More than a Friel-ing
I won’t pretend it wasn’t a little weird to hear Cork actor Alex Murphy speaking in his normal accent - which is quite lovely by the way.
That’s not to say his character Conor MacSweeney from ‘The Young Offenders’ doesn’t have a lovely accent too, but it’s a different kind of lovely, and testament to the actor’s considerable talent.
Probably best known for playing one half of the lovable Leeside duo, Alex’s latest role will see him taking it a step further by playing one half of a single character, so to speak.
That character is Gareth (Gar) O’Donnell from Brian Friel’s classic 1964 play ‘Philadelphia, Here I come!’ which is set to breathe life back into Cork Opera House to a theatre-starved audience from this coming Tuesday.
Gar, a young man who has become disillusioned with life in 1960s Ireland and has decided to emigrate to Philadelphia, is played by two characters: Gar Public – the man people can see and speak to, and Gar Private – the unseen, inner voice.
Alex plays the latter, the talkative conscience who says all the things he wants to say, exactly when he wants to say them, while Dublin actor Shane O’Regan plays the public and far less talkative half of Gar’s psyche.
As they enter their final week of preparations, the lads take time out of their rehearsal schedule to chat with me over Zoom and the chemistry between the two is immediately apparent.
Firstly, I want to know what unique challenges they encountered while preparing for such an interesting and complex role?
“Well, one challenge is that we are not the same person,” laughs Shane.
“I'm the only person that can hear Alex and nobody can see him – I can’t even see him – and sometimes all of your training is telling you to look at the person you're talking to and look into their eyes, but you have to fight that urge. It's a very strange feeling in a cast of 14.”
For Alex, it was a case of getting into the mindset of a typical father and son relationship from the 1960s, very different from his relationship with his own father.
“It's a story of him trying to connect and trying to have a few words with his father on an emotional level in some capacity. In the ‘60s, men didn't really talk about their feelings towards their sons. Thankfully, I have that with my dad and he's very open with his emotions. He'll even cry at a rugby match!” says Alex.
Shane, on the other hand, was able to tap into some of his own experiences as a younger man who found it tough at times to communicate with his father.
“When I was in my early 20s I would find it very hard to communicate with my dad specifically. It's this toxic masculinity thing that's beaten into you from a young age that men shouldn't be emotional, which thankfully our career beats back out of you,” explains Shane.
Asked if taking on such a beloved role in a play considered to be Friel’s first masterpiece adds any extra pressure, Alex says: “Well it hadn't until now, thanks!”
“I think because theatre has been gone for so long, this really feels like a celebration saying, ‘hey, we're going to bring back plays and audiences and we're going to put on a massive one and we're going to do our best’,” says Alex.
Shane adds: “I cannot stress enough that the cast is just so phenomenal that it makes our jobs just so much easier. We're just feeding off each other. We're working hard with it and putting our heart and soul into it. Nerves are a part of that.”
The play, which runs from 5-16 October, will be performed to a 60 per cent capacity audience at Cork Opera House, something the lads are very excited about.
Shane says: “It's just mad to be in a room with 14 other actors and it's getting the work done and having some craic as well which is necessary for this job.
“Especially that first day we arrived, we all went to the Opera House to get our Covid induction, (sorry to say this C word), and it was just this kind of strange feeling of, ‘oh, maybe it's getting kind of back to normal’. Meeting the cast for the first time and seeing it all was just insane.”
Finally, I ask the lads for a message to the people of Cork explaining why exactly they should come and see ‘Philadelphia, Here I Come!’ .
“It's great fun and it's got a great message behind it and I think even if you're not a theatre-goer and the only thing you've been to is a panto, well come to this and give it a shot,” says Alex.
Shane adds: “It's a perfect show to reintroduce yourself to theatre and remember why theatre is its own medium and why it's so amazing.”
The play comes courtesy of Patrick Talbot Productions and will be the first major dramatic presentation for live audiences in Cork since the easing of restrictions.
Patrick said: “It is exhilarating to get back into full production after such a lengthy period of nothing. To do so with a Brian Friel play is a privilege.”
The production is directed by Geoff Gould, director of the Fit-Up Festival in West Cork and formerly the artistic director of The Everyman Theatre.
“It will be a joy to direct Friel's wonderful, iconic, play and my all-time favourite, in my native city. I can't wait to get started,” said Geoff.
Set design is by Sabine Dargent, with costume design by Liv Monaghan, lighting by Paul Denby and sound by Cormac O’Connor.
Tickets are now on sale at €28 and €22 concession at corkoperahouse.ie. It runs from 5-16 October.