The inaugural Stewart Parker Memorial Lecture was delivered by renowned actor for stage and screen and long-time close friend & collaborator of Stewart’s: Stephen Rea on Saturday 2nd November in the Brian Friel Theatre at Queen’s University, Belfast.
“Nothing I am about to recall or recount or reflect on is theoretical or academic… But it isn’t just pure nostalgic memoir either.”
Rea begins by discussing his time as a student reading English Literature & French at Queen’s University. He recalls writing late night reviews with Ian Hill – (charming, sophisticated, witty, topical) and Eamon McCann – (scurrilous, radical, rough), avoiding the Drama Soc – (posers and dilettantes with affected accents) and his first role in a play Parker had co-written with Bill Morrison.
After finding out that university wasn’t for him and being told by Parker that ‘you shouldn’t even be here.’ Rea headed South to The Abbey Theatre to find out what it was like to work in a theatre of ideas and intellect after reading every detail of Yeats but to his surprise he was ‘fifty years too late.’ He founds ‘the only evidence that Yeats had existed was his name on the printed postcards which called us too rehearsal. The problem for the Abbey stemmed from the moment when Yeats handed the theatre over to the state, out of the hands of artists, and into the hands of civilians.’
‘Yeats, as we know, was a visionary lunatic. Theatre should be run by visionary lunatics, not civil servants.’
Discussing the idea of tradition in Irish theatre and poetry, Rea quotes renowned poet Michael Longley at a protest of the closing of the classics department at Queen’s, “The classics are the foundation stone. Remove them, and there will be slippage.” He notes that “Great acting is not based on a spurious virtuosity, but on a profound trust in the power of great texts to reveal themselves in new and original ways.” Rea finds that the difficulty for Irish actors is the “unselfconscious ownership of, or real access to, the English repertoire”.
Delving into his early career working with Friel, Sheppard and Beckett, Rea shares one piece of advice that Sam [Beckett] have him;
“Don’t think about meaning, think about rhythm.”
In Endgame, Clov constantly threatens to leave Hamm. I asked Beckett about one particular instance, “Is he leaving to go to the Kitchen, or is he leaving for good?” “It is always ambiguous,” Sam replied.
“Of course. Acting should be ambiguous. Theatre should be ambiguous.”
Closing his lecture, Rea hopes for new dreams and a new theatre. He cites Owen McCafferty’s Quietly – a play seen in Dublin and Edinburgh, sadly not yet in Belfast, about people on the ground struggling to understand each other, achieve reconciliation. He name-checks new young writers, Claire Dwyer Hogg, David Ireland, Stacy Grieg, Rosemary Jenkinson as heirs to a great literary tradition.
Finally, Rea leaves the last word to Stewart…
“New forms are needed, forms of inclusiveness. The drama constantly demands that we reinvent it, that we transform it with new ways of showing, to cater adequately to the unique plight in which we find ourselves. For those of us who find ourselves writing within a life experience of this place, at this time, the demands could not be more formidable or more momentous. ”