Sunday 18 March 2018

Theatre: Tales - sad and sinister - for Halloween Night

Tales of the unexpected: Saoirse gets into character before the play by her father, Karl Shiels, at Theatre Upstairs.
Tales of the unexpected: Saoirse gets into character before the play by her father, Karl Shiels, at Theatre Upstairs.

Maggie Armstrong

I've always been scared of Karl Shiels. Could it be the parts he plays? Gangland criminals, IRA paramilitaries and ordinary everyday psychopaths.

Film draws out pure menace in him: in Veronica Guerin, as Paul Ward, an accomplice in the journalist's murder. In Intermission as a violent drug lord, if memory serves. In Batman Begins, when he lived every boy's wet dream having hand-to-hand combat with Batman.

The stage exploits his unusual Latino colouring (he's from Chapelizod, north Dublin) and a certain savage look in his eye. In Mark O'Rowe's Howie the Rookie he played the mad rookie (the New York Times described him as a "beautiful lad") and in Terminus, by the same writer, a serial killer who sells his soul, reincarnates as a beast made of earthworms and is disembowelled: "I went around ripping people up with knives," Karl recalls. Drumbelly at the Abbey, an Irish Mafioso. Enda Walsh's Penelope, Quinn, "the embodiment of hatred."

Cast in fiction, Shiels is as villainous a baddie as they come. But in life, he's an establishment goodie. As artistic director of Theatre Upstairs, he is one of those behind-the-scenes toilers who breathes life, heart, soul, music and magic into the performing arts.

Sitting in his theatre above Lanigan's Bar on Dublin's quays, 44-year-old Karl retains some of his frightening qualities, dressed head-to-heel in black, his now silver hair scraped back. Rolled-up sleeves show a tattoo of bare branches and crows flying about. "It's growing", he says.

He has a thing for the woods. Their current play cycle is Tales from the Woods, an anthology of three short plays for Halloween by Gary Duggan, Kate Gilmore and Karl himself, starring India Mullen (Red Rock), among others, and co-produced with Gumption Theatre Company. You get a trick and a treat at this little horrorthon, as each night a different surprise guest reads a horror tale, some newly written.

Karl's play is an adaptation of the Grimm Brothers fairytale, 'How Some Children Played at Slaughtering'. About a butcher, a cook and a pig, it appeared in the first edition of the Tales but not the second, most likely because it was too gruesome. Karl wanted to "have a stab" at writing, and Grimm Brothers morality always fascinated him. It opened Tuesday.

It is not Karl's first play. Oh no. 10 years ago and an actor in his prime, this trained electrician, former nightclub bouncer and Gaiety School graduate got a commission from the Abbey.

He was playing Seumas Shields in The Shadow of a Gunman at the Lyric in Belfast. They let him spend his mornings in the empty theatre drinking coffee and playing music to himself, with pen and paper in hand. He wrote a two-hander, Fogarty, about "a bad clown" who keeps a young girl in his basement.

This was before a man called Josef Fritzl came to light. In the final harrrowing scene the girl escapes.

It got two rehearsed readings and then was withdrawn from the Abbey for good. "I was told the national theatre would probably never do it. So that was fine."

With six-year-old twin daughters, a busy programme in the theatre to run and his living to earn as an actor, a play like this is hard won. The morning we met, Karl had risen at 5am as he usually does, to learn his lines for Fair City - he plays Robbie, a "wheeler dealer". Has he slept up here in Theatre Upstairs on occasion? ''Oh yes'', he says, ''when your body can't take any more you just grab a few hours.''

Karl describes himself as a "sponge". When he meets people - in a pub theatre, you meet many - he soaks them in, and sometimes questions who they really are. He delights in "the fear of the unknown" and is driven to shine a light on dark corners.

You've got to find something redeemable in nasty characters, he says. Of the weirdos he plays: "These people are human beings." He selects roles only if they are "worth the journey. If you are Dr Frankenstein, you breathe life into a monster".

We pop into the tiny theatre where four young women are rehearsing Tales from the Woods. On the stage sit a scary Victorian doll and stuffed raven Karl has christened Edgar Allen Poe. India Mullen is dialoguing with Peter Gaynor's unhallowed voice-over.

Karl is a relaxed director. "Let it bleed," he says, urging India to say her lines slowly. "Draw into that darkness." "Go on, butcher it at the end." Then, in a fit of laughter, he howls like a werewolf.

Scared, I repeat. Scared.

Tales from the Woods runs at Theatre Upstairs until November 7, with matinees Wednesday and Saturdays

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