Arts: When the stand-up sits down
Having ripped into theatre as a comedian, David McSavage admits to feeling terrified as he prepares to tread the boards for the first time
David McSavage has an unusual approach to interviews. He throws out such verbal grenades, watching gleefully as they explode, that you instinctively want to protect him from himself, censor him. But where's the fun in that?
David is in rehearsals for his first play, the Irish premiere of Martin McDonagh's The Pillowman, opening at the Gaiety Theatre on March 2. Does he enjoy theatre? "I wouldn't be a fan of theatre, no. I don't like it at all. To me, if film was a well-equipped jumbo jet plane, theatre is a like a creaky old biplane. People go to it out of a sense of duty or sentimentality or something."
So why did he take this part? "Because I enjoy contradicting myself. And because Martin McDonagh suggested me for it and maybe I think that he might give me a part in one of his films. I wouldn't say that publicly but that's obviously part of the reason."
Of course there is an element of his famous caustic wit to all this, but there is also an underlying honesty that is refreshing. David the interviewee swaps heads seamlessly between acerbically clever David and vulnerably sincere David. And the latter is the one who makes the most impact.
"There is an element too, with this, of the challenge. In my stand-up comedy, I rip into theatre. But there is a thing where what I say on stage starts to bleed into my real life, I have trouble discerning if an opinion belongs to my onstage persona or is really my own strongly held opinion. And before I was a comedian, I did always want to be part of an ensemble. So this is my first real chance for that."
In The Pillowman, David plays one of two detectives, the second is played by Gary Lydon, who must interrogate a man suspected of torturing and killing children. As much about storytelling as brutal crime, McDonagh's play is filled with the gruesome black humour we have come to expect from him.
In practical terms, did he find it difficult learning a script? "That's still present tense, I am still learning it! Yes, very difficult. I have learnt the first act but still working on the final scenes. What's interesting about acting and learning a script is that you suddenly forget how to talk. You have to learn the lines so well that you're not thinking about them at all, you're focussed on the meaning of them, the actions, the inflections, not falling over. The dialogue is fantastic, it all sounds true. I feel like I am out of my depth and I do hope that it all works out, for god's sake. I'm scared."
This is said in a quieter voice by earnest, candid David. But surely he is used to laying himself bare on stage with his stand-up comedy? This time at least he's not up there alone? "I have been doing comedy since I was 24, 25 years, so I am used to dying on stage in stand-up, nothing could throw me. But this is different, I might forget everything."
David was once a regular feature on Dublin street corners with his own brand of pop-up comedy. "I stopped doing that four years ago. I took it out of the equation because it was an easy revenue stream and it made me lazy and stopped me challenging myself. I think I stayed as a street performer for longer than I needed to; it was an easy, self-reliant lifestyle.
"I do realise that it is highly unlikely that someone is out there trying to find great parts for me to star in a film, so I need to find them, and probably fund them, myself. I've been working on this thing called Poor Me and the Bastards and hopefully John Carney will direct it. Me and John gravitate to each other in a certain way, there's a shared something, he's inspirational. I like that there is something self reliant about him, he forged his own way."
He mentions his age slightly too frequently, 49, is he anxious about approaching 50? "Yes, no, who cares, I do, I don't know."
He talks too about the importance of failure, of how you need to be on your knees to see things clearly, how you need to burn all your bridges to build new ones (the occasional parable does slip in) and then he lobs another grenade.
'So that's why I have been going fuck RTÉ, so I have no other option than to produce something that is so good that a producer in the UK or the States will want a piece of it. I'd love to get a show on a cable channel where you can just go exploring something without worrying about censorship. RTÉ is where creative people go to die." Oh dear.
But he is remarkably self aware and that makes him somehow endearing. "Someone like me needs not to be sitting around doing nothing, that's a recipe for depression. I need to be active, I need to be upsetting, I need to be making new things, always moving."
1 Bewley's is on the move, not all the sticky buns and oriental teas, but the theatre in the Grafton Street café is taking temporary residence in the Powerscourt Theatre. It celebrates its move with the world première of The Hole, a new play written and directed by John Sheehy exploring life after death, and how to dig a hole. bewleyscafetheatre.com.
2 A new festival is popping up in three different cities over three weekends. Plastik was in Galway last weekend, is in Cork this weekend and takes over Dublin next weekend. It describes itself as the inaugural international festival of artists' moving image and each city programmed their own strand. plastikfestival.com.
3 Yes, today is Valentine's Day. But ignore the roses, the badly written cards, the consumer programming of it all. Take your love, your friend, your child, your parent, even your brother to somewhere in your city that you love but don't visit enough. My own choice? The Natural History Museum on Kildare Street wins every time. museum.ie.