Entertainment Theatre & Arts

Friday 18 October 2019

The high queen of Ireland: Rory O'Neill aka Panti Bliss

Panti Bliss
Panti Bliss
Down and Out in Paris and London cover, George Orwell's 1933 memoir
Part of a remarkable leather and silk dress by designer Jennifer Rothwell

Sophie Gorman

This may be the year of the horse but it could be rebranded the year of the Panti. Ever since one Panti Bliss appeared on RTE's Saturday Night Show in the form of her other half Rory O'Neill, Panti has been hailed as the new queen of Ireland, the voice we should listen to.

Pantigate has been debated in parliament and parlours since. But Panti is no fly-by-night people's hero, Rory has been putting on her dresses for over 20 years, ever since Pandora Panti Bliss, to give her her full title, started performing in the now defunct Dublin nightclub of Sides.

Panti is of course more than just a club hostess and an activist, Rory has brought her to the stage many times now in self-created theatrical shows. And the latest one, High Heels in Low Places, arrives in Dublin's Project Arts Centre on Monday for a week-long run (projectartscentre.ie).

High Heels in Low Places is not a play in any traditional sense. Like Panti's previous shows, this is peppered with personal anecdotes and deliciously scandalous rememberings. And, of course, it does look at all that has happened to Panti in the past year. She doesn't hold back. "I think it would be odd to leave it out. Apart from anything else, it's a fun story to tell, with the benefit of several months of hindsight."

Is it very different for Rory to be Panti on stage in a formal theatre than emceeing a night at The George, Dublin's first openly gay bar? "Yes, there are the practical differences with the audience for a start. In the legitimate theatre, people are expected to behave in a certain way. They understand the conventions that they are in the dark and stay quiet and don't get up in the middle to go to the bar. In the clubs, there is no opportunity for subtlety, everything has to be big broad loud brushstrokes, people aren't there to listen to you seriously, they are on a night out, they want to chat, flirt and drink too."

Is he, Rory O'Neill from Ballinrobe County Mayo, able to compartmentalise himself like say John Banville, and think of Panti and indeed Rory in the third person? "A little sometimes, but the line is very blurred. I find interviewers won't ask Panti the serious questions, or the family background questions.

"Most people think of drag as a distinct theatrical character along the lines of Mrs Brown or Dame Edna Everage. You can't really ask Dame Edna a serious question about Barry Humphries' background. But I come from such a different gay club drag tradition, where the line is much more blurred between the performer and the performance.

"Panti's back story is my back story, for the main part. She is certain parts of my character amplified, a version of me. It's like the version of you that has a meeting with your boss in the office and the version of you out dancing with the girls; they are both real versions of you but they are distinctly different."

Now that Panti is Ireland's high queen of LGBT activism, has Rory ever considered creating a new character? He could be Mary the knitter, for example? "God, no. I never want to go out dressed up anyway. When I was younger, it was my job to go out dressed up and sometimes I would dress up just for the craic. But nowadays I can hardly think of anything I'd like to do less. It is so horribly uncomfortable, I am corseted up to 90. And one of the nicest parts of it all is that, when I am out of drag, nobody notices me."

Is he working on a five-year plan? What about a President Panti in the Aras? "I'd think that quite unlikely. I have never had a plan lasting longer than the next couple of weeks. When I started doing drag, I had no idea that anyone could make a living as a drag queen, there was no drag culture in Ireland, there was Mr Pussy and that was it. I started off doing stuff in Sides, but never thought I would still be doing it in 20 years' time. I eventually got to the point where I realised and accepted that I have no other skills, so I guess I will keep on doing it."

Has Rory ever performed one of his plays in his hometown of Ballinrobe? "Not yet, but I have given my word that I will. The date hasn't been picked and I haven't decided the show yet. Some of this material would work, but there are certain things that I will not ever do in my hometown.

I will be more nervous and freaked out about that show than anything I can possibly imagine. We haven't even worked out a venue yet as there isn't a town hall any more, they do most of the local amateur dramatics in the girls' secondary school. Maybe that will work." Panti in Ballinrobe's girls' secondary school? Get your tickets early.


Sophie's Choice

1) Is poverty the same everywhere? Is it better to be homeless in Paris or London? Exploring this very intriguing premise, Down and Out in Paris and London, George Orwell's 1933 memoir, has been adapted for the stage by Phelim Drew, who stars in this one-man show currently in Clontarf's Viking Theatre. vikingtheatredublin.com.

2) Dublin is certainly not short of art galleries, but navigating your way around them can prove tricky. A new map will help point you in the right direction and show you the short cuts. Updated twice annually, this currently features 25 galleries in total, with eight on the northside route and 17 on the south. dublingallerymap.ie.

3) Unrequited love? Tick. Devious deception? Tick. Thwarted passion? Tick. Heaving bosoms? Tick. Beautiful music? Tick. The Elixir of Love by Donizetti has all this and more in a new updated and English language Opera Theatre Company production currently on nationwide tour. Directed by Fergus Sheil, it's in Tralee tonight. opera.ie.

Email: sgorman@independent.ie


It may surprise you to learn that this beautiful stained-glass window is not in fact by Harry Clarke, nor indeed is it a stained glass window. It is instead part of a remarkable leather and silk dress by designer Jennifer Rothwell. Rothwell is renowned for her innovative prints and she admits this piece was indeed inspired by Clarke's windows. "I was originally inspired by the panels of The Eve of St Agnes in the Hugh Lane Gallery. But this piece was specifically inspired by the Honan Chapel in Cork city.

This dress features in Second Skin, an exhibition exploring the realities of producing textiles and clothing in Ireland of today.

Currently on display in the National Craft Gallery of Ireland, Kilkenny (nationalcraftgallery.ie), Second Skin was curated by Louise Allen and features unique pieces by four of our leading fashion labels - Joanne Hynes, nataliebcoleman, Lennon Courtney and Jennifer Rothwell. They were each commissioned to design, source and produce a garment or range of clothing in Ireland and to document the process and any challenges. And there were many challenges.

The designers were also encouraged to forge creative partnerships and Jennifer collaborated extensively, involving Magee Weaving Donegal, three textile designers, pattern cutters and the digital print facility at the Northwest Regional College. The problem Jennifer kept encountering, though, was the lack of finely skilled labour. "The skill of technical sewing, cutting and manufacturing training in Ireland needs to be reignited once again," she says. "We need to support manufacturing in Ireland."

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