The Man in Two Pieces, a new play starring Stephen Brennan and Gerard Adlum, premieres in Theatre Upstairs this week. It marks the beginning of a year-long residency in Theatre Upstairs for rising company Fast Intent (Nessa Matthews, Sarah Finlay, Gerard Adlum). HeadStuff talked to actor and playwright Gerard Adlum ahead of his work’s debut.
Q: The Man in Two Pieces premieres Tuesday April 7th in Theatre Upstairs. How would you describe your play about a young boy’s experiences with a ramshackle vaudeville troupe in 1920s Ireland?
A: I think it’s bittersweet, elegiac, a love-song to a lost way of life. Like The Boy in the play, the audience should get caught up in this whirlwind of a show. It appeals, I hope, to the romantic inside all of us. Plus, it’s got a jittery strongman and a very serious hypnotist.
Q: Fast Intent take their name from King Lear’s first speech; their debut show was Harold Pinter’s Ashes to Ashes, and since then they’ve performed Macbeth and a Pinter double bill. Are Shakespeare and Pinter then the greatest theatrical influences, or are there other playwrights (or indeed directors) that are equally important: both to you as a playwright, and to the other members of the company?
A: Those two writers are, for me and most people, really, about as good as it gets. There’s not a day goes by that one of their lines doesn’t pop into my head. I think all of us in the company hold them in high regard. There’s nothing worse, as an actor or director, than working with a poor script. You’re hamstrung from the beginning. You end up trying to hide the play, not celebrate it. Fast Intent like words. Pictures are important too, yes. But it begins with the written word.
Q: Fast Intent, apart from a Culture Night series of historical monologues in Dublin Castle, haven’t tackled Irish subjects. Was it important to begin the residency in Theatre Upstairs with a play set in Ireland?
A: It’s not something we were particularly conscious of at all. At the end of 2014 we did discuss certain themes we’d maybe like to explore during the residency; the notion of “Irishness” was one of them. Some of the others were “misfits and outsiders” and “togetherness”. This play does address all of that.
Q: Critics get jaded from seeing the same cliches far more often than casual audiences. Has running Theatre Upstairs’ Readers Group had any effect on your own writing? Have you seen the same errors repeatedly in submitted scripts and thus become acutely aware of potential pitfalls?
A: Ha! I don’t think there’s anything wrong with a cliché. There’s nothing new under the sun.
Q: Is this the first original script you’ve written or is this merely the one from a sheaf of plays you’d been working on which best suited the intimate space of Theatre Upstairs?
A: This is my first completed play. I have three or four others in the pipeline, all at various stages of development. Hopefully, the rest of the company will consider some of them good enough to produce at some point.
Q: Stephen Brennan is a commanding presence in Irish theatre, appearing in the likes of Conservatory, Phaedra, and Waiting for Godot. Did you write the script with him in mind for the part of Kerrigan, and did this put great pressure on you to make it a meaty enough role?
A: As clichéd as this may sound, Kerrigan was a minor character that just wouldn’t stop talking to me. He demands a certain presence and a particular sensibility. I wrote him for an actor, any actor, who has those traits in abundance. Stephen Brennan is, arguably, the best actor of his generation and he is sensational in this role. His understanding of the role and its demands have been very gratifying.
Q: As well as writing The Man in Two Pieces you’re acting in it as The Boy. How did that inform the writing? Did you always plan to play the part?
A: It certainly was not my plan! It’s an entirely new experience playing a character I’ve written. When something isn’t working, you don’t know whether to blame your writing or your acting. I think there’s probably a lot of myself in the character; my naivety, my insecurities, my sense of fun, my awkwardness. But I would genuinely love, in time, to see what another actor would do with the part.
Q: Are there any specific plays with music, as opposed to musicals, that made you want to incorporate songs into this show? Did you have to do much research to be confident of catching the music-hall style?
A: The decision to include songs was rather organic. In the script Kerrigan is a singer, so he simply had to sing on stage. I always feel cheated if a play mentions a lot of fun or interesting stuff but never actually shows me it. By writing original songs I was able to connect them narratively in exactly the way I wanted.
Q: The Man in Two Pieces is set in 1921 in rural Ireland. Was it a deliberate decision to set a play about childlike wonder and the power and perils of illusions during the Anglo-Irish War? Is it a coded commentary on the political shibboleths of the period, or an attempt to ignore the political situation and instead portray the everyday life that carried on regardless of the conflict?
A: There’s nothing coded about this at all! It’s fairly on-the-nose, I think. The task of the playwright, in my opinion, is to create a play that is both entirely vague and utterly specific. I am not interested in lecturing an audience, and I don’t think things should be overly explained to them either. If the depth is there in the writing the audience will draw their conclusions, and enjoy doing so.
It’s a play about personal ideologies; the myriad codes we choose to live by, whether social, political or artistic; the implications of these convictions and how they affect the people around us. People will, I’m sure, read into the play politically, and I’m happy for them to do so. It’s certainly a fascinating time in Irish history.
Q: Fast Intent have produced work in Smock Alley, Dublin Castle, and the New Theatre. The productions have tended to be staged quite minimally, focusing attention on the performances and the playwrights’ ideas. Do you think that Fast Intent have a recognisable aesthetic? Is there something about a script that can be guaranteed to draw the attention of all three members, so that if you were to stage work in the Project or the Olympia, it would still carry a minimalist intensity about it? Or am I barking up the wrong tree entirely, and the expressionist colours of director Sarah Finlay’s pre-Fast Intent King Lear production might explode across Theatre Upstairs this year if the script calls for it?
A: I go to the theatre to hear stories. For that I need only a story and a story-teller. This is good because we do work on a relatively small scale. However, I don’t feel our vision has ever been limited by our budget. If we need something we’ll find it/build it/buy it. I do think, however, in hindsight, that we could have been more ambitious in terms of design on occasion. That’s something we are keen to explore this year.
Q: How important is the residency in Theatre Upstairs, and are you hard at work writing the next two plays for the residency?
A: Theatre Upstairs is buzzing at the moment. It’s a hub of creativity that is exciting and challenging to operate within. The residency is a lovely opportunity for us to put on plays. That’s all we’ve ever tried to do. Anything that comes after that is a bonus. There is no master plan.
We’ll get this one out of the way first before we look ahead, but ideas are definitely circulating around Fast Intent Towers.
Runs from April 7th – 18th.
Venue: Theatre Upstairs, Dublin.
Box Office: +353 (0)85 7727375.
Featured Image Credit: Theatre Upstairs