Friday 19 January 2018

Stage - Irresistible comparisons: the shadow of O'Casey...

Two Dublin chroniclers: O'Halloran as Donal Davoren in O'Casey's Shadow of a Gunman
Two Dublin chroniclers: O'Halloran as Donal Davoren in O'Casey's Shadow of a Gunman

Maggie Armstrong

Sean O'Casey was living on Mountjoy Square when he wrote The Shadow of a Gunman, his first play to be accepted at the Abbey, in 1923. He was living right there in the thick of Black and Tan raids and diseased poverty. Mark O'Halloran was living on an only marginally more salubrious Mountjoy Square when he wrote Adam and Paul, his 2004 film about two heroin addicts that became an instant classic. Ninety years apart, both writers filled blank pages with what they heard on the street and spied out their windows.

O'Halloran plays Donal Davoren in the current Lyric/Abbey co-production of The Shadow of Gunman. Davoren is the 'shadow', a tenement poet who is happily mistaken for an IRA gunman, and who is also a shadow of the young O'Casey - when he was an immature author and IRB radical.

Comparisons between playwrights and their characters, characters and their actors, dead playwrights and living actors, are irresistible. Particularly when a literary giant is being channelled before our eyes by another writer who is himself touching greatness. Two Dublin chroniclers, O'Halloran and O'Casey are now, as they say in literary circles, "in conversation" on the Abbey stage, through the enjoyably farcical medium of Donal Davoren.

But while Davoren is a "poet poltroon" - a coward - O'Halloran is an accomplished writer and performer, switching from one side of the curtain to the other.

"They come from the same place, writing and acting," he says in the Abbey bar before a show, "which is the invention of characters and the investigation of the story."

O'Halloran has written some of the most brave and gruelling scripts of the past decade. In film, tragedies Adam and Paul and Garage, and coming soon Viva, a Cuban film about a drag queen caring for his father, written in English and translated into Spanish vernacular. In theatre, the suicide monologue in Bush Moukarzel's Lippy, and he wrote Trade, about a rent boy and his older lover. It is a back catalogue that evokes Davoren's outburst of "pain, pain, pain, ever, for ever!" before the curtain closes.

O'Halloran's upbringing sounds almost more O'Casey-ish than O'Casey's. He grew up the eighth child of six brothers and four sisters in Ennis, sharing a bedroom with up to five brothers a time. His father worked for Telecom Eireann and his mother worked in betting shops from the age of 16.

Allowing for further crude comparisons, while O'Casey was a labourer from age 14, O'Halloran's first teenage jobs were writing the prices on the boards at Bumper Racing Services in Ennis. After quitting a Science degree in UCG he went to Amsterdam and worked in steel mills (O'Casey worked on railways). In Dublin, training at the Gaiety School of Acting, he packaged food and worked for a caterer where he served fancy nibbles to the corporate and political milieus of the boom-time.

"I used to pretend to be Spanish and put on a heavy accent just to keep myself amused," he says. "I once offered a fish cake to Bertie Ahern in a Spanish accent in the RHA Gallery, for no particular reason whatsoever. I said 'Feesh cake?' to him and handed him a platter."

O'Halloran was a 30-year-old jobbing actor when he started writing short plays for Bewley's Café Theatre (O'Casey published his first political pamphlets at 38). O'Halloran even wrote a two-hander called Too Much of Nothing about a "poet with writer's block and a gabby f***er" - men that closely resemble Davoren and his tenement co-habitant, the loquacious peddler Seumas Shields.

This Abbey/Lyric production, directed by the ubiquitous Wayne Jordan, has had mixed reviews. Mark plays a flamboyant "shadow" with the moustache of a spaghetti Western gunman, balletic movements, primadonna hysterics. Have we run out of comparisons between O'Casey and O'Halloran?

Not necessarily. Watch this play, and you'll see a depiction of a writer whose stereotype lives on today. Like Davoren with his candle and his typewriter, O'Halloran writes at night (though not after 10.30pm).

"I take a lot of notes, have big, long sprawling things that I edit down and edit down."

He doesn't drink, having drunk "a lot of red wine" in the past. Writing, he says, "can be incredibly frustrating because you're facing yourself, all the time. It's like being in constant study, study for an exam that never comes. Any failure that happens along that way, you've no one to blame but yourself.

As for Davoren, "he's a writer who's an absolute failure. He poses constantly. He assumes the mantle of a writer - he's written some bad poetry, he's got a typewriter - even though he hasn't earned it. We've all met people like that in our lives."

We have, but O'Halloran is not one of them.

The Shadow of a Gunman is in the Abbey Theatre until 1 August.

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