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Tuesday 21 May 2019

It's good to be the king in an all-singing revue

Gabriel Byrne is having a jolly time as King Arthur, says Barry Egan

Gabriel Byrne: 'I think the next thing is the bus pass.'
Gabriel Byrne: 'I think the next thing is the bus pass.'
Barry Egan

Barry Egan

MR G Byrne's importance as a key figure in modern Irish film, as one of the bona fide great Irish actors, is surely unassailable as this stage. 'Tis a long way from Bracken now, to be sure, to be sure.

He's been a troubled gangster with a poet's soul in the Coen Brothers' Miller's Crossing; the minister of education in the British-controlled African nation of Swaziland in Wah Wah; the brooding Uther Pendragon in John Boorman's Excalibur; the conflicted priest investigating demons in Stigmata; Satan himself in the apocalyptic End of Days; D'Artagnan in The Man in the Iron Mask and a crooked ex-cop in The Usual Suspects.

Need I go on?

A few years ago, after he had received a Lifetime Achieve ment Award from his friend director John Boorman, I bumped into Gabriel in New York.

"I think the next thing is the bus pass," he said with a laugh, about receiving the accolade from the Irish Film Industry. "I've always thought of myself as an actor from Dublin who just happens to work in various places. I have never not considered myself to be an actor from Dublin.

"When I left here in 1981," he continued, "things were very different. It was a very different city that I left, a very different country, there was no way you could make films here. There were two films that were made in Ireland, The Quiet Man in 1954 and then Ryan's Daughter in 1972 and then you had Excalibur in 1980. They were the three biggest films made in Ireland in that space of time. There wasn't anywhere you could work in films."

Since then, across the world, the archangel Gabriel has gone on to be one of the most acclaimed actors to come out of Ireland. Then he added award-winning theatre on Broadway to his already impressive artistic CV. In 2000, at the Walter Ken Theatre in New York he starred as James Tyrone Jr in Eugene O'Neill's Moon for the Misbegotten on Broadway. Gabriel told me he would listen to two Lennon songs before he went on every night: Jealous Guy and Beautiful Boy. The lyrics of the latter, he said, have a significance that any father can understand.

"That yearning to want your son to be grown-up so that you can share things with him -- it's a long road," he says. "Lennon talks about being impatient for him to grow up yet at the same time wanting him to be a boy."

He quotes Dylan Thomas saying that the ambition of any artist should be to see the world from the eyes of a child. (Needless to say, Gabriel has achieved that ambition with his two kids by his ex-wife Ellen Barkin, Jack and Romy).

The Claddagh-ring-wearing, former star of Bracken has certainly tapped into the childish side of his creativity to play the all-singing and all-dancing King Arthur in Camelot at the Lincoln Centre.

Gabriel plays the lead opposite Marin Mazzie (who recently appeared on Broadway in Spamalot) as Guenevere. Before the opening night on Thursday -- which was to be broadcast nationally across America on PBS -- the Dublin-born actor told me he wasn't too anxious about having to sing and dance to popular tunes like How to Handle a Woman and What Do the Simple Folk Do? This is a touch surprising because Gabriel is not exactly known for his abilities at singing and dancing. "It's a musical and I am singing, yes," he said with a smile.

"It's obviously a challenge to do something like this," Gabriel added. "But my first movie role was as Uther Pendragon and now I'm playing Uther's son, Arthur. It feels like the circle being rounded. I've always loved the music, and in this production I feel the work is being redefined for a new generation. This was JFK's favourite musical but its totally relevant to a new idealistic vision of America," he told me.

Being idealistic myself, I'm trying to picture Gabriel singing and dancing ...

"It is kind of like when you're doing a movie and they ask you if you can ride a horse," Gabriel smiled. "Of course you say yes! And by the time, the producers of Camelot politely asked me if I could sing, it was way too late. They were stuck with me."

And a 75-piece band, aka the New York Philharmonic.

Yes," he says with a grin. "I'm surrounded by the Philharmonic -- one of the world's greatest orchestras. Fabulous singers, beautiful dancers. It's so exciting and different and I feel the two old boys -- the two Richards, God bless them both -- are having a drink together somewhere and singing along."

Gabriel is, of course, referring to the fact that Richard Burton originally starred in Camelot with Julie Andrews in 1961 on Broadway while Richard Harris starred in the same in 1967. "I'm following in the royal footsteps of Harris and Richard in playing the king," he said. "Both of them separately suggested one day I should play the role."

After Camelot finishes tonight in New York, Gabriel starts a film, The Sea, based on the Iris Murdoch novel. "I play a mad actor haunted by his past in an old mansion by the sea. A story of obsession and delusional love. But for the moment I'm King Arthur and I'm having a most regal time."

He'll be running for the Park next.

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