Wednesday 21 August 2019

Theatre: Crawling through mud all for love of the stage

Homeward bound: Husband and wife duo Conor Lovett and Judy Hegarty Lovett
Homeward bound: Husband and wife duo Conor Lovett and Judy Hegarty Lovett

Maggie Armstrong

It's easy to get romantic this time of year. Upon meeting two young titans of the stage last week, Judy Hegarty Lovett and Conor Lovett, my heart leapt for having glimpsed such an epic love story. They met aged 14 in Cork and moved to Paris in their 20s, living in the Latin Quarter, where they joined a theatre company, then toured the world, stopping en route to get married and have three children, and returning this winter to Cork as the new Artists in Residence at the Everyman Theatre.

The story will go down in the annals, next to Bono and Ali's, and all the other 'showmances' of yore. Surely?

Not quite. Judy and Conor, of Gare St Lazare Players Ireland, may be childhood sweethearts, but they are also intently serious artists, unwilling to donate any love stories to the press. They decline to say how they met.

"Our work is the reason we're talking at all," says Conor, sitting up straight in the bar of the Everyman, and Judy concurs.

Mercifully, their work happens to be particularly fascinating.

All this time on the road, Judy as director, Conor as actor, known for his magnetism and his restrained black humour in the telling of a lonely monologue, they have brought along the spirit of a tall, lined Irishman who also lived in Paris most of his life, making theatre. Samuel Beckett, that is.

Gare St Lazare have produced new plays by Will Eno, Michael Harding and Conor McPhearson, but Beckett is the metal they continue to mine, these 20 years. And it is in staging the Nobel Prize winner's more obscure prose work that they have set themselves apart. Beckett, we mustn't forget, was also a novelist.

He is a gift that keeps giving to them. "There's a whole treasure trove of possibility and places to go in the work," says Conor. "For me it's almost like a philosophy for life," says Judy.

It was around the time Beckett died, in 1989, that Judy and Conor started reading him. When Conor was 18 he got Beckett's complete dramatic works out of the library, and discovered there were novels there too: "I was just in my element. I was saying to Judy, jeez, you've got to read this stuff."

Judy, meanwhile, studying at the Crawford College of Art and Design, had seen her first ever theatre show, Waiting for Godot at the now-extinguished Ivernia Theatre on Grand Parade. She majored in performance art, picking up her visual nous as a director as they embarked on their unorthodox path.

They moved to Paris in 1991 and fell in with a loose ensemble, the Gare St Lazare. These were ex-pats from Chicago and all over, making their way in the City of Light, or like Conor, receiving blue-chip theatrical training in the École Jacques Lecoq. When the old guard of the Gare St Lazare broke towards film, Judy and Conor broke towards pure theatre and kept the name, adding, like good patriots, 'Ireland'.

Their first success was with Beckett's novel Molloy, which Conor performed in 1996 and brought to 16 countries. They have since produced 11 of Beckett's prose pieces around the world.

Given the esoteric nature of the texts they are unearthing, touring gives them an exceptionally wide audience, and a rich one. They have mingled not only with the world's "Becketteers", as Judy calls them, but with the American patrons who have kept them in business.

They are just home from the Lincoln Centre in Manhattan with Here All Night, a collaborative musical work based on Beckett's own, scarcely known musical texts.

This nine-month residency at the Everyman includes workshops with artists eager to learn from a duo at the top of their game. But it also takes Gare St Lazare into one of their most ambitious challenges yet. How It Is is a novel in three parts by Samuel Beckett.

'It is about a man crawling through mud with a tin opener and a sack of tins, as Conor, its sole performer, explains: "It works on many strange levels to tell a story of journey, solitude, company, solitude."

Published in French (Comment C'est) in 1961, How It Is has never been staged to date. Conor and Judy intend to premiere their adaptation in 2017/18, with sound design by Mel Mercier. And it all begins here at the Everyman.

However private they are about their own story, they are flatteringly public in how they make their work.

In their home studio in rural Maricourt, north-west of Paris, they always invite friends to see plays in progress before they are "fully cooked" Conor says.

In the Everyman on the week of January 11, a similar road test will happen with an "invited audience". (Cue: get in there fast).

"So much about our work is about our audience," says Judy, "and needs to be with our audience, that we'll keep testing it before we fully put it out there, as it's never a finished piece, but an almost finished piece."

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