Saturday 21 April 2018

Stage: Who's afraid of learning 95 pages of lines in two weeks?

Denis Conway as Hugh O'Neill in the Ouroboros production of Brian Friel's 'Making History'.
Denis Conway as Hugh O'Neill in the Ouroboros production of Brian Friel's 'Making History'.

Maggie Armstrong

Denis Conway likes to take time with a role. Before a month of rehearsals begins, he studies a script in solitude, over three months. As Richard III, as Macbeth, as the Irishman in the recent Gate smash The Gigli Concert by Tom Murphy, he enjoyed a long and studious process.

"I put months of work in, so the lines are in your DNA, they're not just in your mouth," says the Corkman. "I won't rush. I'm not good when I rush." He had two weeks to prepare for Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf by Edward Albee, which has just opened at the Gate.

Denis was in Manchester, about to go on stage before the last night of Jimmy Murphy's new, pleasantly short Abbey play, Of This Brave Time. He had been thinking he would like to take a break from theatre and return to TV and film. He had been doing plays back-to-back, "big stuff", for two years. Then his phone rang.

The director David Grindley explained there was a situation. Would Denis take the part of George in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? The first preview was to open in just over a fortnight.

"My first thoughts were, I know the play, and it's 95 pages of dialogue. It is a monstrous learn," says Denis. "So I thought, okay, there'll be no sleep for the next two weeks." Denis's comrade in arms from The Gigli Concert, actor Declan Conlon, had to pull out due to family bereavements. The Gate doesn't employ understudies. "I thought, another actor needs help. That was enough. I'll need it some time too probably."

He also remembered that Albee's 1962 fire-cracking play seldom visits an Irish theatre - the rights are notoriously difficult to secure. Denis, in his mid-50s, thought: "You'll never play this part again."

The script arrived the following morning. He got down to reading 95 pages on his iPhone. George, a cuckolded and vengeful husband with the best lines in the play, was indeed a "monstrous learn". "I was going oh, my, Jesus, he never shuts up."

Here is how you play George when you have two weeks. "I would get up at six," says Denis, describing a punishing regime somewhere between the realms of elite athletes and monks.

At half six he would be at the gym. He would prop the script on the running machine and "run the lines", 10 at a time. "I'd close my eyes and memorise them, to the rhythm of my running, and run, until I got it." He would go into the Gate with a packed lunch for rehearsals from 10 to six. Back home (shared with Elaine Sisson and their two teenage children), he would walk along the river in Kilmainham and recite passages aloud.

At midnight, he'd retire. Two hours later he'd get up again, learn more lines. He'd go back to sleep for an hour, and at 6am rise and head for the treadmill once more. "I did that for two weeks."

Is there an underside to Denis's cheerful disposition? A dark night of the soul behind one of George's epic, drunken speeches? "I'll be honest with you. There's a scene in the play where I say 'You're testy'. There was a few times I was 'testy'. Ask Fiona Bell." (Who plays George's spectacularly cruel wife, Martha).

At the first preview - when mistakes can be made - he "asked for a line". In the second, two or three lines. "It's never happened to me before. Every instinct in your body as an actor stops you from asking for a line in front of an audience. There's somebody side of stage. You shout, 'Line!' and they shout back. Audiences love it."

He adds with mischief: "Every now and again - if Edward Albee read this he'd hit the roof - you sort of paraphrase a bit."

This play about miserable marriages, set in a living room, is all about words. Verbally explosive, the foursome spar, flirt, cut across each other. George monopolises, releasing forth his vast ideas. He finds tangents in every topic. The one-line put-downs go in easily, says Denis, but not the scenes George is driving. "And now George drives quite a few scenes. That's pretty frightening, when you're going on, thinking, I don't really know this. You get the cold sweats."

Fear struck a mighty blow on the fourth preview. "Monday was a nightmare. I got the sweats. Just when you think you know it, you blank, and you go, Jesus Christ. And you look at the other actor and the other actor's going, 'I can't help you man, because you're driving this scene.'"

Cliché warning, reader: the show goes on. "Actually, there aren't that many characters that there aren't bits of yourself in. We're all capable of love, hate, anger, joy, sadness. And all characters are made up of those things."

Bolstered by fine actors and a high-stakes production team, all would be well. "Stick on an aul pair of glasses and a cardigan and you're away."

On opening night, the heavies were in (I was, too). George was wicked, magnetic, and silky-smooth - seemingly the work of years of preparation. "Good," says Denis. "I'm glad we fooled you."

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf by Edward Albee is playing at the Gate theatre

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