Monday 24 July 2017

Last bow for Colgan as the curtain closes on his time at Gate Theatre

As retirement approaches for the Gate's director of 30 years, Donal Lynch looks back with Michael Colgan on a unique life and career

Legacy: Michael Colgan, who has been at the helm of the Gate Theatre for 33 years, said his successor Selina Cartmell ‘will be brilliant’. Photo: David Conachy
Legacy: Michael Colgan, who has been at the helm of the Gate Theatre for 33 years, said his successor Selina Cartmell ‘will be brilliant’. Photo: David Conachy

Donal Lynch

In an upper room, behind a velvet rope, Michael Colgan is pouring the wine and explaining how he will say goodbye to his "mistress", the grey and stately Gate Theatre.

Like a good play, pacing and timing are everything. Across the road the office is being slowly, incrementally emptied so that no one memento feels like the death blow to her - or him. He gave his farewell a long lead-up, so she would have enough time to get used to the idea.

He leaves at a dignified moment of his choosing, delaying the departure so nobody could be under the impression he was being pushed out due to the sniping about his pay packet a few years back. He drew the line at a commemorative bust - although the board suggested one a few years ago, and Hilton Edwards and Micheal Mac Liammoir (the Gate's iconic founders) are generously homaged throughout the building, he points out. But he did allow himself a fitting flourish of a send-off: a festival of plays by his heroes, Brian Friel, Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter, which will be staged this spring.

It's been dubbed a "best of the best" festival and, fittingly, some big names are coming into town for it, including Michael Gambon, Penelope Wilton and Ralph Fiennes. There will also be poetry and prose readings by those stars, and by talents including Liam Cunningham and Ingrid Craigie.

The festival is a spectacular victory lap and not half bad for a man who describes himself as "a loaf of bread past its sell-by date - still OK if you toasted it, but inedible otherwise".

How the old lady - he also thinks of her as "an aged trophy wife" - will soldier on without him remains to be seen. For three decades, Colgan has dominated the cultural landscape in Dublin, gliding through restaurants ("only the seven best") on castors made of flattery, and drawing artists, thinkers and businessmen around him like a one-man salon.

With clever and pragmatic play choices, he created a credible, commercial opposition to the Abbey, and lured to Dublin some of the biggest acting stars in the world; Oscar winner Frances McDormand in A Streetcar Named Desire and Ralph Fiennes in Faith Healer, to name but a couple. He's been honoured by Britain's Queen (she awarded him an OBE) and won a People Of The Year award here.

He's weathered recession and criticism. He straddled the worlds of art and commerce like few other figures in modern Ireland - he'd grit his teeth and put on A Christmas Carol to pay the way for more experimental fare. And he did it all with the stylish aplomb of an old-style impresario. He doesn't do false modesty which means, despite his achievements, he's clear-eyed about his accomplishments.

"I can't sing, or act, and I can't even really direct," he tells me, "but I think if I have any talent, it's being persuasive. My father was a salesman; my brother is a brilliant salesman too. I think we are a family of people good at selling.

"I persuade someone to let us put the play on, then I persuade someone to direct it, then I persuade people to come and see it. I don't know if I'm charming to people, or if they can just spot a genuine admiration. I am flattering, but it's sincere. It's easy to be nice and friendly and praising if you genuinely like people."

And if you genuinely don't? One imagines that 11.55pm, with the wine flowing, is the perfect time for some long-overdue score-settling. "There are scores that, I suppose, need to be settled. I'm not going to give her the credit of having her name in the paper, but I was badly betrayed by a woman in the cultural arena. We both agreed we wouldn't speak to the papers, and I was driving to Monaghan for reasons unknowable, and I got a call to say, 'she's spoken to the papers and they are saying you refuse to comment'. I find that hard to get over. I'm not proud of the fact that I can hold a grudge."

He's a healthy-looking 66 - although, on the advice of film director Neil Jordan, he tells people he's 85 ("then everyone tells you you look great") - but it was a combination of a sense of his own creeping mortality and the death in 2015 of his friend, restaurant critic Paolo Tullio, that convinced him that it was time to go.

"When my wife Susan was diagnosed with cancer I just had a sense she had two years left, which turned out to be true. Paolo Tullio, my dear friend, had kidney failure, and he thought he would be on dialysis forever and I had an instinct there might be a year or two in Paolo. For some reason, I also knew it would take two years for me to get out of the Gate.

"I had a dread. I didn't want to go to a doctor one wet Wednesday and hear, 'We've bad news', and I'd walk out of the consulting room and instead of all the things I want to do, my bucket list, going on holidays with my son, I could only say, 'I've been working'."

Although he will, in fact, still work. He's going to oversee some "small, exquisite bijou theatre". He's joining a board and, proving that the art and commerce are still in internal harmony for him, he's going to be Dublin Landings' culture and arts adviser for developer Sean Mulryan.

Colgan says, "He's an extraordinary man. I've known him for about 20 years. I'll help with naming the squares and the streets [in Dublin Landings, a docklands development] and maybe the art in the boardroom and the foyers. He wants to make them high-level artistic communities. The dream I've always had is, instead of people stalking up and down in pinstripe suits, imagine if you had ballerinas on the bar in an office block or opera music floating through the halls."

All of his cultural references are high, and he presents his life as a long, slow progression towards impeccably good taste. He was born late and thinks that being "trapped" in his mother's womb gave him his adult hatred of clutter and a tendency toward minimalism.

"Growing up, we hadn't the arse in our trousers," he says. "We were lower middle class. My dad worked for the Royal Liver Assurance company. My mother had a lot of sayings. One of these was, 'Marry for money and you'll earn it'. As if some Ford heiress was going to try to sweep me off my feet."

And, yet, perhaps his mother had an inkling that he'd marry up. A few years later, he went to Trinity College Dublin and met his future wife, Susan Fitzgerald. She schooled him in art and interior design. "I didn't marry for money, but I got a different type of riches from Susan," Colgan admits. "She took a diamond in the rough, if I can describe myself that way, and polished it. She was my educator."

The couple had three children, Sarah, Sophie and Richard, and were, perhaps, the country's ultimate theatre couple - she was also a well-known actress. Their marriage broke down but they remained great friends and he spent a lot of time with her when she was diagnosed with cancer. Susan died in 2013, and one of his few stated regrets is that she did not live to see their grandchildren.

He has had three serious girlfriends since his split from Susan, and he unabashedly prefers younger women. "My last girlfriend was a lot younger and, as my friend said, she was a bit old," Colgan says.

"Someone said, 'Where's Michael?' and the answer came, 'I think he is down in the Rotunda looking after his next girlfriend'.

"You do get a bit bored of explaining your references to them and, of course, everyone looks at you and presumes you're with them for their great body and so on. But they were all intellectual equals. If you don't have that, you're on a hiding to nothing."

Colgan remains friends with his exes, but he is phlegmatic about the ephemeral nature of relationships. "I fell out with my best friend in the 1980s and I think there is another 10 years left in that," he says.

"It doesn't cause me pain now. I've been betrayed; I've been recently betrayed. But I do think if you get to 66 and haven't been betrayed, you probably haven't been alive. But you have to make sure you are on terra firma. I bite my tongue, I wait, I test, I get vulnerable again so I can get hit again and then I pull down a barrier like something you'd have in a jewellery shop out in Clondalkin."

April 1 - his final day and exactly a third of a century on the job - will be emotional. He is not sure how he will feel when he walks past the place after he's gone.

One imagines it would be hard for him to hand over the reins to his successor, Selina Cartmell. But he trusts she'll know what to do.

The various shrines to Edwards and Mac Liammoir are self-explanatory evidence of the standing post-send-off etiquette.

"I've given my lifeblood to this building, I created this room," he explains. "But the Gate was bigger than (Edwards and Mac Liammoir) and it is bigger than me. I want with all my heart for Selina to succeed, and I know she will be brilliant. And she needn't say she is standing on the shoulders of giants - but, well, I've just said it."

Michael Colgan's farewell, the Beckett Friel Pinter Festival, runs from March 7-26. See gatetheatre.ie

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