Friday 22 February 2019

New York state of mind - Stephen Rea

Award-winning actor Stephen Rea waxes lyrical about the Big Apple, his love of poetry and the thrill - and challenges - of performing on the stage. Just don't mention backstories or sipping martinis

Stephen Rea in New York. Photo: Cormac Larkin
Stephen Rea in New York. Photo: Cormac Larkin

Siobhán Brett

July in New York City is hot as hell. It's harder, as Albert Camus said of Manhattan, to "remember that this desert of iron and concrete is an island".

It's an entirely unremarkable 31 degrees on the afternoon I meet the actor Stephen Rea at The Public Theater in Soho, where he is in the middle of an exacting run of David Ireland's play, Cyprus Avenue.

"Who doesn't love New York?" Rea will ask later, rhetorically, in the cool of a nearby café. Ultimately, though, he qualifies the position.

"People have an illusion of their relationship with New York sometimes. I know the feeling of 'well, it's time to get out of here'. You get a moment where it's a bit much. It's too hot. The lack of access to water. I live on an estuary at home," he explains, concluding with an expression of faint guilt or sympathy for me, a New York resident, communicating just how magnificent a reality he felt that was.

It's curious to meet Rea in NYC and be discussing it, too - next month he will leave the city for another, Kilkenny, to take part, for the third consecutive year, in its annual arts festival. In 2016, he performed Seamus Heaney's Aeneid: Book VI; in 2017, Oscar Wilde's epic poem De Profundis, and this year he will perform the poet Derek Mahon's New York Time.

Rea lived in New York for a few months in the early 1990s while appearing on Broadway in Frank McGuinness's Someone Who'll Watch Over Me. It was a Tony-winning performance for Rea, who doesn't mention this.

Mahon was at that time in the process of writing the poetry Rea will perform this summer. The pair are friends, and used to hang out together in New York in the home of then-consul general of Ireland, Daithí Ó Ceallaigh.

The opening verses of New York Time talk about a process of recovery and the restoration of one's nerve. "He was trying to reconstruct a life," says Rea of Mahon. "And I say with respect to all the other great poets we've talked about [Seamus Heaney and Paul Muldoon, among others], it seemed that Derek was more lost as a person. There is a vulnerability in a lot of the poetry that's very inspiring."

Rea is visibly very pleased to be taking on the work of somebody he knows and likes. He speaks about Mahon, "a completely lovely guy and a snappy wee f***er", the way only a friend can. He praises his spirit and his character, but also his translation of Cyrano de Bergerac from the French, which he declares "sublime" and "better than the original".

"I used to meet Derek in Dublin when he lived on Fitzwilliam Square. We used to meet in the Shelbourne and chew the fat, you know? I'm always quite touched when somebody like a poet is prepared to tolerate my company for longer than half an hour."

Rea is a very young 71, in jeans and Nikes, with a fine silver chain just visible under the round neck of his T-shirt. He prefaces our conversation with a warning that he doesn't know much about poetry, but proceeds to speak about poetry in a free and informed manner for almost an hour.

"Muldoon looks at me quizzically when I say, well all you guys have classical educations," says Rea. "I did Latin, did English literature, didn't do Greek. But obviously everybody should be doing Latin and Greek. My kids used to ask me the meaning of words which, had they had Latin, they wouldn't have had to ask.

"(The poet) Michael Longley said when they were weighing the removal of classical studies at Queen's in Belfast: 'It's the foundation stone - remove it and there will be slippage'. And I'm sure that's true. Mahon, Muldoon, Heaney, Longley, they've got this incredible solid base of great literatures. Irish literature, as well."

We talk for a bit about beleaguered attention spans and the way we learn in 2018. "It's all about..." Rea extends a hand to tap my iPhone, face down between us on the table. "It's not about retaining things, it's about finding things." [Rea would later leave the restaurant without being sure he had his own phone in his black canvas tote.]

"It's a nightmare, isn't it? We're under siege," he says, embarking on a brief but heartfelt tangent. "The rest of the world is starving and we're taking all their things. I'm massively conscious that people of colour do all the work here," Rea says. As if on cue, a young black man carrying a tray of steel pepper grinders passes behind him.

"It freaks me out. I think of them coming in from the distant boroughs early in the morning. I recently spoke to a boy who was selling pizza slices, exhausted, and he told me he had two jobs, working in Dunkin' Donuts and when he finished there, he was doing that. This is a young fella. Anyway, it's just..." he lets the sentence fall. "There's no care for people here. They don't believe in it. And I think we've embraced that lack of care as well."

We talk for a time about the crisis of homelessness on both sides of the Atlantic. New York Time explores homelessness that is felt, as well as lived, more in the realm of displacement. In a 2000 interview with the Paris Review, Mahon said it took on "not just the homeless on the streets but the whole sexual-metaphysical homeless ache we live with as a species".

"It depends how you feel," Rea says of this state, "I can remember myself in London feeling outside of everywhere that I was, in a way. And I think Derek was that for a while."

Rea is accustomed to roles that are full-bodied and often full-on - he shoots a deafening gun in Cyprus Avenue, to give the lowest-hanging, latest example - and I wonder aloud about the lack of dynamism and drama in the recitation of poetry. He sets me straight without hesitation.

"There is drama and dynamism," says Rea. "God, there is. In Aeneid: Book VI, when he meets his father? When I was thinking of the father, I was thinking of Seamus's father."

Accompanying Heaney, there was a cello, and for De Profundis, a chamber orchestra. This year - by the same composer, Neil Martin - piano music. "It'll be like Bill Evans," Rea says. "The greatest era of American music. That sad, displaced, hopeful, poetic jazz. I'm really looking forward to that. That's what's so thrilling about doing it."

Rea says he loves to read aloud, loves to lean on the words and not much else. He is mindful of the value of the delivery to the audience.

"They love hearing it, they love being given it. It's more difficult to read it yourself," he says. At times, he makes recitation sound like respite from the acting to which he is so accustomed.

"The one thing that drives me insane about acting, it doesn't drive me insane about my own acting, because I don't do it, but it's this notion of 'motivation', 'backstory', all these ghastly words people use. I just hate the phrase 'backstory'. Is there a more unpleasant phrase than 'backstory'?" He answers the question with a gravelly groan. "No."

It's very American, I say. "It's very American!" Rea cries. "I did work with Beckett and he said: don't think about meaning, think about rhythm. And it is about rhythm. Backstory my bum. Backstory… my backside."

Rea is studiously avoiding "backstory" with seven performances a week at The Public Theater until July 29. Originally, the theatre wanted him to do eight, which he felt he could not manage. "By some miracle, they listened to me," he says. He still rises to the challenge of three in 24 hours on weekends.

"I had a drink with Paul Muldoon up the street here last night and I went home and just went to bed. Not because of Paul," he says, leaving me to laugh at his joke, "but because of doing this show. I used to go out drinking in New York but I can't do it. I can't do this play and do the New York drinking thing.

"That's the trouble with Kilkenny, I have to go straight home. If I'd had a week where I could just do the New York social thing, I would have benefitted from it. Drank some martinis."

I commiserate. "It's okay," he says sincerely.

"It's quite a thing to do every night," Rea continues. "The old thing of just say the first line and see where you go - that's very reassuring because you feel yourself supported by the language rather than frightened by it, or intimidated. And it's the same with the poetry, you get a great sense of support from it. I do, anyway."

What about taking time off? "Like all actors," he says, "I think: eugh, do I want a break?"

Prior to Cyprus Avenue, he was in Black 47, a thriller set during the Famine, due to be released later this year. "It was physically immensely difficult to do," Rea says. "Filming is very hard as well. Nobody's pretending otherwise. But that ritual of theatre, waking up in the morning and knowing you're going to do it, is demanding in a different way. "Everybody reading this is going to think: that f***ing w***er," he mutters. I hope somebody in Kilkenny will buy him a martini.

Stephen Rea performs at the Watergate Theatre in Kilkenny on August 17 and 18. For tickets, see

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