A genius, both shy and modest, with a vicious turn of phrase
Published 03/10/2015 | 02:30
I first met him 35 years ago, when I was artistic director of the Dublin Theatre Festival. His company, Field Day, had just opened 'Translations' in Derry and he was allowing it to come to Dublin at Festival time. I say 'allowing' it because he thought the festival was "a horse race" but he felt the play would "sit well" at the Gate.
I had read all about him: his beginnings as a teacher, two years training for the priesthood - a clerical error - and his skirmishes with politics.
When I met him, he looked exactly as he had been - a schoolmaster. An enthusiast once observed: "How can genius look so ordinary?" But it was years later, on meeting Beckett, that I realised that both men were extraordinary in their ordinariness.
He was shy and modest, with a vicious turn of phrase. A man you instantly suspected could be a friend for life or an enemy forever. By dint of good fortune, or some extraordinary hazard, I fell into the former and it was a friendship that I came to cherish.
I left the festival in 1983 and became director of the Gate. Now we would work together. Maybe that's more presumption because it was hard not to be obedient. In the 1980s, Field Day, the company he founded with Stephen Rea, would do the new work and the Gate and the Abbey would share the revivals - but we'd live in hope. A new play by Friel would guarantee your year. Who's to say it wouldn't be a 'Faith Healer' or 'Aristocrats' or a 'Dancing at Lughnasa'? So we waited and listened - for anything, even the vaguest rumour. But his privacy precluded all that. He'd talk about his bee-keeping or his collection of clocks, but never about his work.
"Are you writing, Brian?" "Not at all," would be the answer. Then one day a parcel would arrive with a note saying: "I've written this play. I'm not sure it's of value, but take a look and let me know what you think." We were off.
And those were the times that I have enjoyed most in my 30-plus years at the Gate. Putting together a new production by and with Brian Friel. His concentration and focus on the new work were relentless. By contrast, it needed persuasion to get him to come to a revival.
When asked what he was doing at our production of the ten-year-old 'Aristocrats', he said he was "checking for metal fatigue". But for the new play, he was fired and at the same time deadly. He once called directing "a bogus profession" and during our private casting sessions, actors were often termed "adequate" or, if feeling generous, "efficient".
We would meet in Dublin's Westbury Hotel, having made the arduous journey from his home in Donegal. He'd smoke a small Cuban cigar and in summer wear a white linen jacket - our man from Buncrana - and then we would talk with relish about who should be in the play. I remember pushing for an actress of the right age, look and temperament and, in that soft Donegal accent he asked, "Is she a skilful lady?" We didn't cast her.
Friel did not write in drafts. What you got was what you got. A carefully crafted piece that had been polished and perfectly wrought before it was released. Like Pinter and Beckett, the work was done before the rehearsal hall and he expected the same from actors. If Oscar Wilde put his talent into his work and his genius into his life, then Friel could be said to have spread his genius evenly between the two, because it was in company that this private man would shine. The wit, insight, observation, gossip - often lethal, but addictive.
He could do no wrong. He was - and I'm quoting here from his own work - "in complete mastery, yes that's close to it, in such complete mastery that everything is harmonised for him, in such mastery that anything was possible".
Michael Colgan is artistic director at the Gate Theatre in Dublin