The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea

The Seafarer is the booze-soaked new play opening on Broadway by Irish playwright Conor McPherson. CAHIR O'DOHERTY speaks to one of its stars, Conleth Hill.

THE devil, they say, is in the details. But he's also to be found in the demon drink, in lack of love, and most especially in hopelessness.

In Conor McPherson's new play The Seafarer, which is now in previews at the Booth Theatre on Broadway, those last three ingredients set the stage for a visit from a man who may be the devil himself.

Unexpectedly joining four aging lads in their run down basement kip in the Baldoyle suburb of Dublin one Christmas Eve is a smooth-tongued guest who seems to know everything about them. The question is - is he a friend or a foe?

In each of his plays to date McPherson's characters have wrestled with their own inner demons, most of them all too recognizable, the familiar

hobgoblins of a certain brand of melancholy

Irish manhood. The Seafarer, McPherson's latest Broadway gambit, is set in a flat that looks as stark and cheerless as the inner lives of each of these men, but this on the surface supernatural tale is really all about the difficulty of real life connections for insular and uncommunicative men like this.

During an interview with the Irish Voice, one of the show's stars, Irish actor Conleth Hill, spoke about the challenges and rewards of bringing the new play to Broadway from its recent production at the National Theatre in London.

"I think The Seafarer's message is that there's always hope even in the most seemingly down and out situation," Hill feels.

"There's a light at the end of the tunnel even for four or five losers like this to come away with something that's pretty amazing. I mean, even lads like this can stave off the devil - and most of them do it without even knowing it. And I think that it's the love of life, as bad as it is, and the refusal to give up that make all the difference."

It's fair to say that in The Seafarer at least three of the men are hardened alcoholics. They're not glamorizing drink or pretending it's all a good laugh either. They use it to medicate themselves, and to stave off even worse fears.

"I think they drink to numb themselves from the feelings, to hold off reality for any number of reasons. They can't deal with life as it is and so the drink is their crutch definitely, yeah," says Hill.

The Broadway cast is not the same as the London production. New members joining the New York show are David Morse (most well known for his recurring role on St. Elsewhere), Ciaran Hinds (most recently seen in HBO's Rome) and emerging star Shaun Mahon. Each of the actors is Irish except for Morse, but the cast has voted him an honorary Irishman, agreeing to call him David MacMorse in tribute.

"This is my first McPherson play and Irish actor Jim Norton's to blame for my being cast in it," says Hill.

"We were working together on a show called Shoot the Crow in London and Jim mentioned it. Jim has done many successful collaborations with Conor, and he talked a lot about The Seafarer to me, adding that there were five great parts in it. I read it and I thought, well, I'm far too young and well balanced to play any of those characters, but I met Conor then and that clinched it."

It's a truth universally acknowledged that most actors and directors prefer a playwright to be dead for at least 400 years, but Hill admits it's very handy to have McPherson around in rehearsal. That way he can ask questions that he can't ask the dead ones. He can even take some comfort in the discovery that not every question can be answered.

The Seafarer takes place in the Baldoyle home of brothers Richard and Sharky, where it quickly becomes clear that Ivan (Hill's character) never wants to go home. He's scared of the darkness inside himself, scared of the long walk home, and he just wants to keep on drinking through the night. "I can't really tell you what my character's struggle is without giving it away, but there is something in his past that could be the catalyst for his drinking," says Hill.

The sulphurous Mr. Lockhart, played by the inimitable Hinds, is the personification of the devil himself, and as the night wears on it becomes clear he may have come to claim what's left of poor Sharky's soul over a game of cards.

But the other men have reason to fear for themselves too. Ivan, who is always drunk and frequently locked out by his long suffering wife, has apparently caused two deaths through his own drunken negligence, and Nicky is a loudmouth who has in the past stolen Sharky's girl.

They're not the most lovable clique in the world and certainly not the most blameless. They have good reason to worry about what awaits them, and so the tension builds as the night wears on.

For his own part, Hill is delighted and surprised to find himself back on Broadway this season. In 2001 he starred alongside Sean Campion in Marie Jones' Stones in His Pockets, which was nominated for three Tonys.

"I thought acting in Stones in His Pockets would be my once in a lifetime chance to act here. So this is an immense pleasure once again," says Hill.

"This time I'm not as nervous. Or at least I'm being very bold now, but I'll probably be throwing my guts up on the opening night. I feel like we're doing an exam after lots of revision. I feel calm about it. Everyone's been working very hard to do the best we can."

Hill, who went to art school in Northern Ireland and then eventually to drama school in London, has been working professionally for 20 years, but Broadway star or not he still lives in Ballycastle, Co. Antrim and travels to wherever the work is. And in all of this time acting has lost none of its allure for him.

"It's like that thing you wished for when you were a kid - that you could go back to school knowing everything you know now. The closest thing to that for me is when a play you've rehearsed starts," says Hill.

"You know where you're going but you still work at it. You still have the responsibility, but you can help yourself this time because you've already been there."

Asked why he thinks people should flock to McPherson's latest, his answer is as candid as it is heartfelt. "I personally think that people should see it for the performances. It's a great story, it's a great ensemble piece by actors giving it their all."

(The Seafarer is currently in previews at the Booth Theatre, 222 West 45th Street, and opens on November 15. For tickets call 212-239-6200.)

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