Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Maeliosa Stafford - The Seafarer - INTERVIEWS

Hope & Redemption

Actor/director Maeliosa Stafford is considered an expert in the work of celebrated "Irish" playwright Martin McDonough. However this month it’s compatriot Conor McPherson who receives Stafford’s distinctive ‘Blarney Stone’ touch. Paul Andrew speaks with Stafford about all things Anglo-Celtic and the darkest side of the male psyche.

“My parents were involved in the theatre so I had been introduced to its spell from as far back as I can remember,” reveals Maeliosa Stafford. “They took me to see a touring production by Scotland’s 784 Theatre Company when they came to Galway in the early 1970s. The show was called The Cheviot, The Stag, & The Black Black Oil, a lightning tour of the history of Scotland from the decimation resulting from the Highland clearances to the [then] current exploitation of the country’s wealth and natural resources.”

Stafford’s own theatre career began at a very young age due largely to his parent’s involvement with ‘An Taibhdhearc’ (pronounced-ON TYVE YARK), a small Gaelic-speaking company in Galway. “I acted in my university drama soc and from there I was seen by a few of the members of the fledgling Druid Company, who asked me to join them in 1977. Under the inspirational Garry Hynes it just went on from there and the link has never been broken. It was a Druid tour in 1987 that first brought me here to Australia.”

In Australia, Stafford is well-known for his collaborations with John O‘Hare and Patrick Dickson in O’Punksky’s Theatre, a company versed in presenting the darker side of the heroic male. “Yes, it was on 1990 I directed Observe The Sons Of Ulster Marching Towards The Somme, a searing anti-war play that seemed to touch the Australian psyche. A group of young actors – all male twenty-thirtysomethings – who decided to stick together and keep going. We produced Little Malcolm & His Struggle Against The Eunuchs. As ex-pat Irish, English and Scottish we were drawn to plays that reflected our existence in an environment that was either striving to forge an Australian theatrical identity or doing second best representing European/British/Irish cultures; that is, our stories. At least that’s what we felt at the time.”

It was this passion for stories of ‘The Old Country’ that saw Stafford invited to play Richard in the hugely successful Abbey production of The Seafarer in 2008 and again in its revivals in 2009 and 2010. “It was directed by Conor McPherson and I had a hell of an experience and a bit of an epiphany. It was, however, a really satisfying journey and I sought for three years to get the rights for O’Punksky’s for the Australian premiere. I was drawn by so many aspects of Conor’s creative mind, particularly his raw honesty. His characters are so brutal and so vulnerable. They have deep insecurities about most things in life and seem to lash out at the world when unable to cope or face its pressures.

“Buried deep is a sense of care and compassion for each other when they’re really tested. McPherson’s writing is superbly insightful, and truly understands despair, violence, addiction and fear in the world of the male-in-crisis. He offers humour as part of the solution, but above all, he offers hope and redemption.”

The Seafarer runs from Wednesday 18 July until 12 August, Darlinghurst Theatre Company.

Paul Andrew
Drum (Jul 10, 2012)

Q & A - Maeliosa Stafford..more..

For the benefit of younger readers can you expand on this potted history of O'Punksky’s Theatre?

In 1990 I directed ‘Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Toward the Somme’ a searing anti war play that seemed to touch the Australian psyche.  A group of young actors who happened to be all male 20-30 somethings decided to stick together and keep going.  We produced ‘Little Malcolm and his Struggle against the Eunuchs’. We were all ex pat Irish, English and Scottish and were drawn to plays that reflected our existence in an environment that was either striving to forge an Australian theatrical identity or doing second best representing European/British/Irish OUR  stories.

At least thats what we felt.There was a flurry of activity in the early nineties with founder members John O Hare and Patrick Dickson keeping the dream alive while I went back to run Druid for 4 years. This resulted in ‘Slab Boys’, ‘Blue remembered Hills’ ( with a very young Richard Roxburgh and an even younger David Wenham) and ‘Carthaginians. The older original members re-united for ‘ Faith Healer’ and ‘The Gigli Concert’ in the late nineties. There were other productions of course and many wonderful women joined the ranks and ‘Bailegangaire’ was produced in 2000 at the Seymour. This suggests that our ‘all male’ history is really a bit of a myth. But here we are again with an all male cast and three of its founding members on board again.

The underbelly of the male psyche seems to a recurring theme for O'Punksky's-?

It was never a conscious decision, but on reflection we were undoubtedly drawn to this kind of material. .....Young men at war and the question of sacrifice. The Myth of Heroism examined in the harsh light of needless sacrifice in the trenches of WW1 had a direct and immediate connection with the entire cast. Each and every one of us had a direct family connection with this horrific conflict. It was an enormous learning curve in terms of issues we never really reflected on. We became obsessed and I think we discovered another side to the mantra...’Lest We Forget’. I think it brought a new level of understanding to us as young men who never had to go to war. 

Then in ‘Blue Remembered Hills’ we got the opportunity to go back to childhood again and re examine the things that shape us and mark us forever. ‘Faith Healer’ examined the breakdown of faith in oneself which is a common existential crisis. We probed this further in ‘The Gigli Concert’. Finally ‘The Seafarer’ is bringing us together in our present stage of growth as 50 something’s and examining the fallout of lives going to seed in a harsh and lonely environment

The 2008 Broadway production of the play made both the public and theatre pundits notice both McPherson's direction and playwriting- do you think this represented a big turning point in McPherson's career- if so how so?

The Weir had forged the way and shown what a great talent he was as both a writer and storyteller. I saw it in London and on Broadway back in 1997/1999. I was performing in the Martin McDonagh trilogy and by co-incidence both productions played in London and NY at the same time. I think ‘The Seafarer’ is a better and more mature play all round; and shows what he could do a decade later.

Tell me about your understanding/ story of how the playwright Conor McPherson adapted the old poem into a play? 

He didn’t adapt the poem into a play as such, but used the essence of the poem “The Seafarer” as a metaphor for his own image of hell, which was a cold one. “The Seafarer” was written circa 755 AD. It therefore preceded Dante and Milton as an epic poem which deals with themes of loss and redemption. The hell described here however is dark and icy cold, rather than the accepted metaphor of Fire and Pain.I think that the metaphor in “Seafarer” is more apt because the loss of one’s soul is far more believable through isolation and cold loneliness than an instant turning to ashes in the fires of hell.

Yes, The Seafarer has both a mythological and contemporary feel?

Today we suffer far more from isolation, loneliness and self doubt in a world that constantly moves forward at a pace that most of our middle generation can’t  keep up with. Maybe they are not actually equipped to do so.

 We mostly don’t twitter or even have a Facebook page for example, and are therefore already over the hill and past it according to some. We are already subtly on the outer......we age another ten years overnight. We smiled at our parents ‘eccentricites’  but we are already being laughed at.

Tell me a little about the stranger in the play?

He is all of us. He is our inner demon. He is human and Demonic at the same time. To say anymore would give away much of the play.

What does this play tell us about the darkest side of men ?

We all have light and shade. We all have potential. Sometimes when we don’t realise that potential and we can succumb to a protective/defensive way of survival or we can lash out. I am not a scientist but Darwin did show us that in the Animal world, brute force brought about not only survival of the strongest but reward in the food and procreation chain. There are a few links in the DNA chain that still remain in modern Man unfortunately.

Do the characters inhabit their inner feminine?

I think the characters do not inhabit their inner feminine at all. They are bound by the rules of their world, which is all male and mostly bravado. But then the play is a search......and it is Christmas Eve.....

Ever since Taoism there are many who say that the underbelly of the male psyche is the feminine- what are your thoughts about this?

Ying and Yang, Beauty and the Beast etc......of course!  Of course there are some less enlightened Women around today who can’t figure why we men need to go to the pub sometimes and just get drunk for the sake of it......or get rowdy at a football match.

The funniest thing that has happened during rehearsals- tell me about this in some detail?

I am playing the blind character Richard and a lot of laughs have ensued from my attempt to remain true to that state of awareness as I am also the director and am supposed to SEE everything. Someone might hold a glass of whiskey in front of me and expect me to grab it, but as I can’t SEE it, I tend to ignore it until the actor grabs my hand and wraps it around the glass. This can be very funny in the working out stage both for the ‘sighted’ and the ‘blind’ with ad lib lines added to make the point. Here Richard!...... Where?!..... Here!.... Where?!... Oh ya sorry...The payback comes of course when I try to make a Director’s observation such as... ‘I can see you trying to make contact in that beat....’ ‘How could you ya bastard I thought you were blind....’ etc.

It lightens the load. Stage management and actors alike have all tuned into these moments when light relief is necessary.

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