ARTS / Show People: 43. Stephen Rea: A star in another language

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The Independent Culture
Stephen Rea's performance in Someone Who'll Watch over Me should make him an international star - it is on its way from Hampstead to Broadway, via the West End. 'Sure,' he says, 'I'm an international star already - in England and in Ireland.' The put-down is characteristic of the actor as well as the part he plays - Edward, the Irish journalist turned Beirut hostage. Gangling, sardonic, with a face half way from Byron and Bob Geldof, he is the only one of the three characters who is on stage throughout. It is a 160-minute tour de force.

Frank McGuinness's play has an Englishman, an Irishman and an American holed up in a cell. They defeat the terror and boredom of their awful limbo by cracking jokes. 'No Irish writer can write about anything awful without it being funny,' says Rea. 'I see this play as a direct descendant of Beckett. It's like Waiting for Godot without the symbolic perimeters - a reduction of everything to its elements so that we can talk about, well, life]' Rea recalls working with Beckett on Endgame in the late Seventies. 'Beckett never wanted to talk about the meaning of his plays. He was only interested in the jokes. Brilliant]'

Actors usually stress how different they are from their parts, but Rea says: 'I couldn't identify more closely with a character. A lot of elements came together in this for me: the way Edward is in the world; his politics, that glib irony which seems to suit Northern Irish people; his truculence about the English. I hate talking about myself, but I do think Edward could only be played by someone who had retained that identity. I don't think someone could pretend to be Edward.'

Now in his forties, Rea grew up in Belfast, went to Queen's University and then the Abbey Theatre, Dublin - 'a conscious decision to be an Irish actor rather than some strange hybrid'. In 1974 he played the stand-up comic George McBrain in Trevor Griffiths' Comedians, and was offered pounds 600 a week to do McBrain's act on the northern club circuit. Rea, then on pounds 90 a week, declined.

'McBrain was quintessential Stephen,' says Richard Eyre, who directed the play. 'He's hugely fastidious about culture, but he loves popular entertainment. He is very droll, dry, romantic, melancholic, mercurial, philosophical and sometimes very perverse, and you get a sense of all that in his performances.'

In the mid-Seventies Rea went to the National, bringing truth and unpredictability to classic stage Irishmen like Christy Mahon in Playboy of the Western World and Boucicault's Shaughraun. 'He raises two fingers to an audience's expectations of a part,' says the Independent on Sunday theatre critic, Irving Wardle. 'He refuses to hide behind any notion of his country's national characteristics.'

Peter Hall suggested it might be to his advantage to 'adjust' his accent: 'Would I not like to be something more?' remembers Rea, with a hint of menace. 'No one would ever ask Alec if he were unhappy being an English actor. I'm a bit of a bore about this dialect thing, but I would have felt I'd have lost an essential bit of myself if I adopted standard English. Why rob Irish people of the thing which works for them, which is language through emotion? Irish people investigate language as they speak it - rather like Shakespeare's English. I don't understand standard English; I don't know what David Hare is on about.'

Rea returned to Ireland to found Field Day, a company based in Derry, with Brian Friel. For 12 years he toured remote parts of the country, playing leading roles in contemporary Irish plays. The rural audience bore 'intense witness to our work', often to the extent of drinking with the cast until 6am.

The Irish are on a roll in the West End, as McGuinness's play joins Friel's Dancing at Lughnasa and Philadelphia, Here I Come]. 'Astonishing]' says Rea. 'We're dealing with possibilities we've lived through and that's what Irish theatre is about. I do feel this is a vindication not just of my decision to retain my identity but the whole 12 years with Field Day. When Edward says 'We've taken it (the English language) from you; we've made it our own and now we've bettered you at it,' I could have said that.'

'Someone Who'll Watch over Me' continues at the Vaudeville (071-836 9987).

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