Emer O'Kelly pays tribute to a Titan of the theatre who blew fresh air into the restricted and restrictive Irish scene
Published 12/06/2011 | 05:00
Her nickname was Bambi; physically it suited her. Phyllis Ryan was tiny and frail-looking, her spare frame topped by a beautifully shaped head and a heart-shaped face which permanently wore the look of a startled faun. But anybody who took the appearance for the heart of the woman was in for a shock. In theatrical terms, the late Phyllis Ryan was a Titan. It's safe to say that Irish theatre, with all its faults, might never have developed its gutsy independent core were it not for Bambi's relentless efforts.
Back in the Fifties, there was the Abbey and there was the Gate. And for all the dewy-eyed nostalgia for the period, neither was up to much for most of the time. The former was a kind of cultural arm of the civil service, its biro tucked into the breast pocket of a not-too-clean suit, its chest protected from the cold wind of progress with a good dun-coloured handknitted pullover. The latter had become precious beyond belief, its repertoire divided between the shaky productions of the ageing Edwards and MacLiammoir, and Edward Longford's frequently camp "frock plays".
It was a time when Phyllis Ryan's main claim to fame was as the mother of a child actor called Jacqueline Ryan who shot to short-lived fame in a film made in Dublin, the story of a dustman-turned hurling star, and starring the English actor John Gregson.
The producers were so impressed with her that a second film followed, centred on the young Jacqueline, and even called Jacqueline.
But Phyllis had been on the stage long before, beginning her own career as a youngster, playing Blanaid in Denis Johnston's extraordinary post-civil war play The Moon in the Yellow River as early as 1936.
Then, in 1960, together with the late Norman Rodway (who had begun his career in the tiny Gas Company Theatre in Dun Laoghaire, in a company he and Godfrey Quigley called, with magnificent pretension, The Globe), Phyllis set up Gemini Productions, the first independent company of any note in Ireland since the war years. (During the war, under the restrictions of censorship and rationing, Shelah Richards had done the same, defiantly trying to breathe fresh air into the restricted and restrictive Irish theatrical scene.)
Gemini may have seemed a modest undertaking; there was no thought of subsidy, such grandeur a long way in the future. But suddenly, young writers were having their plays taken seriously, plays about contemporary life as it really was, not as official Ireland projected it and wished it to be.
They were names like Brian Friel, Hugh Leonard, and John B Keane, and under the production determination of Phyllis Ryan they soared (even if they, and she, didn't make much money.) Phyllis gave plays such as The Field and Big Maggie by John B Keane their world premieres. The Poker Session and The Au Pair Man by Hugh Leonard also saw their first stagings under her management, as did Da which went on to become a massive international award-winning hit.
Eugene McCabe's powerful King of the Castle was her production child, as was Mairead Ni Ghrada's On Trial (originally staged in Irish) and which gave Fionnuala Flanagan her first break in theatre, as well as causing moral heart-attacks in the smug-minded, dealing as it did with the suicide of a single mother.
Adaptations staged by Gemini included John McGahern's The Barracks, adapted for stage by Hugh Leonard, and Ibsen's Ghosts brought up to date by Tom Kilroy and premiered as late as the Eighties.
Nor did Phyllis Ryan entirely abandon an acting career: the last time she appeared on stage was in 2000, as one of the Chorus in the Deborah Warner-directed Medea at the Abbey, starring Fiona Shaw.
Phyllis published her memoirs in the Nineties, called The Company I Kept. The book was launched at a party in the Abbey . . . on the worst night of storm weather in Dublin in a decade. The city was brought to a halt, with even the main streets impassable due to flooding, with lightning flashing across them in jagged bursts.
It may have been a reflection of the theatrical times being recorded in the Abbey Bar. Bambi was being celebrated by the gods with awesome fire and water . . . as she deserved.