Entertainment Theatre & Arts

Friday 9 December 2016

Stage: When 'The Three Stooges' collides with 'Love/Hate'

Maggie Armstrong

Published 07/02/2016 | 02:30

Resident Vikings: Rex Ryan, Neill Fleming and Edwin Mullane in Mark O'Rowe's Made in China
Resident Vikings: Rex Ryan, Neill Fleming and Edwin Mullane in Mark O'Rowe's Made in China

The playwrights say youth is wasted on the young but I wouldn't be so sure. There is a village in north Dublin called Clontarf that faces the sea; you might have heard of a battle there against the Vikings? Well, above a pub called The Sheds on that windswept parade sits a tiny theatre. The stage is black and the seats are scarlet.

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On a wintry morning, Viking Theatre's Company in Residence for 2016 are getting ready for their first-ever show, Made in China, a little-known three-hander by Mark O'Rowe. It's the first of three shows they will create and perform here this year.

The company, The Corps Ensemble, has been formed by two local acting graduates, Rex Ryan and Edwin Mullane. Rex grew up in Clontarf, Edwin in Raheny, and they haven't left. "We're privileged; we have a theatre on our doorstep with a loyal audience," says Rex, who is a son of the late Gerry Ryan. Their aim is to make "edge of your seat" theatre as people are weary, they say, of period dramas. "A theatre is not a museum, it has to be vital," says Rex.

They are young, but one old friend is proving a useful contact. Tom Hickey -a great of the Irish stage (aka Benjy from an old soap, The Riordans) has been brought in as 'consultant director' to the company.

More than 50 years ago Tom helped found The Focus Theatre run by Deirdre O'Connell, the Irish American (and wife of The Dubliners' Luke Kelly) who, with her tiny theatre and Stanislavski Studio, produced an immense set of thespians, among them Tom Hickey, Johnny Murphy, Olwen Fouere and Sabina Higgins (which First Lady wouldn't benefit from acting classes?). Rex and Edwin hope Tom will pass on some of what he learnt.

The pair, finishing each other's sentences and ablaze with big ideas, explain why they formed a company. When you do a play, says Rex, "you get into your production, you have a family for six weeks, and then it's like 'cut', and it's almost traumatising. We were both very interested in the ensemble way of acting, a group of actors working like a sports team. They train with each other and form a connection."

In a rehearsal room, he says, "sometimes an atmosphere of competition can form. I think competition is a poison. Play your part - don't try and be the best." They want to explore physical theatre and to this end, with their wider ensemble, have begun dance workshops with Pina Bausch alumnus, Dr Finola Cronin.

Lots of actors fresh out of drama school form companies which quickly go to ground. How are they going to sustain their interest in this Corps Ensemble? "You have to have a vision, and constantly articulate what you are trying to do," says Rex, who had another theatre company once. "I learnt to articulate a visionary goal and then go after it."

They like that Viking is the theatre their parents come to, and older neighbours, to sip G&T and watch a show, enjoying free parking and €12 tickets. They like that since November 2011, when Viking opened, the nearby restaurants have started pre-theatre menus.

Edwin waxes poetic about shows he's seen here, like The Gallant John Joe by Tom MacIntyre played by Tom Hickey. "You were seeing the whites of his eyes, these tiny details. I'm not religious but it was spiritual."

The playwrights they revere are living and Irish - Tom Murphy, Enda Walsh and indeed O'Rowe. Edwin: "It's hard for younger companies to be tested by those plays because they're big ensemble pieces. I want access to those plays, I want to play the great Irish roles."

Whether the three hapless gangsters, Paddy, Hughie and Kilby in Made in China are among these great roles is all to play for as Rex and Edwin embark on their revival (with actor Neill Fleming). The play premièred in 2001 in The Peacock and like much work by Tallaght-born O'Rowe, it's set in a criminal underworld. "The Three Stooges mixed with Love/Hate," says Rex. "His language is just delicious. People will adore it. He has such a great ear for the Dublin lang, he just elevates it a little."

It should not spoil much to say there is a fight scene involving a prosthetic leg, an umbrella and a baseball bat. "Gangs and violence I find abhorrent and I'm not interested by them," says Rex. "[O'Rowe] puts characters in a really horrible violent world. It's how they deal with the violence. He uses these harsh conditions so you get to see these characters' souls. He's not gratuitous."

"There's no expletive that's not carefully thought through," adds Edwin. "Wherever it is, it's adding another layer."

Made in China is directed by Jed Murray, with Tom Hickey sitting sagely in the corner. "These young guys could be something. They're good," says Tom. Now in his seventies, he is still acting but grappling Parkinson's disease. Why is he giving his time here?

"I'm very interested," he says, "to see how everything works. Fascinated. But it's also to return something, because I was helped.

"I haven't said much yet. I'm there just to encourage them." Deirdre, says Tom, never said much.

Made in China by Mark O'Rowe runs February 8 to 20 at Viking Theatre

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