The Rough Magic SEEDS Showcase is an important fixture in the diary for all Irish theatre lovers. It offers the opportunity to see the work of up-and-coming directors before they burst onto our main stages and this year’s participants are a particularly ambitious pair. Performing in repertory with Ronan Phelan’s Assassins is Rosemary McKenna’s Way to Heaven. Having proved herself unafraid of disturbing material previously with Enda Walsh’s Disco Pigs and Heroine for Breakfast, Way to Heaven is about the Theresienstadt concentration camp and the Red Cross’s notorious 1942 visit that resulted in a glowing report. It is a ‘play within a play’ – essentially, the story of how the prisoners were cruelly coerced into performing scenes of routine life for the Red Cross official. Meg caught up with actor Will O’Connell, who plays the role of the Mayor, to find out more…
Will is adamant that although Way to Heaven is set in a concentration camp, it is not necessarily a tearjerker. “What I love about Way to Heaven is that it doesn’t chart the obvious route. I really think everything has been said in that regard. It doesn’t deliberately avoid sentimentality but rather aims to explore the brutality from another angle. It is not specifically about a period in history – crucially the words ‘Hitler’ or ‘Nazi’ are never mentioned – but rather more about man’s inhumanity to man.”
Will has a long list of credits to his name including a previous Rough Magic showcase Caligula, directed by Conor Hanratty. What exactly drew you to the role of the Mayor/Gershom Gottfried?
“In truth I found it fascinating to be playing a real person and looking at life totally outside of my own experience, which is Irish and middle-class. To prepare I looked at images of concentration camp survivors, particularly in the moments they were freed. It was harrowing work but helpful in terms of understanding the desperation and suffering of the victims. In the play, Gershom acts as a go-between for the Commandant and the Jewish people. Essentially, he is doing everything within his means to survive. Of course, he is self-motivated, he has a daughter in the camp and his wife is missing, but he has deep reservations about the nature of the performance. He is also under a tremendous amount of pressure. He wants the performance to succeed – poignantly, he tells his daughter ‘if you do it well, we will see mummy again’- but he also wants to fight back. The inner-conflict is what makes him such a great character to play.”
There is the idea that, on a base level, the audience will want to see the ‘play’ succeed as theatre audiences are unconsciously always rooting for the actors. Do you think that is the case in Way to Heaven? And, if so, do you think that will make the audience feel partly culpable for the atrocities or is that the very point?
“No. Certainly, I don’t think that is the case here. The play is told in a non-linear fashion so you are aware of the outcome from the beginning but I think the audience will be hoping for some kind of intervention or salvation from the Red Cross official. It’s interesting the play the Commandant writes is not a happy, small-town Oklahoma! depiction of life. It is idyllic but weird and has moments of darkness. Even the world they create is somehow imperfect and unsettling. However, I do agree as far as culpability goes that the audience is meant to be implicit in the ignorance of the official. Really, it is about what you would do if faced with the same situation today.”
Ah, yes. That ubiquitous question. What do you feel makes Way to Heaven relevant to a modern audience in 2013? “Well, that period of history will always hold a fascination for many but it is pertinent to any time where people watched and did nothing. In this country there have been staggering examples of wilful and persistent ignorance and the repercussions are ongoing.”
Way to Heaven is written by Spanish playwright Juan Mayorga. Translations are a rarity on Irish stages. Did this prove difficult in any way? “Not really as the play had already been performed in the Royal Court in London in 2005, but we worked with Polish dramaturg Joanna Derkaczew who clarified certain things for us. Rosemary also spoke to the playwright and there were minor alterations made to the text in order to make it suitable for an Irish audience.”
So, what is next for Will? “I recently completed the Next Stage programme which was a reinvigorating experience. I felt I needed to do something to keep me motivated. The budget cuts over the last few years have forced many of the smaller theatre companies, which are the working actors’ bread and butter, out of business. Actors are now faced with two choices – stay and struggle or leave. I think it is a uniquely difficult time to be involved in the arts.”
Way to Heaven – Project Arts Centre
09 December – 14 December 2013 7.00pm
Previews 05-07 December (7.00pm) / Matinee 14 December (1.00pm)