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A rea of light amid the darkness

Stephen Rea arrived at the Abbey Theatre in the mid-1960s, seeking inspiration. He was 60 years too late. Determined to be an actor while a student at Queen's in Belfast, he had been attracted by the Abbey's history.

He was searching for a "theatre of ideas", and was intrigued by how the Abbey's founders had sought to create a cultural nation as a necessary precursor to the emergence of a political one.

But the Abbey in the 1960s was a depressed, de-motivated place. The nadir came on the opening night of his first performance there, in a play by MJ Molloy, a writer now largely forgotten, but "exceptionally underrated", Rea says.

Set in 17th century Ireland, the production was lacklustre, a typical Abbey "peasant" play. Opening night was well received, and Molloy took a curtain call and addressed the audience.

"I wrote this play because I wanted to explore what it was like living behind an Iron Curtain," he said.

"I nearly fell off the stage," Rea recalls. Not once, during rehear-sals, had anybody suggested that that was what the play was about. This was a writer with ideas, but the Abbey had no interest in them. Rea left for London soon after. There, he was lucky and successful, but it wasn't home. In 1979, while home on a visit, he was offered money by the (British) Arts Council to stage a play in the North. He had worked with Brian Friel some years previously, and went to ask Friel if he would give him a play.

Friel was working on one, and offered that. It was called Translations, and it was set in a Donegal village in 1833, around the apparently obscure occasion of the first Ordnance Survey of Ireland.

They needed a company to claim the grant. Friel suggested, perhaps jokingly, Friel-Rea. It soon became Field Day.

The programme for their first production, Translations, included a definition of "field day": "a day on which troops are drawn up for exercise in field evolution; . . . a day occupied with brilliant or exciting events."

They cast a mix of northern and southern actors, some raw, some experienced; amongst them Ray McAnally, Mick Lally, Liam Neeson and Rea himself.

The venue was the Guildhall in Derry. Seven years previously, in Friel's play Freedom of the City, Rea had played a Catholic marcher, Skinner, forced to take shelter in the Guildhall when a protest march was fired on.

(The play was a response to Bloody Sunday, when Friel had been amongst the marchers.)

"This is theirs, boy," Skinner said of the Guildhall, "and your very presence here is a sacrilege." The Guildhall had been the centre of gerrymandered unionist power in Derry, though by the time of Field Day, there was a nationalist majority on the council, with a unionist mayor.

Arriving each day for rehearsals, the cast walked under scaffolding as builders repaired the damage caused by an IRA car bomb.

On opening night, September 23, 1980, Derry was briefly a cultural capital. There were international media there and national luminaries.

The performance was a bit stiff, Rea felt; nerves were a factor, and the hall's dreadful acoustics made it difficult for the actors. But when it ended, the unionist mayor, Marleen Jefferson, rose in ovation. "It was a Hallelujah Chorus moment," recalls Rea. "The monarch rises, and everybody follows."

Still, the ovation was genuine, and it echoed as they took Translations on tour, playing a series of one-night stands the length of the country.

Field Day echoed the early Abbey in its commitment to bring a "theatre of ideas" to places starved of both theatre and ideas during a bleak decade in Ireland.

Thirty years later, the Abbey has again pursued a theatre of ideas under the current director, Fiach Mac Conghail -- not so radical, but with quiet insistence.

Now, Mac Conghail is preparing for a new production of Translations this summer. Conall Morrison will direct and it will star Denis Conway, Aaron Monaghan and Donal O'Kelly.

It's a decade since Translations was last done there, says Mac Conghail -- not so long, but "this is a play that needs to happen every generation".

It encapsulates the "whole, complex debate about Irish identity and language, without coming down on any single judgment."

Yet it has been controversial, even accused of sectarianism. I'll return to this in an article closer to the production. In the meantime, Stephen Rea tackles the issue tonight, in the RTÉ Radio 1 series, From Stage to Street (which I'm presenting) at 7.30 pm. (See www.facebook.com/fromstagetostreet.)

Rea has been a regular on the Abbey stage in recent years, and is planning to return Field Day to the stage in 2013.

With the country mired in crisis, it may be time again for a cultural vision to lead a political one.


Indo Review