Irish theatre performer Declan Gorman on the challenges of post-colonial independence

Declan Gorman “tumbled accidentally into theatre in my mid-20s”, when he was developing his political awareness. As an actor, he was drawn to Marxism and protest work.

Written by Dipanita Nath | Updated: November 23, 2017 4:19 pm
A scene from The Big Fellow

When Irish playwright, director and actor Declan Gorman arrived in India with the “Revolution Tour”, he had “no real knowledge of the attack on free speech here. By a few hours into the Tata Literature Live Festival (in Mumbai), I realised that, what I thought might be my least overtly political work, had taken on a level of urgency that I only peripherally understood”. The two productions are The Dubliners Dilemma, about a publisher who, having rejected the manuscript of James Joyce’s The Dubliners, now finds himself reconsidering, and The Big Fellow, based on a book about Irish freedom fighter Michael Collins by a man who had fought against him, Frank O’Connor. The Tour, supported by Culture Ireland, is being promoted in India by QTP Productions. It will travel to Bangalore after shows in Delhi. Excerpts from an interview with Gorman:

Why is an exploration of reading central to the Revolution Tour?

I am drawn repeatedly to the questions, ‘why write, why make art?’  While the central figure in The Dubliners Dilemma is Grant Richards, a reader and publisher, he, in turn, is baffled by Joyce’s determination to alter not one single word, though that purist position is self-destructive financially.  (In The Big Fellow), O’Connor, who was neither a historian nor a political journalist, wrote a biography of Collins as ‘an act of reparation’.  Writing and, by extension, reading are a means to some kind of truth. The quest for truth has always been a revolutionary act. Historically, the individual writer, pursuing her or his own truth, has set dictatorships, repressive regimes and corporate empires on edge.

Your blog says you wrote The Dubliners Dilemma to stay sane.

The Irish economy collapsed in 2008 and almost all funding to independent theatre vanished overnight. I found myself suddenly with no work, no funding and apparently no long-term prospects within in the arts . I wrote a play for one actor to test my capacity to survive economically in a post-subsidy Europe.  But, I also found the creative process and the immersion on Joyce’s writings redemptive.

Was this also the reason to return to acting after 22 years in a solo production?

I initially planned to direct another actor, but the writing down of Joyce’s words brought me so deeply into his Dublin and its characters that I felt drawn to perform them. I undertook a rigorous physical and intellectual training to refresh my acting skills, which included sprinting on the beach and hollering the lines of Joyce at the limestone cliff face of Loughshinny, which is the remote North Dublin harbour where I live.

Do you make theatre to reflect your politics or keep these away?

I tumbled accidentally into theatre in mid-20s, a time when I was developing a deep political awareness. While I like, sometimes, to separate my art from my politics, the two often merge and complement each other.  As an actor, I was drawn to a lot of Marxist and protest work.  Later, as a writer, I wrote a series of plays reflecting on the legacy of conflict in Ireland and about the migration of peoples globally.  These concerns still inform my work but I also like to take on a work that is less outwardly political – adapting James Joyce, for instance.

What was the conflict between O’Connor and Collins that appealed to you in The Big Fellow?

O’Connor confronts his own and his nation’s founding myths and propaganda by seeking to understand his enemy, a person he had once believed a traitor to the pure ideal of an independent Republic.  By reconstructing the huge, complex thing that is a man, in all his greatness and fallibility, he comes himself to appreciate and empathise with Collins’ predicament – something the diehard political purist often fails to do. But above all, it is a gripping story.

How do you find the plays from Ireland resonating with concerns in present-day India?

I think the play has resonance for any person in India interested in the history of colonialism and the challenges of post-colonial independence.  We have a shared experience of invasion, occupation and liberation. The Big Fellow does not sanctify the revolutionaries nor pretend, as our masters and propagandists did, that an ideal Republic emerged from glorious rebellion. Rather, using the quiet courage of O’Connor, who faced his own lies and reached out, so to speak, to his dead adversary, it reflects on the complexity of society, acknowledging the heroism of the revolutionaries while laying bare their failure.

The Big Fellow will be staged at LTG auditorium, as part of the Delhi International Arts Festival, on November 22. Entry: Free. The Dubliners Dilemma at Studio Safdar on November 23. Entry: Donor pass: Rs 200

The Big Fellow will be staged at LTG Auditorium, on Nov 22. Entry: Free. The Dubliners Dilemma at Studio Safdar on Nov 23. Entry: Donor pass: Rs 200

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