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Identity crisis

David Hennessy spoke to Max Elton, Matthew Blaney and Stephen Kennedy, the director and cast of David Ireland’s Not Now, a comedy play about identity and grief which has its London premiere at Finborough Theatre this week.

David Ireland writes two types of plays. One is where babies are murdered and dogs are romanced. Not Now, which premieres on the London stage this week, is his other kind of play.

It is a play about identity.

This is apt as just a short time ago the theatre were set to put on a different David Ireland play.

But when scheduling conflicts ruled out a revival of Yes So I Said Yes just a year on from its sold out British premiere at the venue last year, Not Now filled the void.

Not Now centres around Matthew, a young man who is about to travel to London for an audition at RADA.

But Matthew’s father has just died and in his place, his Uncle Ray emerges as a somewhat unreliable confidant.

Matthew starts to doubt whether he should really be leaving Belfast in the play which is also an examination of grief, loyalty and love between the two men from the multi award-winning playwright of Cyprus Avenue.

Director Max Elton told The Irish World: “When we ended up in a situation where we were looking for another David Ireland play to do this, was the perfect one to do.”

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Like his character Matthew, actor Matthew Blaney trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art.

He says: “This cracked me up when we were auditioning because my name is also Matthew, I’m also from Belfast, my uncles are also painter and decorators and I have an uncle called Ray.

“I auditioned for RADA so there was so much that was already done for free.

“I’m also from Belfast and proud to be from Belfast too.

“I was a theatre kid. And Matthew’s definitely that as well.

“And yeah, obviously coming from Ballybeen which is a very specific area in East Belfast where the play’s set and David’s from, this is a Protestant background and it’s a very proud background in that sense.

“This is a play about identity. It’s a play that’s tackling that tentatively.

“Coming over here when you’re 18 years old, 20 years old, you don’t realise you’re Irish until somebody says it to you or they hear the accent and they say, ‘You know, technically you’re British’.

“So there’s identity questions coming to London for the first time that’s not always appreciated or maybe recognised in London drama schools.

“And yeah, Matthew is contending with all of that in the play.

“As David would have had to, anyone from the North will have to, it’s a bit of a culture shock.”

Stephen and Matthew rehearse their characters.

Uncle Ray is played by Stephen Kennedy from Tyrone. With a long career that includes work in film, television and stage, he is possibly best known for playing Ian Craig in BBC Radio 4’s long-running series, The Archers.

Stephen says: “David’s writing is just so good. I think it’s my favourite of his. There’s just something about it.

“It’s really very, very funny on the page.

“I was just laughing over and over again about what is on the page.

“But very quickly in rehearsals, it stops being funny because it is about grief and many other things.

“It just really stops being funny because you’re getting much, much more underneath it and trying to kind of, I suppose, excavate it but slowly and surely we’re getting back to it’s funny again.”

Max continues: “When you switch from one play by David to another, and this is the third one I’ve done, there’s so many similarities, even though ostensibly these are extremely different plays, but they share rhythm, they just share lots of qualities that I couldn’t quite express what they are, but they’re there.”

A lot of the comedy seems to come from Ray, although a well meaning uncle, his advice is not always helpful.

Is he helpful in the mentor role that he is trying to take on in the absence of Matthew’s father, or is he a bit useless? “He’s both,” Stephen says. “He’s both very unhelpful and helpful.

“He’s constantly tripping over himself. He constantly tries to help, but sometimes it’s just completely feckless and any bit of help he offers falls or fails and this just adds to Matthew’s annoyance.

“But you have to kind of reach for the reality in that as well.

“You could play this and it would just be a straight ahead comedy but it just wouldn’t do the writing any sort of service at all.”

Matthew adds: “It wouldn’t do anything to the identity conversation that David is trying to have.

“This is something that I feel like he wants people to be moved by and to laugh at too. It’s a very funny play but he wants people to care for these characters who come from a very specific place, which he obviously cares about and we care about too.

“So yeah, if we can get the audience to do that while laughing then we’ve probably done our job right.

Director Max Elton (centre) with actors Stephen and Matthew.

Being different ages, Matthew and Stephen both left very different Northern Irelands.

Stephen says: “It’s a very, very different place.

“I mean fantastically, brilliantly different.

“When I left, I went to acting school in Dublin, and I used to travel home every weekend, and slowly over time, I found I stopped going home.

“I stopped going home because I just found it stressful in a way that I’d never found it before.

“I became really aware of it then. Really, really hyper aware of things that were going on, the troubles.

“And then it stopped, just going back and seeing all the border checkpoints had been demolished and so that stuff had just gone.

“You just felt like you were driving in the one place and it’s fantastic and people started to integrate again, and businesses started to operate with each other, and then we had Brexit.

“All of a sudden that threw everything up in the air so there is a shadow over it again, there is a bit of a shadow there but thankfully, it is still not what it was.

“And will never be

“I’m going to be brave in saying it but it can’t be. It just can’t be.”

Matthew adds: “I truly believe it won’t be. I feel like that is very telling of the people from back home.

“They’re people that decided that enough was enough and they will continue to do so because of the lived experience.

“That is something that we have talked a lot about, the fact that we are from two different generations.

“And certainly my generation, born after the peace process, owe a lot to the ones who came before who fought for peace and voted for it obviously.

“And yeah, we’ve grown up with the privilege, certainly speaking for myself: Integrated education, much more cosmopolitan Belfast specifically and opportunities, being able to come over to London and not feel like a million miles away.

“And that’s in the play as well, two different generations come together to sus the identity question out.

“Right now you’ve got a populace that includes individual communities who identify as Irish, communities who identify as British, communities who identify as both.

“That is the gift of the peace process, to be able to have that choice, which my generation doesn’t take for granted. Can’t take for granted.

“And it’s all in the play as well. It’s a weird conversation. It’s a tricky conversation but it’s one worth having which is why David’s writing is not only funny but it’s important.”

Stephen Kennedy.

That’s the gift isn’t it, that communities and people can be British, Irish or both, it’s no longer ‘choose a side’..

Stephen says: “And also, who cares? Lots and lots of people really don’t care. They just don’t care.”

Matthew adds: “People don’t, people are cracking on with our lives.

“This is a play about identity, but it’s also a play about just getting this kid into drama school, getting this kid to the airport and then the stuff around it is what complicates it.

“But ultimately, it’s just people doing their best.

“That’s at the heart of this play.

“This is a love story between two men as well who come from a culture that struggles sometimes with expressing emotion.

“That’s not specific to Northern Ireland in and of itself, but it’s the way that we do it which is specific.

“The audience are gonna get that.

Director Max Elton.

“I think also just how outrageous the humour can be sometimes, like no holds barred.

“There’s a lot done for free and we just get to play really.”

Max Elton is directing David Ireland’s work for the third time now after helming The End of Hope at The Orange Tree and then Soho Theatre and the critically acclaimed sold out British premiere of Yes So I Said Yes last year.

Max says he responds to David’s writing like he does to no other playwright’s work and that although he does not come from Northern Ireland he identifies with the characters.

Max says: “I saw Cyprus Avenue when it was at the Royal Court.

“I guess I feel as though something happened, and I don’t know exactly when but it led to a massive dearth of comedy playwrights, playwrights who understood that what they wanted to do with an audience was make them laugh as much as anything else.

“So seeing Cyprus Avenue, it was like, ‘Oh wow, this is something completely different in every way to what else is out there’.

“So I saw that and I loved it.

Matthew Blaney.

“And then I had the opportunity to direct something at The Orange Tree.

“I got in touch with David’s agent and they sent over three or four but there was one called The End of Hope and I just thought it was amazing.

“It’s a one night stand with a woman in a mouse costume and it’s just very, very, very funny.

“So we did that and then transferred to the Soho for five weeks.

“And it was like this just sort of exciting thing to do and it was really through that period where I sort of began to speak to David a lot more about what we were trying to do with that show.

“It’s been an amazing ride of these three shows and just a treat to get to work with someone who is that good at writing and it makes you turn your nose up at all kinds of things that you’d otherwise have done, just because, why settle once you’ve got that gift?”

Stephen’s theatre work includes Irish classics such as The Plough and the Stars and The Silver Tassie  at The National Theatre and Juno and the Paycock  at the Donmar Warehouse.

He has never acted in a David Ireland play before.

“It’s like he has two kinds of personalities writing- something surreal like Cyprus Avenue and the other is plays like this and The End of Hope.

“There’s just something that is incredibly kind of contagious about what happens in his words and they just do something that I don’t think very many other playwrights do.”

It is also the first time Matthew is acting in the playwright’s work.

“I have been a fan of David’s for years.

“He had a residency at the Lyric Theatre nearly 10 years ago and I remember being an aspiring actor at that time going to classes and seeing Can’t Forget About You.

“And even then, it was a breath of fresh air in comparison to older playwrights or more traditional plays.

“And yeah, it just kind of spoke to me being from Northern Ireland specifically as well as being universal.

“I think we’ve all felt that anger. We’ve all felt the pull to home, the fear of leaving home which is what this play deals with as well.

“But as Max says, it’s a gift to read one of his plays.”

Stephen continues: “There’s some days I step back out into London and go, ‘Oh, that’s where I am. Right, I’m in London’.

“I’m so keen for friends to come and see this and loads have already booked and they’re just really keen to see it.

“Because even when I sit with them in the pub and I explain the plot of David’s writing, say with Yes So I said Yes, they laugh their heads off even just at plot.

“They’re going, ‘That is brilliant. We want to see that’.

“You’re going, ‘So what happens then is he meets a dog and then he snogs a dog and then he ends up f**king the dog’.

“And people are sitting in the pub going, ‘What? You cannot do that’.”

Max continues: “There’s so much stuff which is universal about his writing but what’s specific and very not- I’ll say English, I should come up with a better phrase- is he’s not afraid of the bold theatrical gesture in a way that others are.

“They dance around the edge of it and he f**ks a dog.”

What was it like to bring Yes So I Said Yes to London last year with Daragh O’Malley in the lead role? Max says: “What was strange about it was that we had been pencilled in to do it for a long time and then the pandemic happened and then we were finally doing it but there were masks.

“It was great to be back in a rehearsal room but I think it felt compromised by that we were really still in the midst of all of that.

“One of the reasons why we were gonna bring it back is to do it without that spectre of the pandemic and the rules and everything around that made it just much more stressful to do.

“It was fantastic but it felt to me like we only got three quarters of the way there.

“Everyone was wearing masks in the auditorium and I feel when someone in a dog costume bends over and gestures for a person to come around and tend to their needs, the masks weren’t helping audiences give each other permission to enjoy that.

“So I felt like we got quite a long way along but there was just another level that we couldn’t do just because of the world at that time.

“But what was so good was watching people love it and then you sort of think, ‘If it’s this good with masks, what will it be like once everything’s back to normal?’”

Not Now plays at Finborough Theatre until 26 November.

For more information, click here.

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