“I grew up in a time when the old storytellers had all but disappeared,” says Gabriel Byrne, ahead of the UK premiere of its own story. walk with ghosts at the Edinburgh International Festival.
“But one night, I remember hearing this wandering storyteller in our kitchen. In exchange for a bed, he would sit by the fire and tell wacky stories, some of which lasted two hours straight over two nights. He would keep his audience absolutely captivated with no props, no artificial decor or anything else, just the absolute power of him to tell the story.
Later in life, in the 1970s and 1980s, Byrne was equally enthralled by fellow Dubliner Dave Allen’s storytelling comedy, which captivated huge delighted viewers with long, shaggy dog stories that concerned at least both the journey and the arrival at the punchline.
Now walk with ghosts is Byrne’s opportunity to tell his own story to an audience, from his working-class upbringing in Dublin, through a local drama club, to eventual stardom in Hollywood and Broadway, where he was nominated twice for a Tony Award.
Byrne’s long and celebrated film career includes enduring classics like Miller crossing by the Coen brothers and The usual suspects, as well as working with directors such as Jim Jarmusch, Wim Wenders, Michael Mann, Ken Russell and his old friend Jim Sheridan. Warm and engaging, his anecdotes are powered by stars.
Speaking of the joy he finds in the directness of the theatre, where his performance is in the moment and not subject to a filmmaker’s choices in the editing room afterwards, he mentions one night during the recent Broadway broadcast of Eugene O’Neill Long day trip into nightwhere her co-star Jessica Lange was about to deliver her monologue just as a pizza was loudly and audibly delivered to the stage door.
“Or Richard Harris used to talk about a guy who walked into act one of a play and gave a line that was the denouement of act three,” he says. “‘The king is dead!’ “No he’s not fucking dead, you mean the king is alive and well.” Literally anything can happen, there’s an immediacy in theater that you just don’t get in a movie.
“At the last second last night (of walk with ghosts) in Wexford, I missed my exit and hit a steel pole. The director had to come out at intermission and say, you’re gonna notice he’s got a bandage on, don’t worry, he’s fine. You would never know that from a movie. An audience in a theater is unconsciously prepared for something to happen.
Much of Byrne’s early work was with Sheridan, including a version by WB Yeats On the beach of Baile who performed at the Richard Demarco Gallery in Edinburgh in 1977, the actor’s first visit to the Fringe. “We stayed in an apartment on Dundas Street, all sleeping on the floor,” he says. “Although I don’t think anyone fell asleep during the week. Edinburgh’s energy leaves a mark on your memory.
Forty-five years later, this return to Edinburgh (although it has also returned twice to the Film Festival) follows the first Irish performances of walk with ghosts in Dublin and Wexford. Next month it will move to London’s Apollo Theater for Byrne’s West End debut, then end the year with a performance on Broadway.
“It’s not about the vanity of sitting alone,” said Byrne, of Zoom from Ireland, although the 72-year-old lives in Rockport, Maine, with his wife and daughter. . “It’s not a one-man show, it’s a play in which the other actor is the audience. What I’m talking about is honest and truthful, and so it resonates with them. Most people have a mother and a father, or have been through traumatic events, or have known joys and sorrows. It is a life that is there to be shared.
Everyone has their own story, he says, but he recognizes that his is unique. Yet the original impetus behind the book wasn’t just to talk about itself.
“It was about acknowledging that the world I grew up in was so different from the world as it is today, in every way – socially, educationally, in terms of religion and technology. I wanted to document the past and its interactions with the present. In other words, to what extent are we a product of our own past and to what extent have outside influences dictated history? to try to recapture a time that is gone forever, an Ireland that is gone, but also to tell a universal story of how life has changed over the past 20, 30, 40 years.
We discuss these changes, how technology and the proliferation of news media have fractured our sense of community, despite its desire not to romanticize the past. Byrne sums up his impression best in the story of a moment he witnessed, when a child was flying a kite on Hampstead Heath and their father asked them to take a break so he could to take a picture. Even the process of recording memoirs has changed.
“A woman came to me in Wexford and said there was a line in the play that really stuck with her. When I’m on stage talking to my dad, or his ghost, I say that I never listened to him when he was alive, but now that he’s dead, I hear him She was 33, 34, her parents are still there, but when she got off the show, she had to admitting that she was listening to her parents, but she wasn’t hearing them. The show is about that, about being honest about the things that really matter in life. It’s about sharing my life with the public so that he leaves saying: “I understand”. David Pollock
Walking with Ghosts, King’s Theatre, August 24-28. www.eif.co.uk/events/walking-with-ghosts