“I’M STANDING here and my car has just been clamped!” Garret Keogh informs me when I ring him on Monday afternoon to chat about Decadent Theatre Company’s production of Martin McDonagh’s A Skull In Connemara which comes to the Town Hall Theatre this month.
Keogh is standing on a kerb in Derry where the play is due to go onstage in the city’s Millennium Theatre later that evening. It’s the latest leg in an 11-week, 17-venue tour that has encompassed big city venues such as the Gaiety Theatre and Cork Opera House alongside small town arts centres in Ballina, Roscommon, and Thurles.
“We’ve been going round the country with this and it really lifts off with audiences,” Keogh tells me. “The reaction is something you only find once in a blue moon with a play. It absolutely is a wow with audiences. We filled the Gaiety, did terrific in the Wexford Opera House which holds 700 people, did great in Cork Opera House, and we’ve just been at the Mermaid Arts Centre in Bray where it completely sold out and got standing ovations every night.
“This whole production has found a connection with audiences. It’s visceral, it hits you in the gut, you can hear the laughter, which is very obvious, but there’s also whoops and ‘Oohs’ and ‘Aahs’ and it’s quite spectacular to do that, it requires a fair amount of energy and concentration from the four of us in the cast. It’s a big night to carry for just four people.”
So how did he come to find his car clamped in ‘the Maiden City’?
“Yesterday I drove up from Bray to Derry, which is a long old drive and I felt tired after it.” Keogh states. “So this morning I booked in for a massage to relax me ahead of the afternoon’s rehearsal and evening’s performance and now when I come out the car is clamped and I think all the tension has come back!.”
At this juncture the clampers arrive and liberate Keogh’s car, enabling him to share his thoughts on the play, in which he takes the central role of gravedigger Mick Dowd.
“All of McDonagh’s work is infused with this wacky irreverence and black humour but Skull in Connemara takes that even further,” he says. “He has been described as the Quentin Tarantino of the Irish stage and you have people bashing each other up and blood flying but you laugh at it just like you laugh at the violence in Tarantino.
“Somebody said to me ‘It’s a tremendously satisfying night in the theatre’ and you don’t get that too often. It gives audiences a really, really good time.”
Keogh’s impressive CV includes roles in world premieres of plays by Hugh Leonard, Tom Murphy, Bernard Farrell, and Frank McGuinness but this is his first time to do a play by McDonagh.
“Decadent had done the production last year then asked me to step in for this tour,” he explains. “I’d been working with Andrew Flynn [Skull’s director] on Billy Roche’s Cavalcaders which was another tour so I’ve been living out of a suitcase for the past five months thanks to him!
“When you take over a role it is kind of difficult because you’re stepping into something that has already been mapped out, though you do try to bring something of your own to it at the same time. In this case with Jarlath Tivnan and Tara Ryan, who had already done it, it was very useful because what seemed to work in the approach they had was very helpful.”
A Skull in Connemara is the middle play in McDonagh’s celebrated Leenane Trilogy. It centres on gravedigger Mick Dowd who, every autumn, has to disinter the bones in certain sections of his local cemetery to make way for new arrivals. As the time approaches for him to dig up those of his late wife, strange rumours regarding his involvement in her sudden death seven years earlier begin to resurface.
What are Keogh’s thoughts on the character? “Of all the things said about him – he drinks a lot of poitín and it’s rumoured that he killed his wife, he’s a bit of a loner but he sure knows how to work; digging graves isn’t an easy job,” Keogh observes. “In this production, Owen McCarthaigh’s set, which was nominated for an Irish Times/ESB Theatre Award - creates a graveyard and I have to dig two graves, so in the course of one scene I do the physical work. If I didn’t warm up properly I could pull a muscle!
“Mick’s a loner in a small community where everyone knows everyone else. I suppose there is that contradiction that he’s living close enough to people where they practically know what time he gets up and what he has for breakfast, but there is still plenty of room for loneliness within that kind of closeness.”
Joining Keogh in the play’s cast is Jarlath Tivnan, Maria McDermottroe, and Patrick Ryan.
A Skull in Connemara is at the Town Hall from Thursday March 20 to Saturday 22. Tickets are available from the Town Hall on 091 - 569777 and www.tht.ie