Bren­dan Coyle

The for­mer Down­ton Abbey star talks about re­turn­ing to the Dublin stage

RTÉ Guide - - Contents - Saint Ni­cholas is at Smock Al­ley, Dublin as part of the Dublin Theatre Fes­ti­val, from Oc­to­ber 9 to Oc­to­ber 14. Fur­ther in­for­ma­tion at dublinthe­atre­fes­ti­

Bren­dan Coyle is an ac­tor who can chan­nel dark­ness as eas­ily as he can re ect the light. Per­haps that’s why the cre­ator of Down­ton Abbey, Ju­lian Fel­lowes, once de­scribed him as “cud­dly and dan­ger­ous.” Right now though, Coyle just sounds ex­as­per­ated, hav­ing come direct from the set of the lm ver­sion of Down­ton Abbey (due in 2019) to the Don­mar theatre in Lon­don. He also sounds breath­less, not helped by a crackly phone line that ghosts in and out of au­di­bil­ity. It is two hours to cur­tain for Saint Ni­cholas, a one-man show penned by Conor McPher­son that has proved to be more de­mand­ing than Coyle an­tic­i­pated. “I had just nished an Arthur Miller play, e Price, be­fore go­ing into Saint Ni­cholas, and I thought ‘ is is go­ing to be a walk in the park’. How wrong I was.”

Coyle rst worked with McPher­son on e Weir in 1996, a col­lab­o­ra­tion that earned the ac­tor an Olivier Award for Best Sup­port­ing Ac­tor and a New York Crit­ics’ Cir­cle Award for Out­stand­ing Broad­way De­but. Saint Ni­cholas, a weird tale about a lust­ful, loath­some Dublin theatre critic who hangs out with vam­pires in Lon­don, fas­ci­nated him ever since Brian Cox rst grabbed the part by the neck that same year and poured his blood and guts into it. “About three years ago, I emailed Conor about the rights, then the Don­mar got in­volved and it was agreed that I was the man to de­liver it.”

In his fore­word to this new pro­duc­tion of Saint Ni­cholas (which he wrote in 1996, the same year as e Weir), McPher­son re­calls “a very spe­cial time in his life” and imag­ines it was also thus for Coyle. “It was an ex­tra­or­di­nary time,” the ac­tor agrees. “I had seen Conor’s is Lime Tree Bower at the Bush eatre a num­ber of times and was fas­ci­nated by his writ­ing. I was then cast as Bren­dan in e Weir. While I knew it was mag­i­cal and won­der­ful, we had no idea it would im­pact the way it did, be­ing sub­se­quently listed as one of the great­est plays of the 20th Cen­tury. It was amaz­ing to per­form in it as was the po­tency of the play it­self.” Coyle grew up in the steel town of Corby in Northamp­ton­shire. His Ir­ish father worked as a butcher and his Scot­tish mother was the force who im­pelled him away from a life in ‘the freezer’. His father died sud­denly when Bren­dan was just 17, a trau­matic event that prompted him to reeval­u­ate his life. “I had been work­ing in the butcher shop since I was a kid but I knew that it wasn’t some­thing I was go­ing to do for life,” he says. “It was my Mum who pointed me to­wards act­ing, telling me that I had a cousin in Ire­land who was in act­ing so I just red o a let­ter and very gen­er­ously, she said to come over and see what we are do­ing here.”

So he went to visit his father’s fam­ily in Dublin and it was there that he dis­cov­ered the Fo­cus eatre, a dynamic and in­ti­mate space presided over by its un­con­ven­tional founder, Deirdre O’Con­nell and Coyle’s cousin, Mary-El­iz­a­beth Burke-Kennedy. He be­gan to study his art and cra un­der the watch­ful eye of O’Con­nell, her­self a stu­dent of the fa­mous Lee Stras­berg. “Deirdre was the most amaz­ing woman and she was like a guru to us,” he says of his edgling drama days. “We lived and breathed the whole world of the Fo­cus, its ethic and fo­cus on new writ­ing as well as the clas­sics, and that was a huge in uence in my life. It was a life-chang­ing ex­pe­ri­ence. To this very day, my warm-up be­fore I go on stage is the one Deirdre O’Con­nell taught me.”

Re­cently, when asked if he be­lieved in the su­per­nat­u­ral, Coyle said “I was brought up a very strict Catholic and am kind of re­sis­tant to any sort of ‘no­tion’”. What did he mean by that? “I’m very open to the no­tion of spirit and spir­its who com­mune. I know that ex­ists be­cause we all feel it with each other and within our­selves, this higher en­ergy. But it’s like talk­ing about act­ing and that whole process be­cause as soon as you try to vo­calise it, it all falls apart for me. It’s a sense, some­thing al­most beyond words, some­thing to do with com­mu­nal en­ergy and I nd that very pow­er­ful be­cause I know it ex­ists.”

What do you get from act­ing? “Oh God,” he says. “Well, it’s what I do now. When you leave drama school, what you’re seek­ing is em­ploy­ment and while I’m still look­ing for that now, I’m also seek­ing a choice in what I do. I get an en­ergy from act­ing, from the peo­ple in that room en­grossed in sto­ry­telling. Last night, peo­ple came up to me a er the play and they were cry­ing. So I do it be­cause of a ba­sic need to tell sto­ries and try and un­der­stand my­self and get to grips with what we are but of course, it’s also about en­ter­tain­ing. I once asked Imelda Staunton why we do this and she said that like much in life we do it be­cause we can and we should.”

I have met Coyle a num­ber of times but I very much doubt he re­mem­bers. Once was in the bow­els of a Lon­don ho­tel for the me­dia cir­cus that launched each new sea­son of Down­ton. With some­one ring­ing a bell ev­ery 15 min­utes or so, the ac­tors were wooshed from one ta­ble of jour­nal­ists to the next like some weird ver­sion of speed-dat­ing with the cast of the world’s most fa­mous cos­tume drama. “Jeez, that was so crazy,” says Coyle now, “you’d con­stantly be pho­tographed with cam­era phones, but that’s good be­cause it’s a sign that your work is recog­nised. Al­though it can be weird if you’re get­ting pho­tographed as you queue up for a bowl of soup.”

He re­turns to Down­ton when the lm ver­sion ar­rives some time in 2019. He loves be­ing re­united with Bates, the tetchy but loyal valet of Down­ton who spent time in gaol for a crime he didn’t com­mit and made the ac­tor glob­ally fa­mous and a pin-up for peo­ple of a cer­tain age. If he didn’t seem com­fort­able with fame in the past, he’s more san­guine now, check­ing the Wilde line that the only thing worse than be­ing talked about is not be­ing talked about. He loves be­ing back with the old fam­ily that is the Down­ton en­sem­ble. “Rob Col­lier is one of the fun­ni­est peo­ple I know,” he says of his co-star, a very in­fre­quent theatre-goer, who he had to coax to see Saint Ni­cholas.

And then he has to go, the clock as ever tick­ing to­wards the cur­tain. Coyle is look­ing for­ward to his re­turn to the Dublin stage for the rst time since e Weir. “Come and say hello,” he says, be­fore the line goes quiet for the nal time. I imag­ine the ac­tor head­ing to the sanc­tu­ary of his dress­ing room and go­ing through that warm-up rit­ual learned long ago in Dublin. And I re­call his com­ments about the com­mu­nal spirit of the stage, the sor­cery of sto­ry­telling and the su­per­nat­u­ral el­e­ments that writhe through Saint Ni­cholas. “I felt that spirit so much with e Weir and again with this play,” he said. “As some­one said, it’s al­most like be­ing at a séance.”

Saint Ni­cholas

As John Bates with Anna Bates (Joanne Frog­gatt) in Down­ton Abbey

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