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NA224312 - MCPHERSON, C.: Port Authority (Unabridged)
Jim Norotn and the Plays of Conor McPherson
Interview by Nicolas Soames
Having premiered three key roles, Jack in The Weir, Joe in Port Authority and Father Matthew in Come On Over, Jim Norton has an established relationship with the work of Conor McPherson. ‘I knew about his work before, of course, because I saw Brian Cox in the one-man play St. Nicholas – I went back to see it three times,’ explained Norton. ‘I was blown away by it – here was a really original voice able to raise everyday speech to poetry.
‘And when my agent sent me The Weir, I knew I had to do it. I felt instinctively that everything I knew about acting, and the little I knew about life, was encapsulated in the part of Jack.
‘Conor has a great ability to write about loneliness and the human condition. Not just about loneliness in a small village in Ireland, but with a universality that covers people in small communities everywhere. The loneliness that we all suffer from.’
The Royal Court had commissioned The Weir and, in early 1997 Norton went to see Ian Rickson, who was directing. ‘We talked, and I wasn’t expected to read, but I said I wanted to – I insisted. I really wanted to demonstrate that I could hear Jack. I read his closing story, and we were all in tears.’ By the time he arrived home, there was a message offering him the part.
The Weir went on to be one of the most successful new plays of the closing years of the 1990s, with runs in London, Dublin, Belgium, Toronto, London again, and then Broadway. ‘It was my life for two years,’ explained Jim. He then went back to Broadway for a production of Juno and the Paycock.
Such an intense period of theater is exhausting, and Norton was determined to go back to television and film for a while. But then Port Authority landed on his doorstep. ‘I read it, and I could not believe that he had done it again. I was hooked.’
Joe, in Port Authority, has similarities to Jack in The Weir, Norton admits. ‘It is a variation on a theme, the theme of lonely, lost men. Conor has a particular ability to highlight this; but in his confessional theater, he is saying: we all die alone, but let’s get together and make it a more bearable process.’
Port Authority is very different to The Weir, not least because its three characters never interact. Their stories are interlinked but, as Norton put it, ‘they are in a bubble of their own.’ He continues, ‘It is a dream play. Are they really live characters, or are they in a kind of limbo between life and death?
‘Conor once said to us that three men are summoned to the stage by God to give an account of their emotional lives. That is Port Authority. He also said to me in rehearsal: “You are here to tell the truth, and you cannot leave until your character has told the truth.” He goes on a very convoluted journey, telling other stories, but in the end he has to say the truth – that here was someone with enormous potential and he let the moment go by.’
Port Authority, commissioned by the Gate Theatre, Dublin was a hit in both London and Dublin. It was rehearsed over four weeks in Dublin – it was a Gate Theatre Production – the Gate’s director, Michael Colgan, had asked the playwright himself to direct. Unusually, for the first three weeks, the actors rehearsed individually with McPherson; only in the last week did they come together.
‘Conor sat quietly, smiling beatifically, doing good by stealth. He is the kind of director who waits and watches and gives actors their head. But the text is king. One of the greatest compliments I had was someone who commented on the effectiveness of ‘improvised’ bits. But nothing was improvised. Every “i” is dotted and “t” is crossed.’
Port Authority opened in the New Ambassadors Theatre in London and then opened at the Gate in Dublin. It was an instant hit and played to full houses, and only organizational complications prevented an immediate return to London’s West End and its transfer to Broadway. ‘In a way it was a more intense and demanding experience than The Weir,’ declared Norton. ‘You have to keep totally concentrated by yourself, because you cannot rely on the interaction with the other actors.’
Norton went on to premiere a third play by McPherson, Come On Over. He finds it particularly rewarding to work with playwrights – he has also premiered plays by Frank McGuinness, Sebastian Barry and David Storey. ‘With the writers sitting in on the rehearsals, you can ask them directly what they mean.’
But, for Jim Norton, working with McPherson has now become an unforgettable part of what was already a rich and varied career – four busy decades in radio, television, film and on stage. ‘Someone once remarked that Conor writes like an Irish Recording Angel,’ smiled Norton. ‘One of his special gifts
is that he leaves space for audiences to bring their own experiences into play. He seems to be able to give people a license to reveal their most intimate thoughts and to talk about experiences, which have deeply affected them.
I have lost count of the number of times people have come up to me, after The Weir or Port Authority, and said, ”Well, what happened to me was.”’
Conor McPherson - Writer/Director
Born in Dublin in 1971, Conor attended UCD where he began to write and direct. He co-founded Fly by Night Theatre Company to produce new plays, which included The Good Thief, for which he won the Stewart Parker Award. He became writer in residence at the Bush Theatre, London, where he directed This Lime Tree Bower and St. Nicholas, which transferred to New York. The Weir was written for the Royal Court in 1997, transferred to the West End and ran for over two and a half years, winning numerous awards including the Laurence Olivier Award for Best Play. It then played in Dublin at the Gate Theatre before transferring to Broadway where it ran for nine months.
Dublin Carol opened the newly rebuilt Royal Court in February 2000. The Gate Theatre’s production of the play premiered during the 2000 Dublin Theatre Festival.
Conor McPherson’s film work includes the screenplay for I Went Down, for which he won the IFTA Award for Best Screenplay and the Best Screenplay Award and Jury Prize at San Sebastian. He wrote and directed Saltwater, which has also received numerous awards. He directed Beckett’s Endgame starring Michael Gambon and David Thewlis. In 2002, he wrote and directed the film The Actors for Company of Wolves/Miramax/Film Four. It stars Michael Caine and Dylan Moran.
About the Readers
Jim Norton, one of Ireland’s leading actors, worked extensively in Irish theater, television and radio before coming to London. His many West End credits include Comedians, The Changing Room, Bedroom Farce and Chorus of Disapproval. Active on both sides of the Atlantic, he has become particularly associated with the plays of Conor McPherson, playing a leading role in the world premieres of many plays, including The Weir and Port Authority.
Éanna MacLiam’s stage work includes The Shadow of a Gunman, Stella By Starlight and A Tale of Two Cities for the Gate Theatre; Covey in Sam Mendes’ production of The Plough and the Stars at the Young Vic. His film work includes My Left Foot, Angela’s Ashes, The General and The Commitments. Television credits include The Bill, The Ambassador, Amongst Women and Fair City.
Stephen Brennan has worked almost exclusively at the Gate Theatre since 1988. His appearances there include An Ideal Husband, Private Lives, Waiting for Godot (which toured to Seville, Chicago, New York and London) and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. His film work includes Eat the Peach, Stolen Minds and The General; his television credits include Ballykissangel, Father Ted and Mystic Knights.
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