Tuesday 26 September 2017

Stage: A director's journey from musical 'Assassins' to an exploration of love

Excited: Ronan Phelan has Shakespeare, a Broadway musical and a contemporary play in the pipeline
Excited: Ronan Phelan has Shakespeare, a Broadway musical and a contemporary play in the pipeline

Chris McCormack

Love, they say, looks not with the eyes but with the mind. But in Lucy Prebble's play The Effect, now receiving its Irish première through Rough Magic, love might just be doped up on chemicals released by the brain. The play, which won the 2012 English Critics' Circle Award for Best New Play, follows two volunteers on a clinical trial for a new drug. It's unclear if the attraction that grows between them is real or merely a side effect. British playwright Prebble is also the writer behind the 2007 ITV drama Secret Diary of a Call Girl, which starred Billie Piper as a London escort, and the West End hit ENRON.

The director of Rough Magic's version of The Effect, Ronan Phelan, says that the decision to stage Prebble's play was a personal one. "I remember the visceral experience of falling in love. I always thought that books, TV and films have always been slightly hyperbolic in their presentation of the intensity of love until I fell in love myself. I felt it physically, like a physiological shift.

"That's something that's explored in the play: the reason behind that physiological reaction, that sense of your capillaries opening, your pupils dilating, when somebody walks into the room that your body leans towards them, all in a way that feels almost primitive or uncontrolled.

"The play dissects the idea of whether love is a symptom of a biological fact, if it's just a synapse and the effect produced is what we call 'love', or due to the specificity of who we are as individuals," he adds.

Ronan reflects on what has brought him to this moment in his career, and insists that he owes credit to Rhonda Byrne, the life coach who preaches the transformative power of positive thinking in her book The Secret.

"One night we watched her DVD," he says, restraining his laugher. "I was living with my best friend, and she said 'let's visualise: what are you going to do?', I said 'I'm going to direct the musical Assassins by Stephen Sondheim'."

Phelan was on a break from theatre at the time. After primary school ("I played Snow White and Dorothy, in Irish and English, by the time I was 11") and college, he worked as a stage ­manager for a few companies.

"I was getting frustrated," he says. "I wanted to do something other than that, but I didn't know how.

"I spent a couple of years working in restaurants, partying and having a really good time. Then I got a call from a friend, the actor Camille Lucy Ross, who said she was putting on a play, and the director had fallen through. I thought 'this is the phone call'."

Fast-talking, concise and perennially friendly, Phelan explains how his directing career was suddenly kick-started. From that well-received production of Durang/Durang, an evening of absurd plays by American playwright Christopher Durang, he signed up to direct Pocket Music, Gavin Kostick's comedy about two vaudeville stars. Soon afterwards he was accepted on to Rough Magic's SEEDs, an artists' development programme.

For his director's showcase, Phelan staged Assassins, Sondheim's musical about the people who attempted to assassinate US presidents. The choice is typical of what has become his approach to directing.

"I am attracted to plays that are inherently theatrical, that celebrate the form," he says. "The reason I like Assassins is; it's a Broadway musical with musical tunes, but they're singing about murdering people. It's the rub between those two things, the electricity between the form and the content."

That tension has also been clear in his collaborations with the playwright Peter Dunne. "I think Peter is really interested in how power plays in life, how people manipulate and how they're put into a position to be manipulated," says Phelan. "He's interested in the ethical questions around that, whether it's social experiments or reality TV."

In mounting Broadening, a drama with echoes of the Stanford prison experiment, Phelan had the set's prison walls extend out to implicate the audience: "The aim was to freak them out as much as possible."

The Effect marks Phelan's return after a period of working in development or assistant programmes. "Working at the Abbey Theatre as resident assistant director for 18 months was a great experience in understanding how a building operates, the complications it has to navigate," he says. "But it was a year-and-half hiatus from making your own work. I am keen to getting back to that, and identifying more and more for myself what I'm interested in."

So far, he has lined up a students' production of Much Ado About Nothing at The Lir, and in the summer he'll stage Annie at the Cork Opera House.

"New contemporary playwriting, Shakespeare and a Broadway musical, that's actually a perfect year for me. The versatility of it excites me."

But Phelan's eye is also fixed beyond the current year. "Down the line, I'd like to be the artistic director of a company," he says. Immensely motivated and dramaturgically bright, it's not difficult to imagine.

The Effect runs at the Project Arts Centre, Dublin, until April 1

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