As one of Cavan’s finest artistic collectives, Livin’ Dred , return to touring with the award winning ‘Trad’ by Mark Doherty the play’s director, Aaron Monaghan, spoke to Thomas Lyons about his art and work life balance.
Art can’t exist without strife. Or so they say. Even the simplest of comedies need a little tension to counterpoint the humour. The old black and white films had it in spades. Movies by Chaplin, Keeton, Lloyd, Laurel and Hardy are all full of squirming discomfort so that when the laughs come, it is amplified by relief.
One of the great Irish playwrights, Samuel Beckett, was pretty handy at it as well. Aaron Monaghan has over 250 runs of ‘Waiting for Godot’ under his belt. His turn as Estragon in Druid’s production of the Garry Hynes directed classic is nothing shy of brilliant. So it’s a good starting point for a discussion on his latest endeavour; directing ‘Trad’.
“I think it is related to Beckett, but I feel it’s the antidote to Beckett,” and so we’re off. The bold Samuel can strike fear into the hearts of many. The impression of him as a figure of towering intellect, whose forays into the Theatre of the Absurd explored existentialism and the search for purpose in a world that had twice tried to rip itself apart.
Mark Doherty’s play - Trad - is different, but has echoes of one of the greatest plays of the twentieth century. This is the first professional Irish production since its success at the Galway Arts Festival in 2004. Livin’ Dred aim to take ‘Trad’ to a new audience and generation.
Founded in 2003 by Mary Hanley, Padraic McIntyre and Aaron, Livin’ Dred is one of the most exciting theatre companies to emerge in the last decade and a half. Runs of the Beauty Queen of Lenane, Belfry, Conversations on a Homecoming, The Tinker’s Curse, The Dead School, The Bridge Below the Town and Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme have left audiences agog.
Aaron recently took over as artistic director, and this is his first directing role with the company. ‘Trad’ tells of a 100-year-old man and his father who live in a remote rural Irish parish. Da (played by Emmet Kirwan) and Son (played by Seamus O’Rourke) are the last of their lineage, until they discover that Son has a 70-year old son.
Together, Da and Son set out to discover the son they never knew he had. On their travels Da and Son encounter two other characters - Fr Rice and Sal - both played by Clare Barrett. It features live accompaniment by two live traditional Irish musicians who bring even more atmosphere to the play and stage.
Any long standing fans of Irish comedy will be familiar with Mark Doherty. Even if you don’t know his name you definitely know his face. Doherty has a particular talent for the absurd. That gift is wonderfully represented in TV shows like Soupy Norman or BBC’s Time Trumpet. ‘Trad’ is another fine example, and in it he combines acute social observation with having the craic.
It’s art as meaning, but ultimately it is what drama has always been about: entertainment.
“As much as the play is very Beckettian,” Aaron says, “there is a good dose of Father Ted in there as well. It’s somewhere in between the two.”
As a side note Mark Doherty was in the final episode of that comedy cult classic: “There’s a danger in that people can be quite allergic to Beckett because he has been so academicised over the years. Scholars have taken him and said it’s very intellectual stuff. I would have felt that way until I did Waiting for Godot. Once we did it I realised it was the most Irish play I ever experienced and one of the funniest.”
“He has all these Laurel and Hardy, Charlie Chaplin and Keystone Cops routines. The more we rehearsed this play the more you realised that it’s exactly the same. There is so much physical comedy in it, so much slapstick routine, yet fundamentally it’s Irish. It has profound little things that can go over your head. It has oxymorons that are so typically Irish sewn into the text,” the director informs.
Phrases like “There you are again”, or “nothing to be done” are essentially Irish, but when applied to an examination of the human condition they take on an entirely different meaning. Return them with an Irish accent and they are normalised again. Perhaps it’s a reflection of an inherent introspective Irish condition.
The natural ability of Beckett isn’t copied by Doherty, but is part of the foundation of ‘Trad’: “It is almost like Mark has heard every classical Irish play and distilled all these brilliant lines into this play.”
Over analysing of the text of the play may damage one essential quality; the fact it is hilariously funny: “I had a chat with Tommy Tiernan recently. When he started out in comedy Mark was the guy all the young stand up comics looked up to. He was on such another level. Tommy was still able to remember some of the routines 17 years later, that’s how influential Mark is.”
With the opening night imminent the process is still evolving.
“Emmet [Kirwin] plays the father in our production. He’s been reading the play for months in preparation. Yet only this week he said, ‘I realise now how much I didn’t understand this play’. Everyday we go back to the text and discover there are more and more layers to it. When it first came out I saw it three or four times. I was really greedy for it. It blew the back of my head off, it felt like I was swimming in a very thick soup and I wanted to keep going back to it, because I wanted to get more and more out of it.”
Like all great plays the audience gets as much out of it as it wants. “It’s an amazingly dense play. That’s a mark of confidence on Mark’s part, knowing there are things that won’t be picked up by some audience members, but it all goes into an audience’s subconscious and goes around in your head for days and though you may not know why you are enjoying it so much, but on a subconscious atavistic level you know you are enjoying it.”
The assemblage for the Livin’ Dred production is very impressive.
“I cast the three best comedy actors I could find. Three amazing people that I admire. I have worked with them in different ways over the years.
“The idea of getting the three of them into the same room is spine-tinglingly wonderful. All the venues we are going to were overjoyed when I put these three actors together.”
Those three cover four characters; the younger one is 100 years old and the older one is about 130, and the third plays a man and a women (though not at the same time): “There is no way you are going to get a 130-year-old actor. In that challenge is the freedom to create. In my head the son looks and sounds like Seamus O’Rourke and the father is a little terrier of a man, and that’s Emmet Kirwin for me. Clare Barrett is also perfect. It’s about casting good people in the roles and I have done that.”
Aaron says that ‘Trad’ fits perfectly into the ethos of Livin’ Dred.
“We set it up 15 years ago. It is funny how things change and don’t change. The reason we exist is because we have a beautiful theatre in Virginia, but it was difficult to get companies to come to Cavan on tour.
“At that time my career was taking off in Dublin. I was acting a lot in The Abbey and Druid and I was just so surprised by the support of Cavan people coming up to Dublin to see me in plays. The idea was ‘why should we have to travel from Longford, or Louth, or Cavan or Monaghan to the capital city to see great plays?’ That was the initial impetus for us.”
“We are very much from Cavan. We wanted to make theatre about Cavan people, that spoke to people in Cavan. We have done that and it’s funny that although there has been a lot of initiatives by the Arts Council to promote touring, 15 years later that problem still exists. It is very difficult for theatres to get top quality touring groups. The appetite for venues is still there. Our mission is still to bring plays about Cavan people that reflect Cavan issues in their home place,” as he talks about his home place it is possible to see that those years of touring and living away have not diminished his love for it.
Aaron Monaghan is not a man who likes to sit still. On top of his theatrical workload he also has film and television commitments. His most recent one saw him work with Philip Doherty on a film shot mostly in Cavan.
“I don’t have time to do anything else at the moment,” he says of this packed schedule. “It’s an ‘up at dawn’ workload. I am very privileged to have that, I love being busy and I love a challenge. Any project I do, I like to do exactly the opposite on the next one. I don’t like to do the same type of project three times in a row. The film I was working on was very challenging. Philip wrote a massively ambitious project and I had to be part of it. I wanted the challenge of playing the lead role in a film.”
“I made a deal with myself five years ago that if there was something that scared me I had to do it. That’s very much something that drives me forward. Which is why I am taking on so much work at the moment. If you do the same project over and over again you are not learning, you are not challenging yourself. You are not developing our artistic integrity you are not developing your skill set,” that drive and commitment to his craft is apparent in his stage work.
He appears to be entirely absorbed in it. So it’s not surprising his wife is also an actor. Her current show ‘Charlie is a Clepto’ is directed by Aaron. A suggestion the actor director relationship causes any marital disharmony is banished.
“It’s a real pleasure. The first couple of plays I directed were with Clare. I love a challenge as an actor. As a director I’m like a dog with a bone and the cast of Trad are discovering the same thing, I can be quite challenging with actors. My way of rationalising that is when I am an actor I am hard on myself and when I am a director I am equally hard on the actors, but they are resilient. Clare gently reminds me of that. I have a very good rapport with her.
“We work together a lot. We have two or three plays planned for the next couple of years, so we have to remind ourselves to stop talking about work at home. She understands when I am away for six months with Druid or off filming in London for two months. The biggest challenge at home is to stop talking about work,” he laughs.
‘Trad’ will tour the country in the coming month, but the place to see it is in the The Ramor Theatre, Virginia from April 11 to 13.