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‘When We Flew By Night' - Peter McDonald on working with Conor McPherson

Conor McPherson's new play The Night Alive premiered at the Donmar Warehouse this week. Here, actor Peter McDonald, who appeared in the Donmar's recent revival of McPherson's The Weir, describes the playwright at work

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Peter McDonald in The Weir
© Helen Warner
At the time of writing, I am playing Brendan Byrne, the barman, in Conor's play The Weir, directed by Josie Rourke. The action takes place in Brendan's isolated rural pub. During week four, Conor came into rehearsals for an afternoon, and this is how he works:

At a certain point in the story, the character of Finbar, the local boy made good, declines a cigarette from Jack, cantankerous alpha-male of the bar. Finbar proudly explains that he hasn't had a cigarette for eighteen years, not since he moved down from these hills to become King Pin of the local town. Jack says: "I remember this. Jays, you don't look any better for it, ha?" The bar laughs, and the audience laughs. Finbar replies "Oh yeah? We'll see who'd look better after a round or two of the fisty footwork."

In rehearsal, Risteárd Cooper, playing Finbar, has decided to approach Jack aggressively on this line. It's a strong choice - the stakes go right up. I see Conor instinctively scribbling on his script. Rehearsal stops. Risteárd is wondering whether this move across is too much, but no. Conor wants to explore what Risteárd has discovered.

"Now, Brian (Cox, playing Jack)" Conor says, "after the line ‘you don't look any better for it, ha?' turn your back on Finbar, light Valerie's cigarette and say, ‘you still look like a fucking gobshite.'"

The audience laughs at that line every single night, but crucially, not one of the characters in the bar does. Hearing the silence, the audience then catches up with the temperature change in the bar as Finbar approaches Jack…

I met Conor McPherson on a stage. In 1992, I was floating about the edges of the Dramatic Society in University College Dublin, trying to find a clique with which I could click. I met a lovely actor called Kevin Hely; very funny, smart, talented, a little bit nuts - we quickly became friends. He kept mentioning his mate Conor, and how this Conor was a writer. Around that time, when the theatre was dark for a week, I was asked to be a panel member for an impromptu night of Whose Line Is It Anyway? "Apparently, you're quite funny," offered the organising MC.

Back stage, I was quickly introduced to the other panel members. Kevin was present and here, finally, was this Conor - bright red hair and a pair of electric-blue eyes behind steel-rimmed glasses. A quick shake of the hand and out we went. He was hysterical. Mental. Free. I found myself engineering improvisations that would involve him. In the pub after the show, as Kevin had predicted, this Conor and I got on like a house on fire. I felt so comfortable with these guys, confident they weren't going to use words like "apparently" and "quite" in praise of my talents. That night Conor told me he had a new play coming up, Rum and Vodka. Oh yeah, you write …

A few weeks later, as the lights went up after Rum and Vodka, it took me a few moments to take in what had just happened. A guy had walked out onto the stage and started talking to the audience, recounting an epic weekend of binge drinking, of trying to escape his responsibilities as a young, married father. Of course he was really exposing his inability to deal with himself and the reality of the world around him - and who can't relate to that? It seemed so simple. Was it theatre? Was it a play? I couldn't have cared less. It blew my mind. I had hung on every word, to the point that I actually felt depressed when it was over because I wanted it to keep going.

Above all, it had been written by someone in DramSoc, and I knew him! It made you think Jesus, we could do this, we could have good modern Irish theatre, and we could do it ourselves, on our own.

I became a de facto member of Fly-By-Night Theatre Company, and this was no clique - this was a gang, producing original plays by Conor and the sorely under-produced Colin O'Connor. We were a tiny Irish version of the Royal Court Theatre - two writers, five actors, two actresses, no building and no funding - whatsoever. We were away!

Fly-By-Night put on eleven plays, most of them above a pub at lunchtime with a sandwich thrown in - EasiSingles and packaged ham. We were acting our little hearts out, to seven adventurous office workers, a couple of Spanish tourists and someone who had wandered in by mistake. I remember one particular audience member walking across the tiny stage in the middle of a scene and entering the backstage area for a bit of a "snoop". We could hear Conor negotiating with him to leave as we battled on, nervously.

Ciaran Hinds and Michael McElhatton in The Night Alive
© Helen Warner
The last Fly-By-Night show Conor wrote was This Lime Tree Bower in 1995. By then, we had graduated to evening shows, and he was in full flight. The Bush Theatre took the play to London and, as our great friend the playwright Billy Roche would say, Conor was "going to the moon." The Weir soon followed. Suddenly Conor was a West End-and-Broadway-produced playwright, with Evening Standard, Olivier and Critics' Circle Awards under his belt. He was twenty seven.

To me, it was inevitable.

As you wait for the lights to go down on The Night Alive, all I can say to explain my certainty is that Conor doesn't write a play. Like all good dramatists, he imagines it. He does not face the blank page, he faces the empty stage. More importantly, he imagines the play with all of you sitting there watching it. His starting point is the fact that we are gathered here having paid money – let's be honest - to engage in an act of belief, or as others refer to it, the suspension of disbelief. Already, the stakes are very high, but Conor knows how to meet you half way.

He often says that you need to put the audience "in first class", and what he has unfailingly looked after throughout his career is not how great the writing "sounds" but that unspoken thing; the thing that is released into the air by his characters and their stories; the thing that only theatre can do because the actors are right there in front of you – breathing that same air. He is trying to get to that place where you do not even notice the writing - and therefore the acting. It's about what is happening between the lines. They are the real lines. That is when you lean forward in your first class seat and something special happens…

Peter McDonald is an actor, writer and director from Dublin, Ireland. He lives in London. This article appears in the programme of The Night Alive and is republished with kind permission.

The Night Alive continues at the Donmar until 27 July 2013. Over 300 £10 Barclay's Front Row tickets go on sale every Monday for performances two weeks ahead. These can be purchased online, in person or over the phone.