Final curtain falls on costumiers to the colourful and famous: Alan Murdoch looks at 70 years of Dublin theatrical history

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The Independent Online
BEHIND the 1940s facade of Jimmy Bourke's family theatre costumiers lies a living history of 70 years of scandal and controversy on the Dublin stage. Today, the firm's Dame Street premises are to be auctioned, ending a lifetime of dressing performers from Olivier and Cagney to the Rathmines and Rathgar Musical Society.

In their heyday, Dublin theatres changed shows every two weeks, generating brisk demand for costumes and props from broadswords to elephants and cardboard camels. Today's theatres feature smaller shows running longer, and more foreign touring productions. Bourke's, employing six family members, still has a steady trade in fancy dress and amateur drama.

Jimmy's younger brother Peadar displays costumes ranging from gloriously embroidered silk coats worn in Shakespeare classics by Michael MacLiammoir, to police uniforms used by T P McKenna and Ray McAnally. Around crammed shelves, giant cats' heads vie for space with immaculate top hats, a machine akin to an old gramophone that mimics machine-gun fire, and every style of wig from 'biblical bald' to 'flow and club'.

Jimmy Bourke's father, P J Bourke, founded the business. He was a successful actor and producer who had a 1913 film he scripted about the rebellion of 1798 seized by British soldiers before its second Dublin showing. British auxiliaries in time became regular customers for fancy dress outfits at the costumiers' first premises, opened in 1915.

Born in 1912 into a home where stage and screen celebrities were familiar guests, Jimmy Bourke saw at close hand that anomalous hinterland of Dublin society after independence, where the otherwise Draconian Catholic moral code was either under siege or being quietly ignored. At this time the director Hilton Edwards and MacLiammoir (who brought Orson Welles to Dublin in 1931 to perform in Hamlet and four other plays) became Ireland's first 'legitimate' openly gay couple and a Dublin institution.

Bourke's worked on many big films. In 1943 Olivier used them to make chain mail for his patriotic Henry V - paradoxically filmed in Wicklow in neutral Ireland, using 1,000 farmers as extras. Olivier was impressed with their assurance as English knights at Agincourt - 'many had never had their leg over a horse before'.

For Olivier, evidently not born in the saddle, it was almost his last film: 'He struck himself off the branch of a tree and nearly killed himself.'

Others supplied were the directors David Lean (Odd Man Out 1947), John Ford, who needed uniforms for Rising of the Moon (1957), Jimmy Cagney for Shake Hands with the Devil (1959), and the screen and music hall comic Jimmy O'Dea, who reinvented himself in female form as the ever-opinionated Biddy Mulligan.

War meant privations for the theatre. 'I remember one Gate Theatre production of Wuthering Heights with MacLiammoir as Heathcliffe,' Jimmy Bourke recalls. 'There was only one pair of boots that fitted two men in the cast. One used to walk off the stage and give them to the other as he walked on.'

As a first cousin, Mr Bourke knew Brendan Behan better than most. 'When he was really drunk he was impossible. The girl he married must have been a complete saint.' Behan frequently borrowed money from him, and once sold him a typewriter for pounds 13. It lacked one vital key.

More recently, Mr Bourke and his wife recouped their loss by selling letters Behan wrote from prison. Behan's black humour survived incarceration. Passing the cell door of a man convicted of bestiality, Behan would impersonate the plaintive sound of a love-lorn female donkey.

Though 81, Jimmy Bourke has no interest in quiet retirement. He hopes soon to finish a Dublin novel. 'All based on real events,' he promises.

(Photograph omitted)