Ingrid Craigie told David Hennessy about Dinner with Groucho, the new Frank McGuinness play that reimagines the time that Groucho Marx met TS Eliot.
Ingrid Craigie is ‘Irish theatre royalty’.
That is how Rachel O’Riordan, Artistic Director of the Lyric Theatre in Hammersmith, described her to the Irish World when she was directing Craigie in Martin McDonagh’s The Beauty Queen of Leenane last year.
It is easy to see why she said that.
Ingrid’s work with the Abbey Theatre includes the premiere of Aristocrats by Brian Friel with Stephen Rea, the premiere of A Life with Cyril Cusack which went on to the Old Vic and The Plough and the Stars with Brendan Gleeson.
Her other stage roles include The Collection with Harold Pinter, The Gate Theatre’s production of Juno and the Paycock by Sean O’Casey, directed by Mark O’Rowe, the role of Aunt Kate alongside Daniel Radcliffe in The Cripple of Inishmaan which was directed by Michael Grandage for the Noel Coward Theatre and on Broadway, Faith Healer with Ralph Fiennes and Ian McDiarmid.
On screen she has been directed by John Huston in The Dead and starred with Martin Sheen in Da.
She won an IFTA for her work alongside Adrian Dunbar in Blood.
This month she stars in the London premiere of Frank McGuinness’ new play Dinner With Groucho.
Loveday Ingram directs Ian Bartholomew as Groucho Marx and Greg Hicks as T.S. Eliot while the role Ingrid plays is called The Proprietor.
TS Eliot won the Nobel Prize for Literature for poems such as The Waste Land. Groucho Marx, one of the well known Marx brothers, was a hugely famous comedian and writer and later host of the show You Bet Your Life.
The men were fans of one another but while their one meeting did not go well, the playwright here has attempted to write the meeting they ‘should have had’.
Ingrid told The Irish World: “A new play by Frank McGuinness, a great writer, is always kind of thrilling and exciting.
“When I read it, I just thought it was fantastic.
“It’s got this fantastic idea at the centre of it.
“TS Eliot, the most well known poet in the English language at the time, and this extraordinary and very famous and brilliant comic, Groucho Marx- they actually were huge mutual fans, which on the face of it seems unlikely.
“And they did meet in real life which was not a great success.
“They had one meeting about six months before Eliot died. And for lots of reasons, it wasn’t a success.
“It was a case of never meet your heroes in some way.
“Groucho wanted to talk about Shakespeare and about Eliot’s work.
“And TS Eliot wanted Groucho to be Groucho, and be funny.
“And they also weren’t alone. Their wives were there and they didn’t particularly get on, I don’t think.
“They say this in the play at one stage, ‘We did not get what we expected in each other’.
“But that’s often the way and if you want someone to be the way you want them, that’s not going to work.
“But in the play, there’s time to pull that apart.
“So Frank was so intrigued what he has done is he has written the dinner they should have had.”
The play seems to have something of an other worldly quality with Ingrid’s character The Proprietor conjuring the other two characters up at the start. Although it seems like something more ordinary, it could be that they are in purgatory.
“As far as the characters are concerned, they are meeting for dinner in a strange restaurant and it becomes apparent maybe that TS Eliot knows where they are but Groucho isn’t aware.
“It’s these two men meeting and yet it’s also about lots of other bigger things in a way.
“One moment Groucho is being Groucho and he’s doing almost like a Groucho routine.
“And then we switch, we go into another area so it’s always changing, and it’s always delving into different areas- The private people, what we all feel, what fears we have, all of those things- It’s also very funny.
“Of course, you couldn’t not be funny with Groucho.
“At one stage they talk about Shakespeare, and we know that Groucho loved Shakespeare and he goes on a complete riff about King Lear and what he really thinks was going on in King Lear, which is mad, and surreal and very, very funny.
“At other times, there are echoes about what’s going on in the world now, how long can we survive as a species? There are big questions in it that are touched on lightly.
“How do you live in the face of death?
“And the disappointment people feel in their lives even though they may seem successful.
“Groucho really would have wanted, I think, to be taken as a serious writer, but he ended up being the most famous man in the world for comedy and he didn’t value that, that wasn’t really what he wanted.
“And TS Eliot is saying, ‘My work didn’t amount to anything’, all those feelings that people have.
“He puts across these big ideas so clearly and quite purely.
“I think it’s moving and it’s profound and it’s very funny so it’s a hard thing to achieve.
“I mean, it is just so inventive.
“There’s an ad at home for the lottery where these people have this big chute going into a swimming pool.
“It’s like that, you get on the chute, ‘Where am I going?’
“So it’s great theatre.”
The conversation is not all friendly. TS Eliot was known to be anti semetic while Groucho was Jewish.
“Frank has this wonderful confrontation between them.
“It’s like a courtroom battle almost where Groucho takes him on.
“Like a lot of the play, it’s two brilliant minds fencing with each other.
“So it doesn’t shy away from those issues at all.
“I was asked in an interview what I would say if people were wondering, ‘Should I buy a ticket?’
“And I said, ‘In Ireland, we have a phrase, you wouldn’t want to die wondering’.
“And certainly sometimes when I hear about a performance or a piece, I think, ‘What are they doing? I must see it’. And I think I wouldn’t want to die wondering, I’d like to see this play.”
Ingrid has worked with some truly household names and legends but has it ever been a case of ‘never meet your heroes’ for her?
“It’s funny, the first very famous person I worked with was John Huston, the film director years and years ago doing The Dead.
“It was extraordinary.
“The crew were fantastic. There was such love and respect for him.
“He was very frail at the time, everybody was anticipating what he wanted so that we would not waste his time, his energy.
“It was a fantastic experience because there was such a focus on the work from everyone.
“His voice even, it was like the voice of God.
“He had this very extraordinary voice.
“But he gave very few notes. He was charming.
“But he was also an old style director, I suppose.
“He expected you to come with your performance which in film is the way it was.
“And if it was right, one take and that would be it.
“Actually, we did several scenes in one take.
“But if it wasn’t exactly what he wanted, you would do it again and again until he got what he wanted.
“And Anjelica Huston who was in it: Just real professionals, wonderful people.
“So then when I later worked with other famous actors and they were not behaving well and were neurotic and arrogant- And it’s quite daunting when you come into it. You’re the new boy, new girl on set and it’s daunting and frightening and I could have been overwhelmed by it.
“I mean, there was a moment where I thought, ‘I don’t know how I’m going to do this’.
“And then I remember I looked at them and I just thought, ‘You know, I’ve worked with John Huston’, I had worked with Martin Sheen at that time as well.
“And I thought, ‘They didn’t behave like that. You’re good, you’re not that good. Okay, if you want to do this, I’m able to do that too. I’m not going to be scared by you’.
“It’s disappointing if people behave like that, I have no time for it. I think the great actors I’ve worked with, like Ralph Fiennes and Ian McDiarmaid and people like that, they don’t behave like that. The work is what’s important.
“The great directors are like that, I find.
“Otherwise, you can’t do good work. No one wants to be frightened.
“You don’t do your best work when you’re frightened, I don’t if I’m undermined.
“But also meeting your heroes, I used to think- I suppose we all do. It’s a bit like Groucho and TS Eliot- that with writers, if you write a beautiful poem or a beautiful play, you must have a beautiful soul so you must be a beautiful person but you meet them. They don’t.
“I mean, a bit of them has that, of course and the rest of them is the ordinary person.”
Although she speaks so glowingly of her time being directed by John Huston, there was a time when Ingrid thought the role had passed her by.
“We met the producers in Dublin for that job and they didn’t give anything away.
“They were quite daunting and they talked very seriously and quietly and then they said to me, ‘Do you play the piano?’
“And I thought, ‘Oh, that’s (the part of) Mary Jane they’re thinking of’.
“And, of course, the actor, I said, ‘I did as a child’.
“I didn’t tell them for how long I did as a child.
“I thought I’d cross that bridge when I came to it.
“So then I was working in London actually about to open in a play and I got this message to say, ‘John Huston wants you to fly to Los Angeles this weekend’. And I couldn’t. I mean, the only time I’d been asked to fly to Los Angeles to stay in the Chateau Marmont for a weekend with a couple of other actors, Donal McCann, and Maria McDermottroe, to meet him, and I couldn’t do it.
“And I thought, ‘That’s it. Now I’ve lost it. I won’t ever get the part.
“And then I was just offered it.
“But I had this awful feeling.
“I’d never met him and we arrived on the first day for the reading in this motel where we were staying, and read the play.
“And afterwards, I went up to him.
“Because I was afraid he’d say, ‘Who is that? Where’s Mary Jane? That isn’t the Mary Jane I meant’.
“So I went up. I said, ‘Hello, I’m Ingrid’.
“And he said, ‘Of course you are’.
“He was so charming.
“It was a lovely atmosphere. He was quite relaxed on the set, people would come and visit John, famous friends of his. Robert Mitchum came to the set and things like that. You go, ‘Oh, my God. Look who’s here today’.”
Like Ingrid herself, Frank McGuinness came to prominence at the Abbey.
“I’ve always loved doing new work.
“I began my career a long, long time ago at the Abbey Theatre as a member of the company so it was normal.
“I worked every day for four and a half years and we were doing new plays all the time.
“It’s so exciting to discover new writing.
“I love work that is a challenge as an actor.
“It’s an extraordinary thing when you look back and think, ‘I was in the rehearsal room with Sarah Kane, with Brian Friel, with Tom Kilroy, with Frank McGuinness and with Marina Carr’.
“And you look back and think, ‘God, that’s like being in the room with Chekhov’.
“And getting them giving you a note and saying, ‘You know what that means, or little gems that, ‘Oh, my goodness, I got that from the horse’s mouth’.
“I remember I was in the original production of Brian Friel’s Aristocrats, which was thrilling.
“I was a young actor then and it was fantastic. It was so exciting to be part of that.
“Faith Healer is one of the great plays, I think, of the 20th century and I saw the production with Donal McCann in the Abbey three times.
“And from the time I saw it, Grace was one of the parts I wanted to play.
“And so when I did it then, it’s about 10 years ago now, and I just loved playing that.
“I always wanted to play Nora in Plough (and the Stars).
“And I did that with Gary Hynes years ago at the Abbey, and I loved doing that.
“I mean, I’ve been lucky.
“There are always parts that you’d like to play. You can’t play them all.
“But there’s no regret.
“I’ve been very lucky and I’m loving doing this. It’s a gift.”
Dinner with Groucho is at the Arcola Theatre 17 November- 10 December.
To book or for more information, click here.