Something special in the air as Don steps on stage
'After Sarah Miles' is creating a magical connection with audiences
Skibbereen Town Hall may not rank among the renowned theatres of these islands, but when Don Wycherley steps out into the lights tonight, there could be something special in the air.
Wycherley is performing a one-man play called After Sarah Miles, a gentle piece about the misbegotten life of a Kerry fisherman (the title is a reference to the filming of Ryan's Daughter). It's a play that is as much about a way of life as it is about a character or story. Many in Skibbereen will know that way of life (because they fish – not because they're misbegotten). And many will know Wycherley too, for he grew up there.
That kind of connection – when the art is good – can make for a moment of magic in the theatre. And it's precisely that kind of connection that the writer, Michael Hilliard Mulcahy, has been seeking.
The play is on tour, coming next to Limerick, Wexford, Waterford, Galway and Avoca, finishing with a week at Smock Alley in Dublin from May 30 (see www.gallarusproductions. com for details). When I spoke to Hilliard Mulcahy recently, they had just staged it for his own people in the village of Camp in Kerry. "It was magic," he says. "When you're writing so much about people in that community, you find out quickly if it's real."
This low-key approach is integral to the project. After the success of his first produced play, Beyond the Brooklyn Sky, in 2012, he had offers from producers for this one. But he insisted on retaining control.
He approached Don Wycherley, and they ran it at the tiny Viking Theatre in Clontarf last summer. It sold out. He was offered a week in a large venue. He turned it down. "I'm not doing this now," he thought. "I want to build it slowly."
His friend Aidan Dooley was an inspiration: Dooley built his magnificent one-man show about Tom Crean up carefully, playing tiny venues before progressing to the larger, commercial venues.
"It's so small," Hilliard Mulcahy says of his play. They need little by way of stage or lights. That gives them the freedom to take the play where its natural audience is. "I just wanted to take it home," he says.
Hilliard Mulcahy grew up in Castlegregory in the 1970s and 80s. He joined the amateur drama group at Siamsa Tíre and got a small part in Philadelphia, Here I Come! He hadn't studied Brian Friel at school and was barely aware of him. "I was blown away."
Still, it was a while before he took up the pen himself. "I come to everything late," he says. Amateur drama led to an acting course in Dublin and then regular acting work. Eventually, after a few people had said to him he should try writing, he took a playwriting course, and then another, and another. He won some small awards and had some readings, but no productions.
He approached Peter Sheridan for advice, and Sheridan became a mentor, and then directed Beyond the Brooklyn Sky, which made a prestigious debut with Red Kettle at the Dublin Theatre Festival.
After Sarah Miles is his second play about the traumas of lives on the sea – he is rewriting the first, Waves. Now that he and Wycherley have taken it home, what next?
"You'd have to be aiming for Edinburgh and New York." But, first, he hopes to revive it later in the year for a tour of the western seaboard, "places where there's piers, where there's a fishing industry" – because that's where its community is.