Three Small Irish Masterpieces is the title of the Irish Rep's new triple bill, but there's nothing small about them.
Riders to the Sea is one of the greatest plays in any language, The Rising of the Moon is a barely concealed call to arms for a generation of Irish revolutionaries and The Pot of Broth is an irresistible comic classic. Cahir O'Doherty talks to the Irish-born construction worker turned actor David O'Hara, who will appear in all three about his own less than ordinary career change and his starring role.
The Nobel Prize winning Irish playwright Samuel Beckett never had any doubt what his favorite play was. When asked he would always answer Riders to the Sea by J.M. Synge.
This weekend and throughout March you will have a rare opportunity to see it staged at the Irish Repertory Theatre, alongside two other famous plays by the best known writers of the Irish Literary Revival.
In The Pot of Broth by W.B. Yeats, one of his earliest plays, the Nobel Prize winning poet tells a classic story about how a poor tramp tricks a stingy woman out of her food.
What unites these productions, apart from the writers, is that they will star Irish actor David O'Hara, 34, a former construction worker turned actor whose own story is every bit as eventful as the ones he portrays onstage.
“I knew the plays and I knew what I was getting into,” O'Hara tells the Irish Voice.
“I play the tramp in The Pot of Broth, it's the lead role and it's so much fun. Just the language, the epic quality of everyday Irish speech. I’m not sure how far removed we were from the Irish at that point, but Yeats has such an ear for it.”
Playing a tramp who subsists on handouts, O'Hara's character finds himself at the doubtful mercy of a stingy woman while she's in the process of preparing her dinner.
“I need to figure out how to use my charm to get fed,” he laughs. “There's an art to that kind of calculation and the stakes are very high despite the comedy because the tramp has to eat. He's on the edge. He has to get his dinner!”
The second play in the trilogy is The Rising of the Moon, by Lady Gregory.
“All three plays are very distinct in their own ways, but they capture the tenor of the times so well. These are the works of Anglo-Irish protestants, but these plays are written with great empathy,” O’Hara says.
“I think of them as Irish works, without question. Thanks to these writers they recorded these little time capsules from the Irish canon.”
O'Hara plays the lead in The Pot of Broth and he appears in the other two productions (all three have been directed by Rep artistic director Charlotte Moore) as well.
“We're playing Irish music between the acts,” he adds, giving a sense of the texture of the event. “There'll be a guitar and fiddle and I'll be playing the bodhran and singing as well.”
In one sense O’Hara a long way from the farm he grew up on in Co. Limerick now; in another sense, standing on stage and embodying the Irish tradition, it's as though he never left.
But how did he make such an unusual leap from construction work to the stage?
“I was always interested in films and I was down at the New York Irish Center about 10 years ago now and I was pouring concrete down there for a construction company. They were having auditions there at the time for Juno and the Paycock and I said to myself I'll try it out,” he recalled.
O'Hara got cast, playing the one armed Johnny character.
“I just found out that I loved it,” he explains. “I loved the atmosphere on opening night and I loved the actors and I found I was also good at it.”
Coming out of that experience, he decided to do a two-year conservatory training program at the Atlantic Theatre Company in Chelsea, training under writers like David Mamet.
“I left the construction work in June and I was in the Atlantic program in August,” says O’Hara, giving a sense of his determination.
It's about time the Anglo Irish writers of the Literary Revival were given their due. In the late 19th and early 20th century they often got short shrift from their many famous Irish critics. W.B. Yeats, Lady Gregory and John Millington Synge were often variously derided as deluded aristocrats, amateur politicians, ventriloquists and worse.
Irish writer Myles na gCopaleen famously wrote about how oppressed he felt by the conservatism and narrowness of their views, memorably lampooning them in An Beal Bocht.
But it was James Joyce who was their most formidable critic.
“W.B. Yeats remembers forgotten beauty and, when his arms wrap her round, he presses in his arms the loveliness which has long faded from the world,” Joyce wrote. “Not this. Not at all. I desire to press in my arms the loveliness which has not yet come into the world.”
From the perspective of 2018 it's safer to say we are lucky to have had all their competing perspectives. Each of their literary achievements, though widely differing in tone and content, have provided us with many enduring masterpieces.
Beginning this weekend the Irish Rep will commence previews of three rightly famous Irish Literary Revival plays it calls small masterpieces, but that heading may be understating matters a little, because one of these short plays is Riders to the Sea by Synge, one of the most perfectly realized plays in western drama since Shakespeare or indeed Sophocles.
For O'Hara there's no question that any modern conception of Irishness can make room for each of their identities.
“I think we've moved on. I think we're less likely to shout West Brit now and just experience the works for what they say and do,” he says.
Ireland has a unique perspective and a unique way of looking at life that we really should share, he says.
“In America people say have a nice day when they say goodbye, but in Ireland they say good luck! We are always conscious that things can unravel in the next minute.” That thought, and that awareness makes O’Hara laugh uproariously. Being always conscious of impending dissolution is very Irish, he thinks.
Since tomorrow is promised to no one he decided to take his own advice and see a bit of the world for two years, climbing Kilimanjaro and touring Asia, including Laos, China, Vietnam, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Cambodia and so on.
“I'd a few bob in the bank and I said f*** it, let's go, you know? I don't know how long I'll be around for so...”
But in New York City you can't sit on your backside for too long, O’Hara realizes. Checking out is not really on the cards here.
“I'm really just back in it here for the last few months. I worked with the Rep on Juno, which had a very successful run, and such a great company of actors.”
Now he's back in the game and taking it from there.
“The great thing about New York City is that it allows you to become the person you want to be. They don't put any limits on what you can and can't do.”
Three Small Irish Masterpieces begins previews at the Irish Rep on March 2. For tickets visit www.irishrep.org.