Mark Ryan: from Adam Ant guitarist to award-winning playwright

WELSH THEATRE group, Company of Sirens, visit the Town Hall studio next week with Mark Ryan’s bold and accomplished play Sean Tyrone. Although his name may not be familiar to Irish audiences, Ryan – who died earlier this year – had a remarkable career as a musician, composer, and playwright.

Ryan, whose parents originally came from Limerick, was born in London in 1959. After leaving school at 16 he worked in a variety of factory jobs before the arrival of punk and his own innate musical talents opened up a new world to him.

He joined Adam and the Ants as guitarist in time for their debut performance at the ICA restaurant in May 1977. He was in the line-up that recorded ‘Plastic Surgery’ and appeared with the band in the Derek Jarman film Jubilee that same year.

However he was subsequently sacked by the band, reputedly after slagging off Adam to Siouxsie Sioux who reported his comments back to the Ants’ frontman. Ryan went on to play in The Photons with Steve Strange and then enrolled in Dartington College of Art where he studied music.

He developed an interest in theatre and began to write plays, librettos, and musicals. After touring with Horse and Bamboo Theatre Company, Ryan moved to Cardiff, where he sustained a successful career as a dramatist and occasional actor and designer.

He was the author of more than 20 plays, employing a unique blend of music, visual set-pieces, and words to carve out his own distinctive style. His plays display an eclectic range of themes and genres; a one-woman show about singer Dorothy Squires, an opera, Castradiva, and a number of plays for children, including The Lazy Ant which won Best Script and Best Production at the International Children’s Theatre Festival in Shanghai.

Expressionist punk play

Sean Tyrone was the last of Ryan’s plays to be produced prior to his death in January of this year. He described it as his “Expressionist play” and it features many of those qualities – jagged, fractured narrative, heightened dialogue, the looming presence of death and a naïve bewildered young hero. Much of the narrative is delivered in short, punkish, songs while two musicians provide an atmospheric, haunting, musical undercurrent throughout (Ryan also composed the score ).

The play is set among Irish migrants in south Wales during the coal-mining boom. The only naturalistic character is Jack, a young Irishman who comes to Wales in search of his lost father, the sinister Sean Tyrone of the title.

Jack talks directly to the audience, while the other actors transform from character to character as the story unfolds, drawing Jack into scenes that lead him ultimately to the strange, destroyed, mining village where his father had met his end. The scenes merge into each other, linked by the music, by Jack’s anxious addresses to the audience and by the evocative black and white film footage running silently behind them.

Sean Tyrone is directed by Ryan’s longtime friend Chris Durnall, who founded Company of Sirens especially to stage the play, which premiered in Cardiff last year to enthusiastic reviews. A native of Wolverhampton, Durnall has lived in Wales for 27 years and knew Mark Ryan for 25 of those, directing a number of his plays.

Over an afternoon phone-call he reminisced about Mark and expanded on the Sean Tyrone’s style and subject matter.

“The play was initially inspired by the great Mexican novel Pedro Paramo by Juan Rulfo which is set in a kind of town of the dead,” Durnall begins. “Mark took that basic premise and transposed it to Wales. But his adaptation draws heavily on his own family memories, the characters are based on people like his grandparents, aunts and uncles. His Irish roots are a major element in the play and Mark was always very keen for Sean Tyrone to be staged here.”

“It’s a darkly comic play,” Durnall continues as he expands on the nature of the play. “It’s quite Brechtian in stylistic terms. It’s very filmic and there is a circus/carnival feel to the music, and the music is a very strong part of the production, it’s like a mini-opera in ways.

“For the film component of the show we went to this deserted Welsh coalmining village and shot scenes of all these empty houses so it chimes with that theme of the original novel of a town of the dead. In Mark’s play that ghost-town theme is paralleled by the personal quest of Jack for his missing father.”

The cast features six actors and two musicians and in the play’s initial run in Cardiff Ryan himself was one of the performers, playing guitar. The production was much praised at the time; “Sean Tyrone is coiled tightly around themes of lust, birth and revenge,” noted one reviewer, continuing :The production’s dazzling musicality and chilling playfulness entertains as much as it unnerves.”

Physically slight, Ryan was nevertheless unbullyable and could be fiercely acerbic on occasion. He is warmly remembered by those who knew him as a funny, well-read, modest, and musically gifted man. As a member of the Irish diaspora, it’s remarkable that so little of his work is known here in Ireland. For that reason alone, this touring production of Sean Tyrone is much to be welcomed. The added bonus that it is a strong play in its own right should ensure that it draws a large audience to the Town Hall studio next Tuesday November 22 at 8.30pm.

Tickets are available from the Town Hall on 091 - 569777 and www.tht.ie

 

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