FOLLOWING A highly successful tour of Ireland last year which saw the production receive standing ovations for every performance, An Grianán Theatre is once again touring Pat McCabe's classic Frank Pig Says Hello.
This stage adaptation of McCabe’s acclaimed novel The Butcher Boy, which comes to the Town Hall Theatre on Thursday May 21 and Friday 22 at 8pm, is the story of a young man’s breakdown in a rural Irish town. Challenging but rewarding, Frank Pig Says Hello is at times breathtaking, often haunting, poignant, and provocative journey into the heart and mind of a young man driven beyond the boundaries of his mental and emotional health.
This black comedy features an inventive fusion of storytelling and role play where more than 30 characters are played by Donegal's Patrick McBrearty and fellow Central School of Drama graduate, Fermanagh's Stefan Dunbar.
“Frank Pig Says Hello has a significant place in Irish theatre history,” says David Grant, lecturer in drama at Queen’s University Belfast, who has also directed the show. “It was the first of a series of important, and hugely successful, plays in the 1990s in which two actors take on a multiplicity of roles, requiring them to combine an extraordinary level of technical virtuosity with the capacity to sustain numerous parallel psychological journeys for each of the characters they portray.
"Other plays in this vein included Mojo Mickybo, Stones in his Pockets, and Disco Pigs. Despite their enormous international popularity, cynics at the time attributed the appeal of these small-cast plays to the fact that they were cheap to do but the true secret of their success is the exceptional way in which they engaged the imaginations of their audiences. Frank Pig was the trailblazer for all that.
"Joe O’Byrne, of Co-Motion Theatre Co, developed the script alongside the novel and the two of them came out around the same time so it’s less an adaptation of the novel than a kind of sibling. It did interest me to go back to the roots of that and we’ve been finding that audiences are excited by the sense that they are drawn in to the making of the story.”
The play, which premiered in Dublin in 1993, left such a strong impression on Grant that when offered the opportunity to direct it by An Grianán Theatre’s Patricia McBride, he needed little persuasion. “Returning to the play after two decades, the strongest impression is of the transformation of Irish life since 1993," he says. "Frank Pig’s exploration of institutional care far predates the cold light of scrutiny to which every aspect of Irish life has been subjected in recent years. What has not changed in 20 years is the bewitching power of Piglet’s personality, with all its quirks and terrors.”
I ask David about his directorial choices for this production. “The difference with Frank Pig this time around is that when it was first done, it was set in quite an abstract space, a world of the imagination,” he replies. “We found when we came to work on it again, and it’s probably due to the passage of time and the clerical abuse scandals of recent Irish history, we needed to make it more concrete. What we’ve done is imagine the older Frank in some kind of secure accommodation so the piece becomes almost like his appeal to the audience to be let out. The retelling of the story is to that end, and everything that happens has to be created using the things that are in this small room, and that’s a great creative stimulus for the actors.”
Francie Brady is a character of remarkable vividness, what are Grant’s thoughts on him?
“We treat it as the older Frank who tells the story conjures this imaginary spright to represent his younger self and there is something very engaging and charming about that character but also desperately vulnerable," says Grant. "What you see is a sequence of failures in his life, nowadays the social services would be all over it. In a very indirect way you discover the awful series of breaks he has had. What I come out with is a real respect for this character as a survivor, but at the same time one who ultimately doesn’t convince us he is safe to be free! It’s extraordinary the capacity of McCabe’s writing to both entrance, and it is a very funny play, but always there is that underlying foundation of tragedy.”
Grant concludes by telling me about his two actors - McBrearty and Dunbar.
“They were the main stimulus for doing the play," he says. "I’ve done a series of summer productions at An Grianan and one was a sort of Donegal version of Midsummer Night’s Dream. One of the reasons I chose it was because of this extraordinary young actor called Patrick McBrearty. After that show he went off to Central where he teamed up with Stefan - who is Adrian Dunbar’s nephew. I saw them do an extract from Patrick Marber’s Dealer’s Choice for a showcase at the Abbey and there was such an amazing chemistry between the two of them, they had a fantastic rapport. Over a couple of pints afterward I said ‘You know what you boys should be doing? Reviving Frank Pig!"
Tickets are available from the Town Hall on 091 - 569777 or www.tht.ie