Cadillacs, Coke Floats and Girls: An interview with Rory Keenan

Written for Spoonfed:
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I’m half-way through a conversation with actor Rory Keenan when he says -not really out of the blue -: “In Ireland these days, there’s increased emigration numbers simply because there’s very few jobs.” It’s obvious but easily forgotten and you’ll be reminded of it if you’re going to see the Donmar Warehouse production of Brian Friel’s tragi-comedy, Philadelphia, Here I Come!

One of Friel’s best-known plays, the story follows disillusioned Gar O’Donnell, an extrovert trapped in an introvert surrounded by brilliantly mad women and his surly father in the small town of Ballybeg. He falls more or less into that bracket of 19-24 year-olds whose numbers in Ireland have decreased by 12% since 2011 and they are leaving at an astonishing rate: 3,000 people a month, averaging 111 a day, so the recent stats tell us.

But Gar, unlike his 2012 counterparts, is stationed firmly in 1964 and his dreams are often unfairly reduced to “Cadillacs, coke floats and girls”. However, since Friel cleverly splits his lead in two, we get to hear from public Gar (played by Paul Reid), the one everybody gets to see, and private Gar, (played by Rory) as he confronts his past on the night he plans to leave for The States.

Each side of Gar reveals the desperation constructed by the past, which he looks at through a glaringly skewed prism and the public dialogue rests on inhibited communication and affection between him and his dad.He exists at a time when Irish prime minister Sean Lemass’ was making his attempt pull the country out of its protectionists ways à la De Valera and into the wider economy. In fact, Lemass graced the cover of TIME magazine (on this very day 49 years ago) for his efforts, however flawed they might have been. Gar too is making his way into the world or at least relishing the idea of it.

Today, Rory talks eloquently about “a migratory type dream within all of us”. He sheepishly admits to being an Irishman who’s never seen a production of the 1964 play, a piece of theatre so well known because “it broke a certain mould of its time when it was written” he says, “the idea that you can communicate one character with two people was quite a modern idea at the time.”

As well as separating the two sides of Gar, Friel hit on a something universal and runs with it quite sentimentally. “Whether it’s to America or Australia or anywhere,” says Rory, “there is often this idea of restarting somewhere else.”

He lends weight to an argument against the notion that Friel’s play must be viewed as a period piece now, as Christina Hunt Mahoney put it in Irish Theatre Magazine earlier this year. “Nothing will enable a contemporary audience to partake of Gar’s longing for exotic hamburgers and Cokes” she writes, “his Ballybeg world is now more foreign to our experience than are the major American cities.”

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She has a point about the fading vision of the American dream. However, in 2012, not only are we familiar with the bright lights of the commodified States, but we’re tired of it. One part of our response to this production, directed by Lyndsey Turner, will rest on our understanding of what followed Lemass’ efforts and the booms and busts that echoed globally.

Conversely, Gar’s most private thoughts are fixed in what Rory explains is “a vivid idea of a far away place where he can start afresh and indulge in the fantasies that he’s indulged in in his own bedroom. Even though they might not be real, it’s their attractiveness that lifts any depression. And any notion of depression is only a few seconds away from madness or comedy.”

“Even if you take the most – if you will – boring person and you split them into two,” says Rory, “you’ll find something really interesting about the psychology of that person. This play brings that to the fore and displays how complex even the plainest individual is.”

“We’re constantly having to return to the idea that we are a single person” he continues about the way he and Paul (Reid) work. “Sometimes, depending on the circumstances, a person’s private side might be called into question and sometimes a person’s public side might be called into question. We don’t see it as a half and a half. Sometimes the private side of him will have more input into the world and sometimes the public side with have more input so it’s a share and share alike situation.”

Trouble is, they’re sharing a complex character. “He’s absolutely in his own head and it’s probably a symptom of his home life. He has this stilted relationship with his father, his mother isn’t around and he has this complex thing going on with his lovelife. And he’s an only child too. All these factors add up to him having to create friends. May be that’s why he indulges himself really vividly in music and movies. There’s a lot of scope for invisible friends here. ”

Unlike most actors I’ve interviewed, Rory locks into the big ideas around his character almost refusing to be insular about this role, which is rare and refreshing. He talks politics and psychology and happily, he can’t think of any specific examples when I ask how he might relate to his character’s way of looking at the past. “There’s The Sliding Doors effect,” he offers, “but you have to accept your losses and move forward. A lot of this play is about that, it’s about making friends with your ghosts.”

Philadelphia, Here I Come! runs at Donmar Warehouse from 26th July – 22nd September

Images: 1st – Paul Reid and Rory Keenan by Simon Kane, 2nd- Rory Keenan, Laura Donnelly and Paul Reid by Hugo Glendinning.

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