Tom Murphy’s The Sanctuary Lamp received its world premiere at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin in 1975, courting major controversy with what many saw as a direct attack on the Catholic Church. Following a revival of the play in Dublin two years ago, which Murphy himself directed, the veteran writer has brought The Sanctuary Lamp to the Arcola for its first ever London production (until 3 April).

The play revolves around the experiences of three misfits, two of whom have run away from the circus, who all find themselves taking refuge in a church one night. The conversations they have there, amongst themselves and with the church’s Monsignor, are a serious commentary on the nature of humanity, as well as an examination of the role of the Church in Irish society.

Playing the role of Francisco is Dublin-based actor Declan Conlon, a well-known face on the English and Irish theatre scenes, having worked extensively at the Abbey, the Gate and the Gaiety in Dublin and at the National Theatre and RSC over here. Here he talks to Whatsonstage.com about being directed by Ireland’s greatest living playwright and bringing The Sanctuary Lamp to London audiences for the first time.


What attracted you to the character of Francicso?

He’s the product of a Catholic upbringing, who as a result has a huge antipathy and anger to the church. I have a connection to the part. Like him, I’m Irish and spent six years in a boarding school run by priests in a town called Tuam, which is where Tom Murphy is from. The rhythm of it as well; the way he chooses to express certain things resonates.

This isn’t the first production of The Sanctuary Lamp you’ve been involved in, is it?

I did the play years ago at Manchester Royal Exchange in another production and played the same character. Then we did it two years ago directed by Tom in the same production we have now so it’s wonderful to revisit it again because each time it drops a little bit deeper. It’s initially opaque as a play; it takes a bit of work.

How did working on the play with Tom Murphy directing compare to your experience in Manchester?

It illuminated huge sections of it. We were sort of swimming in the dark in Manchester. The director, Jacob Murray, did a fine job, but there was lots that we didn’t quite get.

Before doing this show, you had worked with Murphy as a writer, most recently on his latest work, The Last Days of a Reluctant Tyrant last summer at the Abbey. Did his directing style conform to your expectations?

In a strange way, he’s more patient as a director. I think if you’re coming in as a writer on somebody else’s production, there’s a pressure to communicate all you’d like to communicate in a short space of time. When he’s directing he’s very patient, very calm. He’s a terrific director actually. A terrific actors’ director. There’s a form of communication between actors and directors which can sometimes be overly sensitive, whereas Tom has the language of a writer. It’s not that he’s in any way brutal, not at all - he directs in a gentle way. He’ll unconsciously say something that can unlock things; a more imaginative way of articulating a moment.

In a recent interview Murphy talked about the “rage” he feels “against the inequalities, the arrogance of power”. Did you get a sense of this anger when working with him?

You get that sense in him from the writing. Of all the Irish writers, certainly all the living Irish writers, he’s the one who is the most restless and the one who I think most challenges an audience and continues to challenge himself.

How does working on this revival compare with The Last Days of a Reluctant Tyrant, which was a brand new play?

Tom describes his plays as theories that are only really put into practice when they go into a rehearsal room. I suppose The Sanctuary Lamp was a theory that had already been put into practice a number of times, whereas the first time you’re doing a new play really is an exploration on behalf of everyone involved. You don’t know where you’re going with it.

You had a fairly strict Catholic upbringing. Did doing this play feel like a good opportunity to exorcise some demons?

My mother is a fundamentalist Catholic. Coming from a small town in the West of Ireland, it just controls your life. The priests were like gods; their word was law and that was that. The school I went to was religion number one, sport number two, education a poor third. The priests were quite violent as well. Liberal beatings for anything at all, which doesn’t endear you to them, or to their faith.

I took more pleasure in Francisco’s anti-Church rants seven years ago than I do now. I think the play is much deeper than that. It’s not even really about that per se; I think that’s an element of Francisco’s personality. I don’t say it’s an anti-religious play; it’s certainly anti-institution, but not anti-faith.

Did you feel at all intimated working with such an important figure in Irish theatre?

I’ve always had enormous admiration for Tom so it was a great thrill to work with him in such a close way. But when you work with him, you very easily become comfortable because Tom is very much a man of the theatre and he has enormous respect for actors. He really likes actors; more than lots of directors do. That’s not to say that when he feels you’re doing something that’s down the wrong path he won’t let you know – he will – but he makes you comfortable quite quickly.

You’re clearly a huge fan of Murphy’s writing – what is it about his work that keeps you coming back to it?

The writing is just so extraordinary. I think - because of television and movie scripts - we’ve kind of moved away from language that has the level of musicality and rhythm and the very particular phrasing that this has. I think it’s just unusual work. I’ve read a lot of plays over the years and I don’t know anyone else who writes like he does.

- Declan Conlon was talking to Jo Caird