Take a punt on a gambling man

Stephen Rea and Gabriel Byrne have made it to Hollywood, but Donal McCann is unknown outside Dublin. Matt Wolf wonders why
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He has been called the greatest living Irish actor, yet Donal McCann, by his own admission, is "a great shrugger-off of compliments". Like Ian Holm in Britain or Philip Bosco in America, 51-year-old McCann is an actor's actor - a performer revered by colleagues yet not necessarily known to the public at large. Not that his failure so far to achieve celebrity status bothers him one bit: "I'm there with my agents on the understanding that I will never make a lot of money for them, except by accident," he says. "I have no particular ambition to be rich. The fact is, good actors are recognised, and there are only so many good actors in the world."

And there are only so many McCann appearances in the theatre, which makes any play of his an event. Next week, the actor begins previews in The Steward of Christendom, by the 39-year-old Irish dramatist Sebastian Barry. A memory play of sorts, the new work marks his return to the Royal Court, where he last electrified London three years ago as the itinerant Frank Hardy in Brian Friel's Faith Healer. A large photo from that production dominates the entrance to the Court bar: a quintessential image of the actor as conjuror, spinning a mesmeric tale of "exultation" (Friel's word) even as McCann's sad eyes tip us off to the character's lacerating self- doubt.

The current play promises its own share of laceration in its tale of an ageing Catholic ex-superintendent of the Dublin Metropolitan Police, Thomas Dunne, struggling to make peace with his family and his country in the years following Irish independence. His daughters refer to him as a king, but Dunne prefers to cast himself as fool, a man at war with history and with himself, consumed by guilt for past deaths and by the intimation of his own death.

The Steward of Christendom joins a tradition of introspective Irish drama shared by writers like Friel, Anne Devlin and Ron Hutchinson, whose fiery Rat in the Skull this play somewhat resembles in structure. But McCann is happy to indulge almost any topic - the Super Bowl chances of the Miami Dolphins, for starters - rather than join in an explication of the play. "I'm prepared to think about broader readings once we put it on," he says, eyes narrowing to forestall unwanted exegesis, leaning forward to reach an ashtray in what he will later refer to in surprise as "an eight-cigarette conversation."

He prefers to be "beautifully evasive, elegantly evasive" as regards the play's particular resonance. "I'm a very boring subject," he adds with a smile. Or maybe it's that as a one-time journalist himself - he spent two years as a sub-editor on Dublin's Evening Press - McCann knows the risks of the soundbite. The actor, one feels, won't be drawn on work whose challenges remain in front of him.

That desire for challenge informs his career; this is one actor whose CV is startlingly free of filler. Beyond Faith Healer, which he has performed on four separate occasions, McCann has appeared in two other Friel plays - Translations, directed by Joe Dowling, in Dublin; and Wonderful Tennessee, Friel's most mournful and encoded work, in Dublin and New York. McCann was an unforgettable figure of fearful bonhomie playing the failed bookie Terry. Then, in Abbey Theatre's touring Juno and the Paycock, McCann portrayed "Captain" Jack Boyle, a man whose ebullient swagger gives way to a dazed stupor. This performance confirmed what, the previous year, his performance as Gabriel Conroy in John Huston's film The Dead had suggested; beneath a hearty stage and screen presence, the actor can suggest almost immeasurable reserves of pain.

Tennessee was a quick flop on Broadway, losing over £500,000, but McCann is sure the play will come into its own: Faith Healer, after all, lasted only 10 days longer in its New York world premire in 1979, and its worth has long since been proven.

And while Tennessee sent him packing after a week (the actor received news of the closing the same day his picture appeared on the cover of the New York publication, Theatre Week) he has tasted Broadway success - Juno sold out its limited New York run in 1988. Did the combination of Juno and The Dead open Hollywood doors that would subsequently allow in the likes of his long-time friend Stephen Rea? "By the time they heard about Juno on the west coast, we were back in Dublin," he says. He is unsure whether The Dead had the impact it could have done. "The way my character Gabriel appears to an American audience, he comes across as a kind of stiff. It's really the voice-over section at the end where you realise what is inside the guy and what he thinks. If that film had been made in Ireland, it would have been up for Oscars, but because Huston had the audacity to produce it on a tiny budget in California, they didn't want to know."

McCann has yet to make a fully-fledged Hollywood film, at least in Hollywood, although he was in both High Spirits and Out of Africa. The latter, he said, offered him "an interesting week in Nairobi: I'm probably the only person in the world who has ever told Meryl Streep, `It's syphilis', and got paid to do it."

The son of a politician father who made a name for himself writing Dublin domestic comedies, McCann abandoned first architecture then journalism and made his stage debut at the Abbey in 1962, playing the Cardinal of Uganda in Hochhutch's The Successor. He went on to appear regularly with the company throughout the 1960s and early 1970s (he was Estragon to Peter O'Toole's Vladimir in Waiting for Godot) and in "indifferent television where you ask yourself whether you really want to be an actor, whether it is indeed the gift you were given". 1989, he says, was a watershed, marking the death of his father and an artistic rebirth on stage in Faith Healer.

Now, slimmed down and rehearsing this mammoth part, with a starring role in a BBC1 series Into the Fire due in the autumn, McCann seems to be on a roll. "I'm not a person of independent means; there's only a certain amount of Upstairs at the Court-ing I can actually do," says McCann, an inveterate gambler whose aesthetic risks have been most theatregoers' gain. Still, it's no surprise to hear that the actor is a firm National Lottery player because "I think it would be rude not to". How has he done so far? "Nothing, not a sausage, which makes me think I'm destined for the big win, or nothing at all."

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