Michael Colgan once described him as not quite the right material for the Dublin theatre — but the veteran actor is now taking centre stage
Katy Hayes | The Sunday Times | May 1 2016
THERE is tension in the air at the Gate Theatre. Denis Conway has been drafted in late to play George in the forthcoming production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? The 55-year-old was called into rehearsals in the middle of the second week after actor Declan Conlon had to withdraw due to family bereavements. Usually an actor gets four weeks’ rehearsals before taking to the stage, so it’s a bit of a high-wire act for Conway.
“We had the first dress rehearsal the other night, and there was a presumption I wouldn’t get through it, that I’d have to pick up a script,” says Conway during a lunchtime break. “But it’s funny. I’m using the brain so much recently and, like any other muscle, with use it starts to function better. So then last night I’m put in front of a full audience, there was quite a good house, and the animal kicks in.”
That preview went smoothly, but was not uneventful. “I have a speech with the line, ‘I will not stand for that,’ and soon after a phone went off,” recalls Conway. “So I stopped talking and let it ring. It’s very early in the play — we can’t be having this now. Sometimes they don’t realise we can hear them. So the phone eventually stopped, and I repeated, ‘I will not stand for that.’
“And I got a round of applause,” he adds gleefully. “So we won that battle. Then the audience were on our side completely.”
Preview audiences are special, he reckons. “They love the theatre and some of them can’t afford tickets, so they go to previews because they’re cheaper. And some of them are excited by the possibility that something will go completely wrong.”
I had been warned that David Grindley, who is directing this production of Edward Albee’s 1962 play, would interrupt us briefly. Conway worked with the English director at the Gate in last year’s successful production of Tom Murphy’s The Gigli Concert. When congratulated on this, Grindley replies: “You’re only as good as the talent and writer you work with,” and smiles at Conway. “I told you we have a shorthand already,” says the actor, as they head out for a confab.
Good humoured, relaxed and confident, Conway is smaller offstage than on. He has played leads with many of the top theatre companies and twice won Best Actor in the Irish Times Theatre Awards. One of 13 children from near Blarney, Co Cork, his first job was in CIE, where his father had worked for 40 years as a freight inspector. He studied at University College Cork and then taught chemistry for three years at a secondary school in Zimbabwe. For a period he lectured at the Limerick Institute of Technology, while working with Meridian Theatre Company in Cork. He went professional with Graffiti Theatre Company, touring schools, and made the inevitable actor’s move to Dublin in 1992, doing an open audition at the Gate. Unsuccessful, he sought feedback via his agent, and was told that artistic director Michael Colgan had thought him good — but not quite Gate material.
He’s obviously considered Gate material now, having done a series of roles there. “But I know what he means by that,” says Conway. “I wouldn’t be urbane enough [for] an Oscar Wilde play. The parts I’ve played here are either Irish country people, or Americans. I’ve never played English; I’ve never played posh. So I’m still in that pigeonhole, like. This part [George], which would be regarded as urbane, I only got by default.” Conlon had been offered the part during the 2015 run of Gigli, in which he appeared opposite Conway. “So this is a bone of contention [with director Grindley], and great slagging material,” he says mischievously.
“Even the American parts I get are things like a New York cop. And they’re mainly beefy kinds of fellas.” Indeed he played Victor Franz, a policeman, in Arthur Miller’s The Price at the Gate two years ago. The previous year he played Mitch in a Gate production of Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire. “That was an unusual part for me. I learnt a lot because Mitch is quiet and shy, and I’m not. It was beautiful playing him — I really loved it. And I think that started to change people’s minds.”
Conway describes himself as an instinctive performer, though “all actors are instinctive”, he notes. “What you learn over the years is the craft; you learn to build up steps.” He usually learns the lines before rehearsal starts, and then works on accent by using phonetics, which he taught himself. Of course, the whole process has been accelerated for this production. “In the two-and-a-half weeks I’ve had up to now, I’ve put in about a month’s work, by getting two or three hours’ sleep a night and getting up early. I’m a good napper. If I can get a 10-minute nap after lunch, I can function quite well. So the lines have gone in, thankfully.
“You know, at my age, the mid-fifties, is when you start getting the heebie-jeebies, by which I mean stage fright. For males particularly, it seems, the fifties is when it can happen. What frightens you is you think you don’t know the lines.” He gestures at his current circumstances. “So this experience is no help to me,” he adds, laughing.
Conway says that he enjoys working with Grindley. “He realises, as all great directors do, that if it doesn’t come from the actor, there’s no point in doing it. You cannot tell an actor where to stand, how to say a line, what their relationships are. They have to find it themselves. Some directors, misguided or otherwise, don’t know that’s our job. Once actors feel they’re creating, they’re happy. It’s the same as a musician or a writer. Can you imagine standing behind a writer who’s trying to write and saying, ‘No, no — put the comma there’?”
Apart from his work as a freelance actor, Conway was a founding member of the independent theatre company Ouroboros, which survived for 15 years. He ran it for 10. Is he optimistic about the state of Irish theatre?
“No, I’m not. I think the Arts Council policy is wrong. I know the business from every angle: producing, directing, acting, raising money, losing money. I know how difficult it is. When the bubble burst, they cut all the small companies. But if you don’t put money into the ground of theatre, places like the Gate and the Abbey won’t matter.”
He has no idea what comes next workwise, “which is kind of nice. If you keep flowing all the time, your resources and creativity diminish”.
He has an extensive television CV, while film credits include Oliver Stone’s Alexander, Lenny Abrahamson’s Garage and John Crowley’s Brooklyn. He has been busy on the stage for several years and “if you are constantly doing theatre, there is a presumption you are not available. Film producers are almost never able to accommodate a theatre schedule”. Now he would like to keep himself free for a while, to do some more film and TV.
Conway is married to the academic Elaine Sisson, and they have two teenage children. How do the couple manage their two careers? “It’s swings and roundabouts,” he says. “At times like this, I’m basically gone.” Once the show is being staged, he is freer. “I probably spend more time with my kids than a lot of people who work nine to five. And Elaine is away at times too, at academic conferences. We cover for each other. We’re a good team.”
Who’s Afraid of Virgina Woolf? presents one of the most famous warring couples in theatre. What does he think Albee’s play says about marriage? “By the end, you think the younger couple will never stay together, but actually George and Martha probably will, because they deeply love each other, despite all the fighting and roaring. Marriages are fine until there’s a disappointment; it’s how you handle conflict that matters.
“But you couldn’t really put in a sentence what the play says about marriage,” he adds with a grin. “It takes three hours to answer that question.”
Who’s Afraid of Virgina Woolf?, Gate, Dublin until June