Theatre: Third time of asking

Conall Morrison is Ireland's hottest young director. But can he turn Martin Guerre into a success? By Dominic Cavendish
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The Independent Culture
It's a fortnight before curtain-up on the first musical he has directed and Conall Morrison's presence is required everywhere in the West Yorkshire Playhouse. Apart from countless rehearsals, meetings have been slotted in with fight co-ordinators, lighting designers and stage management, as well as the show's producer, Cameron Mackintosh. The impresario is (whisper it) in the building and he wants to know how Martin Guerre is coming along. After seven years of toil, pounds 4m spent on the original 1996 production, another pounds 500,000 on the subsequent revamp and an undisclosed amount poured into this, Guerre Mark III - mounted with the subsidised help of Leeds' flagship theatre - "nicely" is probably the least he'll settle for.

Morrison should be running around like a headless chicken but he couldn't look more composed: "Quietly confident, verging on the smug," is how Armagh's stubbly Wunderkind, dressed to impress in old cords and a T-shirt, describes himself in his inimitable allegro mutter. Plenty of people are acting like decapitated fowl, but they are members of the cast, rehearsing a sequence that requires them to metamorphose into various animals - here a bull, there a frog - creating a cacophony of stamping that climaxes in a collective thump at the slaughter of a panic-stricken hen.

This bizarre behaviour will sound familiar to anyone who encountered Morrison's adaptation of Tarry Flynn, either at Dublin's Abbey Theatre last year or at the National in August. Morrison was boldly unnaturalistic in his treatment of Patrick Kavanagh's comic novel about 1930s rural Ireland: a cow giving birth to a calf, an eel being skinned - these were just a few of the outstanding images in a Theatre de Complicite-style tapestry that celebrated the powers of the imagination while detailing the pecking orders of village life. "We were exploring forms not traditionally associated with Irish theatre, which tends to worship the voice beautiful and the phrase poetic," Morrison explains. "We wanted to use every weapon in the theatrical armoury." And the critics were bowled over.

Many spotted similarities between the earthy hoofing of Tarry Flynn and the fiercely demonstrative attachment to the land displayed in Artigat, the 16th-century French village where Martin Guerre is largely set. Cameron Mackintosh was suitably impressed by what he saw in Dublin and signed up Morrison, 32, and his creative partner, the 30-year-old dancer and choreographer, David Bolger, in the hope that they could work similar wonders for Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg's stalled musical. The duo behind the globetrotting Les Miserables and Miss Saigon apparently felt unable to embark on new projects until they got Guerre right.

Whether or not it's going to be a case of third time lucky will only be evident after Monday night, but Morrison and Bolger look like they've got what it takes to disappoint the ambulance-chasers. They haven't put a foot wrong since they first hit it off in 1993 at Dublin's Gate Theatre, on A Midsummer Night's Dream (Morrison was assistant director, Bolger played an agile Peaseblossom). Three years later, Bolger, who runs his own dance company, CoisCeim, was brought in to choreograph Brian Friel's Dancing at Lughnasa at the Lyric, Belfast - a job so well done it landed him an equivalent stint on Pat O'Connor's screen adaptation starring Meryl Streep and Kathy Burke, released here next week.

Since Morrison's appointment as associate director at the Abbey last year (fuelling speculation that he will be a favourite to succeed artistic director Patrick Mason next year), they have further collaborated on a riotously tongue-in-cheek, song-and-dance-filled revival of Boucicault's melodrama The Colleen Bawn. Trevor Nunn, a great admirer, has summoned it for a two-week run at the National in March.

Morrison is only too aware that Martin Guerre has proved more than a match for other feted talents - not even Cheek by Jowl's Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod were able to breathe the necessary life into the tale, in which a woman is forced to choose between the husband she doesn't love and the imposter she does, and a village has to confront its own self- deception.

But Morrison believes he has arrived at the right moment: "As a director, you are always aware when you are forced to put girders into the building to shore it up. That's not the case here. That's the joy of working on something that has been so long in the making. I've arrived at the end of the process. All I'm doing is visually folding out the story."

It's not entirely clear how much has changed, although the publicists are claiming a 95 per cent transformation. There are new songs, a tighter narrative structure and a clarification of themes. "We see how ferocious the conflict between Protestants and Catholics can become," Morrison explains. "It shows how a collective psychosis can run through a community in thrall to a very real god and real devil."

Morrison has "a healthy, in-depth awareness of how communities can self- destruct". Growing up Catholic 10 miles from the deeply troubled town of Portadown ("a fine little hotbed of prejudice"), he saw "ferocity on all sides. I hope that, without labouring it, something of that comes across in what I've done here. You should sense that we haven't travelled that far from that capacity for civil war, that capacity to deny the rights of the individual."

It's an area of concern that he has inevitably encountered as a director committed to new writing: at the Peacock theatre, he has premiered Gary Mitchell's award-winning In a Little World of Our Own (1997) - a savage portrait of loyalist paramilitaries in Belfast - and this year's As the Beast Sleeps - a bleak reflection on the ceasefire. But it also filters through in his own writing, particularly a well-received monologue from 1995 entitled Hard to Believe - ("It asked how you could genuinely believe anything in a society where everyone is insisting that they have the right of it.")

As the directing has taken over, it was watching a piece of his "juvenilia" being staged at Edinburgh University that convinced him to try his hand, so the writing has gone on the back-burner. Perhaps it doesn't help that his uncle is Brian Friel. "When I was younger and more pretentious," he recalls, "I went round thinking, `My uncle is the greatest living playwright'. At 17, I sent him a play I'd written and he sent back some notes, the principles of which I have adhered to ever since: don't tell, show - that kind of thing. It was decent of him. He could have said, `I recommend you cut off both your hands and chuck your typewriter out of the window and don't burden us with any more of this tosh'."

He's repaying the compliment next year, directing uncle Brian's The Freedom of the City in Dublin as part of a festival to mark the writer's 70th birthday. 1999 is going to be a hectic year, whether or not Martin Guerre achieves lift-off (and even if it does, Morrison insists, he won't be able to retire on the proceeds - "It's not that kind of gig."). He takes what work he can, while he can, knowing how insecure things can get in his line of work. "I don't know," he says, for once looking genuinely mystified. "I seemed to have scammed some kind of profession out of it. You think, `I'm only 32, I could become a banker yet.' Then you think, `Shag it, I'll become a banker next year'." That's the spirit.

`Martin Guerre' previews from Monday, West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds (0113-213 7700). To 13 Feb