Sunday 25 August 2019

'We just tread softly every day and we will make it together'

Theatre director Patrick Sutton is battling back from a devastating brain tumour with the help of partner Niamh O'Flanagan, writes Donal Lynch

Patrick Sutton and Niamh O'Flanagan. Photo: Owen Breslin
Patrick Sutton and Niamh O'Flanagan. Photo: Owen Breslin
Donal Lynch

Donal Lynch

Dusk is falling in Rathmines, and Patrick Sutton sits at the back of a rehearsal space, contemplating the next day. Tomorrow is his first day back at work, rehearsing for his new production of Waiting For Godot at Smock Alley, and he's feeling a mixture of excitement and some nerves.

Today there is something of Beckett's halting sentences and inexhaustible search for meaning in Patrick's own manner of expressing himself; for the last couple of years, he has been battling the effects of a brain tumour and his speech has been severely affected.

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For the founder of a company called Communicate, this has been a particularly cruel blow, but with the support of his partner, Niamh O'Flanagan, and the team at Smock Alley, he has shown remarkable determination to return to the business where he has made his living for the last three decades.

The play reunites Patrick with several cast members from a well-received 2014 iteration of Godot, which he also directed. It features four decades of graduates from the Gaiety School of Acting, where Patrick is also director.

The huge undertaking of directing Beckett's masterpiece is all the more remarkable given the year and half Patrick has had. At the beginning of last year, he was feeling increasingly tired. He was driving less; Niamh noticed that he would frequently take the train from Dublin, where he works, to Roscommon where they live together, but she put it down to stress; Patrick was just about to complete a PhD and had submitted the penultimate draft.

He had also begun to drag his leg and have difficulties moving one of his arms. As his symptoms slowly worsened, Niamh suspected that he had had a mini-stroke, and booked him in for a doctor's appointment.

It was arranged that he would have an MRI scan. "We had been in Prague and when we got back, we went into the doctor together," Niamh recalls. "Next thing we got the doctor beckoning us in. They said there was a cyst. Initially they didn't seem too alarmed. They told us there are loads of compression treatments. They gave us a letter to bring to Beaumont hospital. We went there and it was about 12pm. We handed over the letter and I was reading it upside down as they read it and it said 'brain tumour'. When I hear those words, I think death sentence. We were 12 hours waiting and I cried constantly. He was just happy that they'd found some reasons for these symptoms."

It was decided that Patrick would have brain surgery during which he would have to remain awake in case he lost his powers of speech, which was a risk with this kind of surgery.

"As it's going on, you have to exercise that function," Patrick explains. "A speech therapist used flash cards, and even though I was awake, it wasn't painful: the brain has no pain receptors."

Unfortunately Patrick had a seizure in the middle of surgery and, around eight hours later, when he came out of surgery, he could not talk and had no recollection of the trauma he had undergone.

Cruelly, the normally articulate and eloquent director was reduced to stumbling over his words. Niamh, who is a music teacher, tried singing certain phrases to him and he would sing them back, which led to some breakthroughs - a different part of the brain is used for singing than for speaking.

The couple spent last summer going from speech therapy appointment to speech therapy appointment. "At one point, we were going from Clare to Roscommon, and Patrick wanted to know something," Niamh recalls. "And suddenly he said: 'Are we obliged to visit the home or are we entitled to circumnavigate it?' Which was his way of asking if we were swinging by the house before we went to the hospital. Another time we were in the sitting room and Patrick was about to speak and we were waiting and he began: 'I... am... pregnant'."

The light relief was welcome - they both smile at the memory - and Patrick's easy sense of humour shines through his halting speech.

Growing up in Dublin, he was what he calls "middle-class". He went to boarding school at St Gerard's. "I wanted to work in drama, even as a child," he says. "I have acted, produced and sung in productions all my life. It was not something that I drifted into. Joe Dowling got me into teaching in the Gaiety School of Acting and that was 27 years ago. Before that, I ran the Wexford arts centre. Ten years ago, Smock Alley was born."

Patrick and Niamh have been together five years. Niamh explains: "We met at a drama course, I had won a scholarship to the course in Gormanstown. Patrick was a teacher and we became friends. My relationship ended with my husband and Patrick's relationship ended with his wife and we met again and something grew and hey presto."

"It's special," Patrick tells me.

Throughout the whole process of his recovery, Patrick continued to paint and work. "One series of paintings deals with this and another deals with chemotherapy. There is anger, fury and peace in there. That is coming out of the trauma. I found radiotherapy very claustrophobic."

Patrick was able to deal with the nausea of chemotherapy but was distressed by his hair falling out in clumps. "It was better after we shaved it," Niamh explains.

There was one incident during his recovery which left him shaken. "I was in the NRH (National Rehabilitation Hospital) and was trying to park down in Dun Laoghaire pier and a car was parked in the disabled spot that didn't have a disabled sticker," Patrick recalls. "And he called me spa face. I took a picture of his car and we went to the Garda station."

The case went to court. "The gentleman, he had to give a donation of €1,000 (to a disability charity)."

You imagine her partner going through such a life-changing event must have been tough on Niamh too. She says that the ordeal has made her "protective of Patrick". It has "tested" the relationship, she says, but ultimately, it is stronger than ever.

Phasing himself back to work while still in the midst of recovery might daunt lesser men, but Patrick's positivity is infectious, and Niamh reasons that if someone suddenly had to use a wheelchair, a workplace would have to build a ramp, so why should Patrick's speech issues not also be accommodated in the context of the theatre.

She says the ordeal has opened their eyes to how properly to deal with someone with a serious disability. "If someone does have an acquired brain injury, you don't have to speak to them as if they're deaf. It's been a journey but we're getting there," Niamh says.

"There is another year of neuroplasticity (an ability of the brain to heal itself). The trajectory has all been forward. He's going to get even better.

"The doctors are saying tread softly… and we'll make it together," Patrick says. "Those are the words I try to keep in my mind."

'Waiting for Godot' by Samuel Beckett, directed Patrick Sutton, runs from July 23-Aug 10 at Smock Alley, Dublin. Tickets: €18/ €16 (concessions).

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