Aidan McArdle's long journey home
Through ill health and self doubt the show has always gone on for Aidan McArdle. The actor, who is returning to live in Dublin, talks about his plans
John B Keane's masterpiece, The Field, turns 50 this year and suffers, perhaps, from the mixed blessing of having been made into a Hollywood movie. Mixed, because while on the one hand it brought the quiet genius of the Kerryman to a worldwide audience, in the process some of the subtleties of Keane's writing, which dealt above all with the subterranean shifts of local drama, were lost. In Padraic McIntyre's new reworking of the classic play, William Dee, Tom Berenger's swaggering American in the movie, is re-imagined as a returning immigrant, incensed to be treated as a foreigner in his own country. And for the man reprising the part, Aidan McArdle, it's a choice that adds texture to this most famous of Irish roles.
"I think it's much more interesting to have it as an Irish person returning", he tells me over coffee. "He wants to bring his wife home, she's having nervous problems and he's sort of ambivalent about the move. But the second someone says you're a foreigner, he sort of gets that visceral rage you might get if someone told you that you don't belong in your own house. When you come from somewhere you always feel like you belong and nobody can tell you otherwise."
McArdle knows whereof he speaks. After forging a decent career in England over the past two decades, the disarmingly honest and funny actor has decided to come back home to Dublin with his wife, actress Aislin McGuckin. It's partly so that their three kids will have a sense of community, he says, partly so they won't be getting fleeced on school fees. But more than anything, he says, "I just wanted them to be in a smaller environment. I thought London was too big for kids. There is a down-to-earth friendliness about Dublin that people who come from here often take for granted. I know I did."
McArdle, who is a cousin of the comedian Steve Coogan, is one of those actors that has thus far seemed to hover just a hair below the big time. He's been in some budget TV biopics, including Not Only But Always opposite Dudley Moore, and had a role in the movie Ella Enchanted but perhaps his most acclaimed work has been for the stage, including a very warmly reviewed performance of Richard III with the Royal Shakespeare company. He's also currently on television as the nefarious Lord Loxley in Mr Selfridge for which he has received fulsome praise in the English press. But of course part of doing your job in public is sometimes impertinent dissections of your career. A piece in the English Independent a few years ago said that McArdle was "poised for a breakout" but I wonder if he feels that he's had that breakout already?
"Well, making a living as an actor is a type of success I suppose, but I'm not famous", he tells me. "If I had a barometer of success for acting it would be that you don't have to audition but that is quite a high bar, even very well known actors often have to do that. Money is important, but I don't think I'd give it up even if I was loaded."
He grew up in a middle class family in Rathmines and went to Terenure College where he got involved in amateur dramatics.
"I got hooked on it quite early. I remember playing King Lear in a school play with talcum powder in my hair. I remember trying to get to the loo and spewing everywhere in the hallway. I didn't realise that it was an adrenaline kick. That feeling is addictive. Not to sound wanky but you begin to realise it's about an interaction of energy as you tell a story. And when you do that live it's an instant gratification."
He went to UCD where he "hung out in dramsoc all the time." After that there followed a stint training at the Abbey but McArdle had one eye on a career in England.
"I thought if I'm not good enough to get into RADA I'm not good enough to become an actor. But I had to try it. I had to fail at it to know that I'd at least tested myself. At the start I was all truth without knowing how to regulate it properly."
He went off travelling for a few months and, he says "tried to reconcile myself to the idea that I would always be a mediocre actor" but in the end the boredom got to him.
"I kept thinking I just want to go to an audition, that was like my click moment. It didn't matter to me any more whether I was really good or what status I achieved."
It worked, more or less. On his return he was quickly accepted to the RSC and over the following years has been in almost constant work, earning a reputation as someone who could play period roles with tremendous facility. But in such a cut throat business he also learned a kind of equanimity about missed chances.
"I learned a long time ago to not compare myself to other people", he tells me. "In drama school I learned that everyone whoever they were could always do one part better than anyone else. It was normally to do with place and accent. No matter how much research you do there is always going to be someone who can do it better than you. If you found yourself thinking about roles you didn't get and who was up for them and who would probably get them you'd drive yourself completely insane, you'd have mental health issues."
On that score, he says it helps having another actor in the family. "It's very good in some ways. She can understand situations I've been in. For instance I was in a play in Sheffield and she had a type of very severe morning sickness, she was very dehydrated, she was almost delirious. I'd got someone to look after her and our kid while she was feeling sick. I was opening a show the next night, I had to be there. It's like literally the building will shut down if you don't show up. As I was driving up there I was thinking what sort of bloody profession is this, that I'd even have to leave her for half an hour, but if you're in this game, as she is, you know that you just have to show up. I didn't even have to explain that to her."
The rewards that a satisfying performance brings are also immense he says.
"Again not to sound pretentious but there is a kind of interaction you get from telling a story to an audience, an energy that you can feed off in the room and that makes it really more play than work. You're trying to search for something real in the character and hoping they feel that."
And with that it's time for McArdle to get back to his craft and back to the rain-soaked performance space where The Field is being rehearsed.
The 50th Anniversary Production of The Field By John B Keane . Previews 23rd - 27th April and opens 28th April 2015 For a strictly-limited engagement at The Gaiety Theatre. Tickets from €22.50.
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