because of her career, I venture?
"No. Nothing to do with that." End of conversation.
Hynes was born in Ballaghderreen in Roscommon, "my mother's native place", and the family then moved to Monaghan, before settling in Galway, "my father's native county", when she was 12.
She wasn't aware that she wanted to be in theatre but, looking back, she can see the germ.
"I actually produced a play in national school," she says with mock pride. "It was about 15 minutes long and my teacher, who is still alive and living in the Louis in Rathmines, Sister Josephine Kelly, she gave me every encouragement and they thought it was so good that they allowed us off for the afternoon to take it around all the classes. So I was touring at the age of 10!"
There were other clues too. Her father was involved in putting on plays for Macra na Feirme. Meanwhile, her late brother, Jerome, ended up in theatre too, as the director of Wexford Festival Opera. He died suddenly in 2005 at the age of 45, whilst making an announcement on the stage of the Theatre Royal.
Hynes gave him his start as general manager of Druid, which she set up after being inspired by the off-off-Broadway plays she saw during the summers spent in New York in the early 1970s.
How did Galway react to having a New York-style theatre in the city?
"All they did for the first three years was ignore us, you know, this bunch of kids who are just out of university going around calling themselves a professional theatre. We used to count the audiences on the fingers of one hand in the beginning.
"We used to do lunchtime shows and if nobody came by five past one, one of the company would be delegated to go off sick and we'd post a note on the door saying 'performance cancelled due to illness' in order not to have the embarrassment of only playing to one person."
Druid is a long way from that now and DruidMurphy was the biggest touring production in Ireland in 2012. It's also a family of sorts. "Like any family you're going to have tensions but it does work and part of the tension is creativity."
One of Hynes's co-founders of Druid, actress Marie Mullen, is in this run of DruidMurphy, and the third founding member was the late actor, Mick Lally. Hynes talks about him gently, mentioning his father, who died recently, just shy of his 100th birthday.
"It was pretty shocking," she says of Mick's death in 2010. "We knew Mick wasn't well but none of us expected that he would die. What I want to say without being sentimental is that his influence was always there and I think that's true now that he's gone as well. We have a window seat (dedicated) to him you can sit on outside or inside, so Mick's spirit is inside the building."
Is she religious, I wonder. "I wouldn't call myself religious. I'm spiritual. Everybody's a bit more so as you get older. I'm a cultural Catholic, it's inescapable but I think I have to believe.
"I've lost too many people in the last decade not to believe that somehow or other they're not still there. I just can't communicate with them in the same way."
As for what remains on her list of ambitions, she says "it's getting a bit late now" but she would still like to try her hand at making a film.
"I just hope I get to go on working with good people. I've had a very fortunate life and I'd like it to continue for a while."
DruidMurphy's performances of A Whistle in the Dark and Conversations on a Homecoming continue on tour around Ireland until June 22. Full tour details can be found on druid.ie