Interview with Adrian Dunbar on his move from acting to direction, 1916/2016, the Gathering and 16 Moore Street… March 23, 2013Posted by WorldbyStorm in Culture, Irish Politics.
…in the Irish Mail, conducted by Jason O’Toole. And as usual in this series of interviews it’s a very interesting one too which touches on an array of subjects close to the hearts of many of us.
Dunbar has now moved into direction, most recently Translations by Brian Friel which opened at the Millennium Forum theatre in Derry, for which he received a standing ovation.
Dunbar first worked with the playwright when he staged an updated version of the classic Philadelphia Here I Come in London’s West End in 2003. ‘I don’t ring him up and ask for feedback on what I’m doing. I report to him and he asks me a few questions, and from those I understand what I should be doing,’ says Dunbar.
Though he admits he directed during the 1980s as well in London. And he’s quite open that:
‘I had put my toe in the water but I was also aware that directors starting off don’t get a pile of money. I stuck to the acting for a while until I earned a few quid. So, I left it a bit late.’
Dunbar’s background is also interesting:
The eldest of seven children, Dunbar grew up in a Catholic household in Enniskillen, Fermanagh. As a teenager, he escaped The Troubles by going over to New York for a while. Though that didn’t leave him untouched; several friends were murdered, while other contemporaries joined the IRA. He was never tempted to get involved because, as he puts it, ‘I was a bit of a scaredy-cat to tell you the truth, like most people. I couldn’t do anything violent, that’s not my personality. ‘Everybody knows someone who was killed in the Troubles from here. We were all affected by it somehow.’ He eventually left the North for good after winning a place at the Guildhall drama school in London.
And subsequently, although tempted to shift from acting to return home when his father died to help his mother his younger brother took up that role ‘insisting that he should finish his degree’.
Dunbar was given parts in several TV movies before landing a stand-out role in My Left Foot which brought him to the attention of major producers. However, he decided to write Hear My Song and organise financing for the Josef Locke biopic with his friend Peter Chelsom, who directed. Dunbar was nominated for a BAFTA, and he realised he had made it. That’s when he met his future wife, Australian actress Anna Nygh, who appeared in TV shows like The Sweeney and Minder.
There’s also the issue of his role in Star Wars: The Phantom Menace which was cut by George Lucas, though as he says he never had an argument with Lucas about it! And he’s no particular interest in Hollywood.
Surprisingly, he says: ‘The money is not as good. You get paid in dollars, convert that into real money, take state tax out of it, take the damn IRS, take your agent out of it, take your manager out of it, which you’ve got to have there, take your publicist out of it, which you’ve also got to have there — suddenly that money is eaten away. ‘There’s only a few people who actually make big dough there. You’re much more in control of what you do here. ‘I’m having a great time. I’m very happy with the decisions I made. I don’t know what I would’ve missed by going to Los Angeles.’
During his 30s, Dunbar became disillusioned with the quality of the television work being offered. ‘You get a bit fed up with it. And I felt the quality of the work had gone down a bit. But in retrospect that could’ve been me thinking, “I need to get out of this and do something else for a while”.’ He went through a fallow period in his 40s and it was then he decided to get into theatre directing. ‘I was getting some work but what it made me do was focus on other things. So I went back to music and started a band. I was writing a lot, getting more involved in writing things, going back to directing, going back to the theatre.’ He also decided to stop drinking at 40 because he could have been using the valuable time to work on projects.
He’s fond of Ireland… to put it mildly:
‘I could’ve gone to America, but both the children were quite young at that point. I didn’t think I could up sticks and go over. Also, I’m a bit of a homebird. I like Ireland. I do like the quality of the work that you can do in Ireland. You can affect things in Ireland. I know there are some very influential Irish actors in America. For example, Gabriel Byrne is somebody who people greatly respect over there and listen to what he says, and rightly so.’
Speaking of which:
Dunbar is dismayed by harsh criticism Byrne endured over his views on The Gathering, which he famously described as a ‘shakedown’. Dunbar goes even further: ‘The Gathering is a bit of a shakedown, as far as the Government is concerned. The Government needs to put something into it as well. I live in London and we’re fed up with the Irish Government coming over and expecting us to jump every time they say. ‘You know, what’s in it for us? First of all, we want a vote on the Presidency. The Diaspora has to get the vote. And then, you know, let’s see what else we can vote on. Because if we’re pumping money and time and energy into this Republic, we want something back for it. ‘It’s not a one-way street from the Government. And for too long they’ve just come across and gone, “Will you all come down and support us here in London. Will you take time out?” And of course we’re Irish, we’re proud, if there’s a chance to put on the green jersey we’ll do it but Gabriel’s right; it’s not a one-way street. The Government has got to say what it is going to give us in return? We need to have some power, first and foremost maybe to elect the President. That’s the first one. Maybe we can be a bit like electing the Pope. Maybe we could elect a President from outside Ireland.’
And he continues:
‘He [Gabriel Byrne] was right. It really isn’t fair that there are just lone voices. Somebody needs to say this stuff, otherwise the Emperor’s wearing no clothes.’
No fan of the Catholic Church either… or the education system in the North:
…which he says is ‘brainwashing people in Ireland’. He has been lobbying for the education system in the North to integrate Catholic and Protestant children. ‘That’s the elephant in the room in the North,’ he says. ‘We’re the only country in Western Europe that has a sectarian schooling system. We run two schooling systems here. I mean, in the Sixties they were bussing black children to school in America. ‘We bus Protestant children from one area to another area. We bus Catholic children from one area to another, when there’s a school lying half-empty in their own area. I don’t get it. ‘What you have to do is you have to tell the Catholic Church to step away from the education system. They cannot have children any more up to the age of seven and ten years of age to brainwash them.’
His political campaigning is one reason why he wants to produce a film on the life of James Connolly, a subject he is clearly very passionate about. ‘One of the big problems in Ireland is that the revolution of 1916 belongs to the working classes. And I’m really hoping that the social elite, and by that I mean the grandees of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, will stop being mean-spirited about the fact that they had nothing to do with it, that they delivered nothing. It was the working classes who delivered the revolution in 1916.
Warming to the topic:
‘It does not belong to the Catholic Church and it does not belong to the Irish Army. The first Óglaigh na hÉireann were in the GPO, but it was James Connolly, Patrick Pearse and Thomas Clarke who were at its head. ‘The IRB formed Óglaigh na hÉireann, it is not the present army; they are not at the front of that parade. ‘We don’t want to see the Catholic Church stealing our revolution from us and we don’t want to see the present Irish Army stealing our revolution from us. It’s the Irish people first and foremost and they should be carrying photographs of their relatives. ‘They should lead that parade and behind them should come the trade union movement because that’s who gave us our independence. Simple as that. And the Irish people know that and we don’t want our revolution nicked from us by a load of mean, mealy-mouthed people. They should give credit where credit’s due. The people who should be leading the commemoration parade of 1916 (in 2016) are the relatives and the grandsons and the granddaughters of the people who fought in Dublin across that revolution.’
And 1916/2016 also is of concern to him in other ways:
‘I’d just like them to grow up and to save 16 Moore Street, to declare that the GPO is a national monument of huge importance, and to stop making suggestions that they’ll put the Abbey Theatre in there, silly things like that. The Abbey should stay where it is and they should have the money to redevelop. It’s as simple as that,’ he says.
But as Dunbar points out as the interview winds down, nothing is ever that easy in Ireland.