‘It’s that inability of men in particular to communicate…’

Maeliosa Stafford on Whistle in the Dark

Maelíosa Stafford.

Maelíosa Stafford.

IT WAS the undoubted theatrical highlight of 2012 and it was named Best Production in The Irish Times Theatre Awards. Now DruidMurphy returns for a national tour commencing in Galway’s Town Hall Theatre.

This tourng production comprises a double bill of Conversations on a Homecoming and Whistle in the Dark and joining the Druid ensemble in the latter play is Maelíosa Stafford, making his first appearance with the company for more than a decade.

In Whistle, Stafford takes on the role of Dada, paterfamilias of the volatile Carney clan and over a Saturday afternoon chat he shared his thoughts on the play and reflected on some of the highlights of his long involvement with Druid.

Fathers and song

I began our talk by reminding Maeliosa of an interview he had done not long ago about Conor McPherson’s The Seafarer – a play he acted in with the Abbey and also directed for his Australian company O’Punsky –in which he observed that McPherson’s characters “are so brutal and so vulnerable. They have deep insecurities about most things in life, and seem to lash out at the world when unable to cope or face its pressures.”

Word for word, it’s a description one could equally apply to the men in Whistle in the Dark.

“You could of course,” Stafford agrees. “There are definitely similarities between the two plays. McPherson and Murphy are obsessed with the same kind of issues which are still problematic in Irish society. It’s that inability for men in particular to communicate or to express emotion without being fuelled by drink. We tend to suppress things.

“For characters like Dada, or Richard in Seafarer to have an honest heart-to-heart talk with a brother or father or son can be difficult We’ve moved on in some ways but have we really changed, the things that Murphy was writing about in the early 1960s, McPherson is writing about in the 2000s.”

Dada is a domineering presence in his sons’ lives, and has instilled in them the belief that respect can only be earned by the use of one’s fists. Stafford comes to the role having also featured in Druid’s first staging of Whistle in the Dark, in 1987, when he played Hugo Carney.

“It’s nice coming back to the play a generation older and playing that older part of Dada after being one of the sons in that earlier production,” Stafford notes. “It gives me a delicious perspective on the play.

“Dada - as far as he’s concerned - he’s done his best. There seems to be a very shuttered aspect of the Irish male psyche that cannot acknowledge that anything other than tough love is the way to go. You could call it an old sensibility but I think it’s a modern one too.

“I grew up in a normal family and have a good relationship with my father but I have friends who have had that difficulty growing up and having a relationship with their father. Sometimes the only way they can have an honest talk is with six pints inside them and they can get maudlin and gentle and sentimental. Or they get aggressive and real truths come out. McPherson and Murphy both use that ingredient as a way to stir the pot.”

Stafford and Druid

While both Maeliosa’s parents, Sean and Maire Stafford, were mainstays of An Taibhdhearc for many years, it was the emergence of Druid that decided him on a career in theatre.

“If it hadn’t been for Druid I probably wouldn’t have gone on to be an actor,” he states. “Living in Galway in the 1970s, before Druid and the arts festival, the arts scene was purely amateur and ‘a bit of craic’. Initially, I never imagined or had any ambition to pursue a career in the arts or as an actor or director. If Druid hadn’t emerged I could have seen myself finish my commerce degree and go into something stable like accountancy or teaching economics.”

Stafford made his Druid debut in 1978, in Oliver St John Gogarty’s The Enchanted Trousers and was a core-member of the company for the next 16 years, featuring in some 45 productions as either actor or director.

“The whole adventure of Druid, I knew this was good, I didn’t want to be anywhere else and I stopped going to lectures or studying for exams,” he recalls. “It started getting serious after we moved into Chapel Lane. For me, what changed everything, was doing Island Protected by a Bridge of Glass and making that first visit to Edinburgh. There was the feeling that here was a small company from a remote part of Ireland that knew what they are talking about.

“Then with the 1982 production of The Playboy I’d have to say that was a milestone in my career, followed very quickly by Tom Murphy coming in as a writer in association and MJ Molloy’s Wood of the Whispering. By the mid 1980s, Garry and ourselves knew we were onto something; Druid were beginning to own the right to talk about west of Ireland culture. I think it was Brian Friel who said ‘all we set out to do was talk about ourselves and if other people chose to listen in then all the better’.”

From 1991-1994, Maeliosa took up the reins of artistic director, a time which also saw some landmark productions.

“People associate that period with myself and Vincent Woods and I would concur with that,” he declares. “When I became artistic director I didn’t have a clear vision of where Druid should be going or where I wanted to take it until I put on Black Pig’s Dyke and I decided I wanted to pursue this relationship with the writer, so I commissioned Song of the Yellow Bittern.

“Another show that stands out from then was The Midnight Court. I remember saying ‘this sounds like a bit of craic’ to Sean Tyrrell when he came in to me with the idea. I believed there was a show there, but not the kind of piece we could have invested a quarter of our annual funding on. I suggested to Sean we try it out at midnight in the arts festival and it proved to be successful and popular. The following year we were able to give it an Irish tour. I loved that show and really enjoyed working with the musicians.”

Since the mid-1990s Stafford has been based in Sydney, though with regular trips back to Ireland for work here.

“I’m more of a jobbing worker in Australia,” he tells me. “In Sydney I get the occasional great role otherwise I have to create a lot of my own work with O’Punskys. I direct more than I perform and I teach in several drama schools as well.

“I worked with Michael Blakemore on the Sydney production of Michael Frayn’s Democracy and it’s great for me to be cast outside the Irish mould. I have no regrets about moving here, and I relish the regeneration and recharging of batteries I get when I come back to Ireland and do shows like Lonesome West, Seafarer, and Whistle in the Dark; good-quality challenging work with great actors, and directors, and designers.”

DruidMurphy is at the Town Hall from Friday April 12 to Saturday 20. Precise details of the two plays’ schedules can be obtained at www.tht.ie Tickets are available through 091 - 569777 and www.tht.ie

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