WhatsOnStage Logo

Michael Coveney: Sons of Ulster march peacefully on, while stage blood flows at the National

WhatsOnStage logo

Although technically both were sons of Ulster, neither Seamus Heaney, the great poet, nor Gerard Murphy, the impassioned actor, both of whom died last week (Heaney aged 74, Murphy 64), could be defined as either Unionist, or indeed strictly Northern Irish. Both were Irish Catholics who moved away, Heaney from Derry to Dublin, Murphy from County Down to Belfast, then Glasgow and London.

Heaney even disclaimed his nationality when he was included in an anthology of British poetry edited by Andrew Motion and Blake Morrison: "Be advised, my passport's green / No glass of ours was ever raised / To toast the Queen." But he was the opposite of a rabble-rouser, someone who saw all sides of an argument in a political conflict, though he deplored sectarian violence wherever it occurred. And he sat beaming happily at the Queen's table when she made her historic visit to Dublin castle two years ago.

Heaney was made a Nobel laureate in 1995, widely recognised as the conscience of a nation in troubled times, indisputably the greatest Irish poet since W B Yeats. And whereas Yeats was instrumental in forming the National Theatre of Ireland at the Abbey in Dublin, Heaney threw his weight and reputation behind the Field Day touring company which Brian Friel and Stephen Rea launched in Derry in 1980.

The playwright Frank McGuinness told the Guardian that "his poems are a brilliant record of what Ireland went through," claiming that he was the greatest Irishman of his generation, with no rivals. Tom Stoppard also paid tribute, saying that "Seamus never had a sour moment, neither in person nor on paper. You couldn't help loving him any more than you could help reading on from the first line."

Coming from a family of farmers, Heaney's first collection contained a poem called "Digging", though he admitted he had no spade of his own to follow men like them: "Between my finger and my thumb/ The squat pen rests./ I'll dig with it."

Gerard Murphy in Krapp's Last Tape at the Glasgow Citizens
And so he did. He never got round to writing a play about his forebears, but one of his agricultural antecedents might well have been played by Gerard Murphy, a large and boisterous actor with a tremendous softness to his bellowing and a quality, the director Giles Havergal has remarked, "of utter emotional availability on the stage."

There was a time when I spent one Friday a month, for half the year, at the Citizens Theatre in the Gorbals of Glasgow, then run by Havergal with Philip Prowse and Robert David MacDonald. It was the most exciting, and most European, theatre in the land, and no repertory company of the past forty years has ever come anywhere near rivalling it. Murphy was one of their star actors, alongside David Hayman, Ciaran Hinds, Suzanne Bertish, Roberta Taylor, Gary Oldman, Pierce Brosnan, Rupert Everett, Celia Imrie, Sian Thomas... I wonder what became of them all?

Actually, they all became better known than Murphy. But he was the spirit of the theatre like no other in the 1970s, and MacDonald, who wrote most of the new plays, dedicated one of them, The De Sade Show, to Murphy (he played a mad, lascivious duke who threatened to drown the world in his demonic sperm) and wrote another, Chinchilla, with him in mind as the crucial character of Sergei Diaghilev, the great Russian impresario, melting in heat and memories on the Venice Lido.

Chinchilla's closing speech in Act One is a manifesto for the Citizens at that time, and the thought of it, as delivered by Murphy in a huge black coat on a bare white stage, still sends shivers down my spine: "Chance, perhaps, threw us in the way of one another, and together we found a way to rid ourselves of a desperate inaction, as frustrating as it was futile, like nailing custard pies onto trees. And we work. We makes revolutions, we make fashions, we make scandals. Many reasonable people are appalled, many despicable people delighted, but none of that matters. It comes from us. It is a passion, a disease, a lust."

And so on for a couple of pages or more. Murphy returned to the Citizens last year, when his performance of Krapp's Last Tape was a poignant reminder of Chinchilla, listening to the character he once was thirty years previously, hunched over his tape-recorder on a bare dark stage, everyone else departed.

But he had a long association, too, with the RSC, appearing with Judi Dench in Juno and the Paycock in 1980 and opening the Barbican Theatre as Prince Hal in Trevor Nunn's rumbustious production of both parts of Henry IV. His full-on, tumultuously energetic prince was too much for the veteran critic J C Trewin, who complained that he looked as though he'd just parked his motorbike behind the Boar's Head tavern.

This was a very good phrase to summarise the performance, but could more easily be construed, perhaps, as a huge compliment. And four years later, in 1986, Murphy appeared in the first season at the RSC's Swan in Stratford-upon-Avon in a less than happy production of a play that even the most gallant Shakespeareans have trouble enthusing over, Two Noble Kinsmen; the RSC themselves appear to have now given up on it altogether.

The RSC is settling down for Gregory Doran's first season at the helm, but we have to wait another month or so before we know who is to succeed Nicholas Hytner at the National. One new whisper is that Stephen Daldry has put in a joint application with David Lan of the Young Vic. It's not a bad idea, though presumably this would be a way of allowing Daldry to go and make films while Lan - who is a brilliant programmer but seems to have lost his confidence as a director - holds the fort.

The appointment committee may be having doubts, though, about a shared directorship, as they must also have doubts about the lack of public profile of Rufus Norris, another fancied runner, who is unquestionably becoming established as a great director. And no-one ever seems to mention Dominic Dromgoole, who would certainly shake things up and challenge the accepted critical canon of what we mean by good new plays. And he's got energy, and personality, to burn.

Whatever the personality clashes, nothing is likely to rival the character assassinations promised in Michael Blakemore's forthcoming memoir, Stage Blood, which sets the record right (in his view) on Peter Hall's way of running things at the National and hits the bookstands in the middle of September.

It's at the top of my reading list when I return from a short holiday next week. Stand by for one almighty row and the delightful sound of very old scores being settled. Both Hall and Blakemore are in their 80s, too, so it's not as if they're a couple of unwise hotheads. Still, Seamus Heaney might have advised a truce and burial of all hatchets, preferably not in each other's heads.