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What Would Mick Do? Or How I’m Inspired by Michael Fassbender

What Would Mick Do? Or How I’m Inspired by Michael Fassbender

On rare occasions, a new actor appears on our screens that makes me jump up with excitement, stunned by their depth, range, humility to the role and story, and a certain bold confident creativity that is being released and shared. For me, it’s happened maybe three times in the last fifteen or so years. Around 2000, I was thunderstruck by the vigour and growling fierceness, tied with vulnerability, of Russell Crowe, while in the last couple of years, I’ve been just knocked out by the dignified, fearless and thoughtful range of Oscar Isaac. Between those two came through the guy I want to talk about today, who I just think is outstanding. And as a lovely bonus, he’s an Irishman too: the mighty Michael Fassbender.

This man is a proper, serious, ballsy, dedicated, smart, talented actor who shines a genuine beacon of light of interesting, engaging performances.

I adore his bold choices of craft – being a Kerryman with a German background, there aren’t that many parts for Kerrymen with German qualities in the movies, so Fassbender naturally always has to choose a new accent. But not only that, I always feel he chooses a new voice. A quality of tone, phrasing, pacing, that breathes the substance of the character, that has been created by imagination, inspiration and choice. The spiffy over-confident soldier Archie Hicox from Inglourious Basterds is very different from the diffident Peter-O’Toole-inspired robot of Prometheus, though both would be seen as posh English accents. I love how he brings new qualities to how he walks with each role – there is an understanding of genre and archetype that come through. And yet with that, this is not a man made hollow with technique – always there is tremendous depth of emotion in his eyes, thought-through truth, honestly-imaged pains and fears and doubts. I flash to a scene in X-Men: First Class where as Magneto he is challenged to move a far-away giant satellite dish with his powers. As he did it, Fassbender could have chosen to grimace or pout, but no: I remember being truly struck with the heart-rending, tear-inducing agony that was in his heart as he did it. Not too many actors make that kind of choice in a popcorn superhero movie. To everything he does, Fassbender brings a respectful seriousness, passionate work, never disdain. Yet always a sense of play.

Outside of films, I love how he talks about the script being everything. Much more important than burrowing into endless tunnels of research and body-manipulation, is reading and re-reading and re-re-reading the script, knowing the lines and every beat of subtext and thought that fills those white spaces between the lines, understanding the story deeply and the arc of character you are playing and your part in the overall tale. He talks about reading the script a hundred times, and the longer I work as an actor, the more I think that is the most important homework. Know the lines so well that they are your friend, your inspiration, that you have asked them many questions that have sprung forth so much colour and imagination, filling out the blank canvas of the role with truth and specificity and original responses.

His range is astonishing and wonderful. The raw, haggard iron-will of Bobby Sands in Hunger (his across-a-table scenes in that with Liam Cunningham are worth watching on their own). His effortless carriage of period roles, whether a Roman centurion (I love my ancient Greek and Roman dramas and not everyone can carry it off) or a glowering Rochester full of long-bred arrogance and stricken history opposite Mia Wasikowska’s Jane Eyre. His willingness to dig dangerously deep into the dark soul of a character, bringing a crucial level of unbending power-need to slave-owner Edwin Epps in Twelve Years a Slave – to bring out honest disgust yet also understanding in the audience. To somehow be utterly fascinating for a whole movie where your head is covered by a paper mache mask, as Frank Sidebottom in Frank. Being utterly spellbinding arguing about computers (zzz), with a razor-sharp understanding of the shape of Aaron Sorkin’s scene-writing as Steve Jobs. He can play cowboys (Slow West) or intellectual geniuses like Carl Jung or do Shakespeare as the prince in the Scottish play.

In short, the man is a master storyteller – who always makes it not about him, but about the story, with all his skills and dedication. So I’m always excited to see him in whatever he’s chosen to do next. (Let’s see, next up, he plays an outlaw traveller opposite Brendan Gleeson in Trespass Against Us, plays an Australian lighthouse keeper who makes a heartbreaking choice in an adaptation of The Light Between Oceans, a novel I really liked, and he’s in Terrence Mallick’s new film. God, he’s bloody good at picking his projects too.)

Throw in his unmatched bravery (that is one man utterly unfazed about nudity). Add a lovely humility, how he always carries himself in interviews as a good sport willing to answer the lamest of questions or do some silly bit; how he is always generous with sharing credit or discussing his process on a project; and how he never steps aside from his pride and roots in his Irishness, his Germanness, his Kerryness. He’s just the business.

We’re pretty much the same age, we’re both Irishmen, both actors, we both love story. We’re practically the same. (Okay, he could be my cool cousin, maybe?) Basically, when it comes to film-acting, if I can be a little more like Fassbender each time, I’ll be doing pretty darn well. Keep up the good work, Mick, and flying the flag with such distinction – I’ll certainly be watching.

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The Unregarded Director of Beloved Classics: Rob Reiner

The Unregarded Director of Beloved Classics: Rob Reiner

I just realized the other day who one of my absolute favourite directors is. I hadn’t really put two and two together because there’s no hoopla around this guy, but then I looked at his body of work, and realized he had made a number of movies I just adore, that have been huge landmark parts of my life, and that I have rewatched with pleasure over and over (the true sign of a classic). Movies that feature elegant storytelling, delicious spiky humour, great roles for feisty women, a classic sense of structure, a lovely capturing of rapport and the changing of relationships, mounting suspense, a fine sense of location, actors clearly having a great time and doing some of their best work, and overall a sense of brightness, optimism and joy. Now maybe it’s not groundbreaking work in terms of form, so maybe that’s why the critics would look right through him, but I think you could say that about a number of directors we now hold in esteem – people like Michael Curtiz or Howard Hawks, or even Stephen Spielberg, whose quiet skill in crafting work in a range of genres draws less attention than the apparently obsessed auteur who is easier to pin down. And maybe his later work isn’t as stunningly consistent as his earlier movies, but all directors, even Kubrick and Hitchcock, have their up and down periods. And his narrative doesn’t really fit with the grand box-set director, this shlubby-looking gently-smiling former child sitcom star, who loved working in Hollywood and never saw himself as an anarchist rebel. But dammit, the fact is, Rob Reiner is a brilliant, memorable film-maker.

This is the man who pretty much invented the mockumentary with This is Spinal Tap, and that was his first movie! A film that rockers still adore more than any other, and dare I say it, up with Waiting for Guffman as the best of Christopher Guest’s ouevre.

Who made one of the great coming-of-age boy’s stories in Stand By Me, a movie I adored when I saw it on VHS as a twelve-year old at a birthday party when I could have walked right into those boys’ worlds and knew exactly how they felt, our wanders in the Wicklow hills seeming an equivalent to their train-tracks, and nothing being worse than a leech down your pants. Elegaic, rude, imaginative, painful, glowing with the life of restless young lads, it’s just marvellous. And I have loved watching it with the sunset of memory every time since, as I become less like Wil Wheaton and more like Richard Dreyfuss.

Who made the greatest fairy tale adventure movie of all, that most joyously heartbreakingly hilarious and wonderful The Princess Bride, which I had never seen until drama school, because my childhood friend had the poster for it on his wall (courtesy of our local video shop) and it kind of creeped me out as a kid, and when I did watch it on a couch with a bunch of acting classmates, I had to hush them because they all wanted to say the lines along with the film, they loved it that much. Rodents of Unusual Size, playing mind-games with a Sicilian, being nearly-dead, and the course of true wuvv. And the final scene still makes cry every time.

Who made the best romantic comedy of all time, in my opinion, the glorious, pitch-perfect, endlessly rewatchable-with-glee, When Harry Met Sally, a movie that I am sure more than any other made me want to live for a time in Manhattan, wandering through Central Park in fall, with a spunky, thoughtful, high-maintenance blonde chick with a magic smile, while singing Gershwin like Harry Connick Jr (done).

Who made one of the great, drum-tight engrossing courtroom dramas in A Few Good Men, featuring Tom Cruise used perfectly, Jack Nicholson in one of his greatest parts, and a deep cast from Demi Moore to Keifer Sutherland doing terrific balanced work. This quite likely was part of my decision to study law at university, the idea of prancing like Daniel Kaffee around a sun-blessed courtroom (oh dear) … before side-stepping more truthfully into acting …

Who made one of the most crazily suspenseful films of all time, without a hint of the supernatural to help the way, in Misery, showing he wasn’t just great with ensemble casts and snappy banter, but could create maddening claustrophobia and fear in one space with two actors, with Kathy Bates and James Caan in supreme form. I can remember going to see it as a celebration of finishing my Inter Certificate exam in 1991 aged 14 with two pals – when everyone else went to a rugby club disco and came back with tales of being snogged by rabid girls, and yet, I wasn’t really that jealous, which just shows (a) what an innocent 14 year old I was, and (b) how a great story experience was so valuable to me (and that’s still true. And I’m still pretty darn naive even now!) I can still remember clear as a bell my pal Moro literally leaping out of his seat in the cinema when Annie smashed Paul Sheldon’s ankle with the sledgehammer …

And that’s just dipping into the top shelf, before even giving thought to excellent films such as The Sure Thing and The American President.

Has anyone else given as many actresses their best parts, such as Meg Ryan, Annette Benning, Demi Moore and Kathy Bates? Has anyone else adapted Stephen King so well? Or brought Aaron Sorkin to film as astutely? Provided more memorable lines than “I’ll have what she’s having,” “You can’t handle the truth,” “Mine goes up to eleven,” and “My name is Inigo Montoya, you killed my father, prepare to die!”? To me, it tells me everything that I can remember the exact time, place and way I felt the first time I saw so many of his films.

Writing this, I’ve discovered there’s a whole host of Rob Reiner’s later work I’ve not seen, so I’m excited to get a hold of the likes of The Bucket List, Flipped and LBJ. And I was delighted to see he’s got a new thriller coming out, Shock and Awe, about a group of journalists skeptical of George Bush’s weapons of mass destruction. I can’t wait. With Rob, I’m pretty sure at the least, I am in for a good time. And that’s a pretty good film-maker, eh?

***

The Day Cantona Arrived

The Day Cantona Arrived

 

I happened to notice in passing an article the other day, which recalled that it has been 25 years since Eric Cantona played (briefly) for Sheffield Wednesday. The article included two great photos: one of a crumpled newspaper cutting from a Yorkshire local newspaper discussing how Wednesday had just signed this troubled but talented striker from France, who had blown it at numerous clubs there due to his poor attitude, a surly grumpiness mixed with a rotten temper, that had led even to fuming nastily at a referee and throwing a ball at him, leading to a lengthy ban. Needless to say, he had failed to make it at various clubs, big and small, in France, but Wednesday had given him a trial and were going to sign him on a contract. The article was actually premature. Cantona wouldn’t sign for Wednesday, as they couldn’t afford his wages, being a newly promoted club from the second division, but instead nearby Yorkshire rivals Leeds United swooped in cannily and offered him a contract, which he took. Pretty far-thinking by manager Howard Wilkinson, as at this point English clubs didn’t see much need for foreigners, they had plenty of good enough British strikers. And a foppish, floundering Frenchy forward was unlikely to be to handle its grim, muddy fields and its butchering old-school defenders.

The other photo on the article was even better. Cantona, in a shirt and leather jacket, unshaven and looking rather pale and unathletic, sitting at a smoky bar with half a pint of lager in front of him. And looking over his shoulder in the vague direction of the camera, almost seeming to query, “Why are you here? I’m having a beer.” Not exactly the picture of a star culture-changing master of his sporting craft, and a picture you’d never see of a Premiership superstar now.

But that was Cantona. He did things his way, and no-one before or since has done it quite like him.

This is a man who was told he needed to leave French football and seek the relative mental sanctuary of England … by his psychologist.

At the time, I of course despised Leeds United. A 16 year-old Manchester United fan, at that point I had been following the team vaguely for about 6 years, and rabidly for the previous two seasons, during which they had won the FA Cup, League Cup and most gloriously the European Cup-Winners Cup, but had failed to win the league. Their best chance to end a 25-year drought going back to the practically sepia-toned 1967 team of Best, Law and Charlton, had petered out feebly – after a traumatic New Year’s Day 4-1 hammering at home by QPR, they would go on to only win 6 of their next 19 league games, letting Leeds United, aided by new signing Cantona, take the title. It was awful, screamingly horrible. I can still remember clear as lightning an interview with Leeds’ dogged defensive midfielder David Batty after they won the league, and being asked what it meant, he said, “Well, it’s a bonus, int’it?” When every Manchester United fan had been desperate for a league title again, and had been tearfully pinning their hopes that this year the mighty Bryan Robson and our great club would be champions again after a wait of a quarter of a century … to them, it was … a bonus.

And every United fan knew the problem. We needed a striker who scored more goals. In the league, our strike partnership Mark Hughes and Brian McClair had scored less than 30 goals between them, and our next highest scorer was a defender, Steve Bruce, with 5. It was clear the team needed a striker with the ability to smash home goals, to twist defences into errors, and to create openings for his team-mates. Rumours flew that Southampton’s young ace Alan Shearer had been approached, alongside the likes of David Hirst, Matt Le Tissier and Brian Deane. But none of these materialised. Meanwhile, Leeds had this new French striker who it turned out was rather useful and effective, skillful but also hearty and strong, not to mention flamboyant, who was scoring breath-taking goals, like one where he chipped the ball over defenders and volleyed it into the net with aplomb.

The next season, 1992-1993 got started with United much the same, decent but still lacking a cutting edge in front of goal. I can clearly remember the evening of November 26th 1992. I was lying on my bed in my bedroom, reading and vaguely listening to my little radio, when the sports news came on. It was announced that Manchester United had completed the signing of Leeds’ striker Eric Cantona for a fee of £ 1.1 million.

What?

What?!?

I leapt out of bed and put my ear right against the speaker. It was true, Cantona had signed for United! Who cares about those dunderhead English up-front lumps we had been chasing, we just got Cantona! Why the hell would Leeds let him go? Arrogance? Prejudice? Had Cantona slept with the chairman’s daughter? Who cares! Eric is at United!

And it didn’t take long for his magic to kick in. Dropping off the main striker into the hole of space just in front of defenders, his wandering but considered movement bamboozled British centre-backs used to strikers being up in their face. Suddenly they had to go looking for him. From deep, his thoughtful elegant passing was a joy on the eye, gracefully releasing our speedy wingers Giggs and Kanchelskis to fly into space; and then suddenly he would appear in the box, to smash home headers with a slam of his philosophical brow, to dribble around tackles like his toes were on fire, to laser home volleys with a ballet dancer’s balance, to flick off the ball gift-wrapped to an on-running team-mate, to slip finishes under goalkeepers like notes under a door – all done with a joie de vivire, an elan, a matador’s, musketeer’s, magician’s swoop of arrogance, playfulness and joy in the game, in the entertainment of it, the art of it, of turning mud and sweat and ugly billboards and grass and pink-faced fans and white lines and netting and wooden posts, into wonder and awe and indelible memories. Of returning royalty to the golden Manchester United Football Club badge, of returning rage and pomp and fiery flair to the red shirt, of restoring the mischievous devilishness to the Red Devils. Collar up, shoulders back, gazing at the crowd with an insouciance and a raised eyebrow that said, “Mais oui, would you expect anything less, mes amies?” Eric arrived and United went wild.

And we won the league that year. After a 26 year wait. By 10 points.

Right now, I won’t go into all the good, bad and ugly that Eric Cantona did after that in his 5 seasons at United, but let’s just say, for any United fan lucky enough to have been around to watch them, those years are unforgettable. He’s still my favourite ever player in a United shirt.

So thank you Sheffield Wednesday for bringing Eric Cantona over for a trial 25 years ago…

***

No Oscars (or, In Good Company)

No Oscars (or, In Good Company)

 

It’s that time of the year again, awards season building towards the biggie, the Oscars. We all of course value the respect of our peers, and I think any actor who claims he hasn’t at some point imagined holding that gold sparkling Academy Award in his hand and making his witty and moving acceptance speech, is probably not telling the full truth. We’d all love that moment of glory, of affirmation, of a place in the order of honour in our profession. But in the end of the day, the vast majority of us won’t win one. Despite talent, great effort, sacrifice, ingenuity, courage, boldness, creativity, and indeed, marvelous performances, only a very very chosen few get that statuette.

But you know what? That’s okay, because

(a) doing the work is what really counts, using your gifts to be an excellent storyteller, whether that’s in a tiny theatre or a mighty blockbuster

and

(b) lots of truly amazing actors (and indeed directors) were never recognised with an Oscar.

Let’s just note a few of those – and honorary achievement awards don’t count!

 

ACTORS WHO NEVER WON AN OSCAR include

Cary Grant

Richard Burton

James Dean

Marilyn Monroe

Robert Mitchum

Barbara Stanwyck

Peter O’Toole

Rita Hayworth

Steve McQueen

Carole Lombard

Kirk Douglas

Maureen O’Hara

Montgomery Clift

Gene Kelly

Errol Flynn

 

Kind of incredible.

Actors still around with a amazing body of work include Robert Redford (won as a director, but not as an actor), Harrison Ford, Mia Farrow, Glenn Close, Ed Harris, Annette Benning, Sigourney Weaver, Donald Sutherland, Isabella Rosselini and Martin Sheen.

In the younger generation, surely it is only a matter of time before an Oscar goes to the likes of Tom Cruise, Johnny Depp, Amy Adams, Edward Norton, Michelle Williams, Will Smith and Brad Pitt. And it’s not just the Yanks: here are some stately Brits and Irish with no Oscar wins: Gary Oldman, Liam Neeson, Ralph Fiennes, Ian McKellen.

*And this is not even counting actors given an Oscar way too late in their careers, like Paul Newman, who was given a lifetime achievement award a year before his first acting Oscar.

 

And let’s look at directors:

DIRECTORS WHO NEVER WON AN OSCAR include

Alfred Hitchcock

Stanley Kubrick

Howard Hawks

Orson Welles

Robert Altman

Charlie Chaplin

Sergio Leone

Sidney Lumet

Sam Peckinpah

Fritz Lang

Arthur Penn

John Cassavetes

Michael Powell

Hal Ashby

 

Wow.

For the likes of Christopher Nolan, David Fincher, PT Anderson and Darren Aronovsky, it’s surely only a matter of time, but it’s still yet to happen for directors with the majestic CVs of Terrence Mallick, David Lynch, Michael Mann, Ridley Scott, Jane Campion, Spike Lee, Tim Burton, or David Cronenberg. And that’s not even getting into foreign directors like Jean-Luc Godard, Ingmar Bergman and Akira Kurosawa!

So, while I’d of course be only delighted to get an Oscar nomination, if I never win one, that’s pretty good company to be in, I’d say …

***

10 Hypnotising Novels

10 Hypnotising Novels

One of the truly great joys I think you can have is reading a novel, whose story is so well told, you can’t bear to put it down, you’re excited to think you’ll be back reading it later, and when you’re in the midst of it, you are almost in a trance state, so deeply are you engaged in the narrative. Of course, this doesn’t happen often, and I guess that’s part of what makes it special. Here are a gang of novels, in no particular order, that have left me spellbound and I think are pretty darn special:

 

The Secret History by Donna Tartt

Donna Tartt is just an exceptional writer, sentence by sentence, page by page, which I found again when I read her latest book The Goldfinch, which was also utterly absorbing. But The Secret History remains one of my favourite novels – I remember being utterly captured by the first-person story of a young man who falls completely into the seductive world of a gang of charismatic, eccentric misfits at a fancy New England university, where mystery and adventure is key and the rules of normal society are cast aside for a superior world of ideas and experiences … until ultimately facing the dangers of crossing the boundaries of morals and laws. I remember its crisply formed ideas and gorgeous sentences blowing my mind, and whipping through the pages of its darkly thrilling story. Even now, when I see its simple black cover in a bookshop, I get a tingle of joy.

 

The Brothers K by David James Duncan

In what is surely one of the greatly underrated Great American Novels, the saga of a family is gorgeously captured. Compassionate, uplifting and deeply humane, it follows decades in the lives of the four boys in the Chance family, absorbing us in capturing key aspects of American life, of sport and big dreams, of religion and regret, of political upheaval and finding your own way in that huge country. Truly beautiful, its 600 pages will blaze by, and leave you with only a feeling of good soul afterwards. I still sometimes dream of setting up a baseball pitching practice area in a back yard, complete with target and a bag of stained old baseballs, like the dethumbed father of the tale.

 

The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar by Roald Dahl

More of a novella, I adore this Roald Dahl story, and can remember being plain gobsmacked as a young lad following its incredible but so believably told story of a rich layabout who learns to count cards from a yogi master’s teachings, and then goes on to use various disguises to cheat casinos and give the money to the poor. Its intricate playing out of the learning process of magically seeing through the cards, and the sweaty drama of our protagonist’s first attempts at a card table, are all brilliantly captured in Dahl’s unmatched clear and caustic storytelling. 95% chance you will read this in one sitting.

 

Glamorama by Bret Easton Ellis

I have clear memories of being introduced to Bret Easton Ellis while at drama school, and devouring his books in the only reading time I had amidst long days and crashed-out nights – my rumbling bus journeys to and from Dublin’s city centre. I remember being aghast and utterly fascinated by his American Psycho, but in reading his Glamorama, I was genuinely hypnotised. I recall reading a 3-way sex scene that went on and on and on for pages and pages, and having to put the book down, not from arousal but just being dizzy with its imagery. And getting off the bus one day, I realized I was noting the brand labels worn by each passer-by, and rating them based on it, just like the protagonist in the story, and having to shake it off! Almost every Ellis book is like stepping into a dangerous dream – dark and absorbing and fearless and scary. But in particular, Glamorama just got into my head. Brilliant book.

 

The Amazing Adventures of Cavalier and Klay by Michael Chabon

Oh, how I love this wonderful book. The just joyous, joyous story of two scruffy New Yorkers, one a brand-new immigrant, a lucky and resourceful escapee from fascist Europe, the other a feisty Jewish boy battling his true nature, both of whom find creative bliss and magnificent purpose creating superhero comic books, in the Golden Age of Marvel and DC. This is a heart-tendering story of friendship and liberation, and of doing good in the world with the gifts you have, of simple heroism, against a background of the rattling radiators and bright lights of 40’s Manhattan, and the horrors of World War II. And if like me, you grew up on Spider-Man comics, you’ll just love how it delves into the world of classic comics bullpens. Excelsior.

 

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

Ah, Dickens. Though some may mock him as mawkish and obvious, when he is read, I dare you not to be deeply absorbed. The story of Pip and his rise through hidden benefactors to the stately London life, and how his life comes crashing down around him amidst memories of foggy moors and cobwebbed ballrooms, stays with me like a vivid dream. And I still choke up thinking of the scene where Joe comes for a visit in his patched-up Sunday best, and can’t work out where to put his hat. Magic.

 

The Princess Bride by William Goldman

I saw the film first, which I adore. But in many ways, the book is even better – even Goldman’s intro, which creates the colourful tale of how the book was “discovered” is utterly delightful. This fairy tale packed with hilarious humour, marvelous imagination and of course true love, is unputdownable, with all of its much-loved scenes even more vivid in print, with even more of a Grimm-tale dangerous darkness to fight against for our heroes (and heroine). Perfect to read to your ailing grandson.

 

East of Eden by John Steinbeck

Steinbeck’s mighty tome is a spirit-lifting elegy for lost dreams, for surprising loyalty, for family longing, for tarnished relationships, for awful pettiness, for stubborn passion. It is full of characters in the Trask and Hamilton families that you will cry over, and its muscular storytelling is packed with wisdom, bravery and healing. Delve into it deeply, and you will come out thrilled with your journey.

 

 

Mr. Vertigo by Paul Auster

I am a huge fan of Paul Auster, adoring his cleanly-written stories of chance and synchronicity, of the power of names and numbers and addresses, of movies seen in cinemas and books written in notebooks, of fallible memory, of stories within stories, of promises made and contracts entered into, of New York in all its impossibility, and of baseball games, both real and conjured. And this may well be my favourite, his tale of a twelve year old boy who learns to fly from a mysterious magician. Even when I think of it now, its last page, I get a shiver.

 

The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje

Aged 21, on my first ever visit to the US, on my J-1 visa summer in Cleveland, Ohio, I can remember writing in my journal, and being asked by my room-mates and fellow travelers, sweatily bored out of their minds in our AC-less, TV-less 1-bedroom apartment, on a weeknight of hot dead air and empty pockets, what I had written. To read it aloud. (I guess I should have known I was an actor then.) I did, and I remember very clearly what I read out. How even when surrounded by the grotty urban neighbourhood we were in, of biker bars with broken windows, of snarling cars shuddering our windowframes, of screaming and shouting in the night, how in reading The English Patient, it carried me away to a world of grace and desert light and dignity and sun-sparkled beauty. And it truly did, in Ondaatje’s spellbinding tale of characters smashed by the War, filled with profundity and heat and astonishing poetry, capturing fragile human life amidst the crash of mighty metal forces. Such is the power of a truly compelling novel.

 

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Magic in Here: Walking around an Empty Theatre

Magic in Here: Walking around an Empty Theatre

 

Sometimes you go somewhere and you just feel at home, even it is your first time being there. Like it’s where you belong. Like it’s the right place for you to be. To me, I always feel that way about a theatre. Of course, I feel that way about going to work in a theatre, the bustle and excitement of rehearsals and tech and performances, of the whole gang putting a show together, assembling the pieces, welding them into place (or more likely sticking them there with gaffer tape), and of course, the rush and sparkle of an audience coming in for a show.

But to me, there’s something delicately and deeply special, a juicy feeling, about being in an empty theatre. To me, it feels like the cool calmness and connection to your spirit that you get when you are in a church where your faith is fulfilled. It can be a theatre I am working in or one I am walking into for the first time. I love to stroll amid the seats, around the stage, through the dressing rooms. Counting the lights above my head. Testing out the acoustics with a few great lines, feeling how they bounce around the space, how they echo with the room’s excitement at being spoken to, how the ghosts of past performances wake from their slumbers and peek from the wings with interest. I always feel like a theatre is a living organism, a godly thing, like an angel built of bricks and mortar, and that like a momma of a big family, it loves to have people in it, its kids back in the house, making noise and laughter and playing and filling the place with joy and excitement and purpose. Theatres wait patiently like mighty whales when they are empty, and are delighted to open their huge jaws and swallow up people like Jonahs when they come knocking.

I love the sound of my shoes clacking across the boards of the stage. I love the look of the seats, their symmetry, the sudoku of their layout, and if they are red, that is just the icing on the cake (is there anything better than a comfy scarlet seat in the stalls?) I love the smell of dressing rooms, of make-up powder and relaundered costumes and the past tang of flowers and sweat and camaraderie. I love the taste in the air, fresh and cool, as if you are eating the space, like it’s clean paper to write words on anew. And I love the feel of the theatre, of opening its many wooden doors, of stroking its velvet curtains, and the shiver of anticipation it creates on my skin.

Because maybe that’s just what an empty theatre is – potential. Possibilities of shows that could be done here. In an empty theatre you cannot help but commence imagining – what play might suit that bare brick background or having that high ceiling or that overlooking mezzanine? What way might you lay out the seats to get a thrust for Shakespearean soliloquies or to surround the actors for a minutely observed Arthur Miller? What will it be like to walk down this corridor in full costume for your opening night entrance? What would it feel like in here, to look out and see every single seat filled and hundreds of eyes watching you with delight? How would a Pinter play work in here, or a Moliere, or an adaptation of Dickens’ Bleak House? And that new play, the one you adored reading but it just wouldn’t fit in those other places, you know what, it might be magic in here …

You see, there is. There’s magic in here. In this hungry space, ravenous for words, for truly felt emotion, for capturing human comedy, for gripping stories, for utterly present life on the stage, for raucous laughter and ringing heartfelt applause and honest tears. There’s the chance to do something here that’s never been done before, that will only live like this in these walls, shared with these friends. There’s the potential to put on a play.

So imagine away. There’s magic in here.

***

10 of my personal favourite things to do in Manhattan (or a darn good day for Paul in NYC)

10 of my personal favourite things to do in Manhattan (or a darn good day for Paul in NYC)

Being back in New York City for a couple of weeks there, a first trip back from Dublin after living in NYC for ten years, it was interesting how amidst all the amazing things to do there, I gravitated back to my favourite old haunts. So I thought I’d make a list of my personal ten recommended spots in Manhattan, and then realized this would make an amazing (if pretty packed) day in the city.

Warning: this doesn’t include any tourist book must-sees (no Met, Central Park, Times Square, Little Italy, Magnolia Bakery) and it helps if you love coffee, books and walking …

 

Presenting: Paul’s amazing day in New York City!

1. Joe Coffee on 23rd Street for your a.m. espresso

joe-coffee

We’re up early into the brisk morning air, we’ve rode the subway (eek), taken the PATH train from Jersey (not so bad), rode a Citibike (watch your elbows) or taken a taxi (slowww), and now we’re smugly strolling through Chelsea past all the poor folks rushing to work (c’mon, this is a holiday for us, woo-hoo!) and into the warm, welcoming doors of Joe Coffee on 23rd Street and 9th Avenue at 9a.m. Sure, it’s a chain, but it’s a local NYC chain in baby blue, and this particular spot is the cafe I spent more time in than any other in the city (enough that they knew my order, possibly not a good thing), nabbing a lovely cappuccino before heading to rehearsals at the cell theatre. The coffee here is consistently great and they somehow manage to find sweet, friendly and generous hipsters to work there. If you’ve skipped breakfast, their rosemary scone is your new friend (that you’ll eat). Have a glance through the New York Times (and read the soccer articles on your phone), and enjoy.

2. Head north for a morning perusing the Drama Book Shop

dbsWe head out the door and west on 23rd Street to 10th Avenue, we’re heading uptown now, so why not use the Highline as a funkily pretty way to get from 23rd to 30th Streets. (As bonus, at the corner of 23rd and 10th, you’ll find the Chelsea Barbers, a great old-fashioned men’s barbers, where the hairdressers wear white coats and they play smooth jazz, a sanctum worth remembering for the next time you need your locks chopped). We’ll use 10th Avenue to get to 39th Street before cutting across to 8th Avenue, thereby largely steering clear of the belching ugly sisters, Penn Station and Port Authority. East on 40th Street and we duck into that wonder of wonders for any theatre-lover, the Drama Book Shop, at 10a.m. Let’s spend the next couple of hours perusing its shelves packed with more plays than any other bookshop, in the rainbow of colours that Dramatists Play Service print in, not to mention a huge array of books on acting, theatre and film, and let’s grab a couple and read a bit at one of the comfy chairs. Of course, you’ll be distracted every few pages by the expert staff pointing some young actor to a hot or obscure play where they’ll find a monologue just right for them, and you’ll just be surrounded by a constantly enchanting melody of people talking with love, snarkiness and passion about theatre. Almost as good as being on stage. (Almost).

3. Lunch at Piccolo Cafe on 40th Street

piccoloOkay, it’s 12.30pm and I’m hungry now. I could grab a tasty salmon tartine at Le Pain Quotidien on 40th Street, or a quick tuna baguette at a Pret a Manger, but you know what? I want something hot and tasty and cheap and … next door. So I step into the aptly named (cos it’s tiny) Piccolo Cafe, and order #1, a Fettuccine alla Bolognese (with no cheese, thank you very much) and grab a window counter stool to watch the world (and look at the vintage Italian newspapers on the wall). Pretty darn sharp, the pasta comes out, juicily steaming, and we tuck into its homey deliciousness. Yum.

4. Dessert is Culture Espresso cookies in Bryant Park

bryantOkay, I’m fighting fit for the afternoon … well, almost, let’s grab a cheeky dessert. Only one option here, you can leave your macarons and cronuts, let’s shally down to 38th Street and 6th Avenue, and join the queue (or to speak NYC, get in line) for the best chocolate cookies in the city. They are perfection: fresh-baked in-house, huge, crispy on the outsides, melty-warm on the inside, and frankly one of them is too rich for most men. If it’s a fine dry day, let’s grab them in their paper bag to-go, with your beverage of choice (flat-white, please), and head north two blocks to Bryant Park. Let’s sit by (or if it’s summertime on) the lawn, and enjoy my favourite park in the city, which somehow always manages to breeze midtown madness away and blow any of the city’s stresses off of me. Chill out gazing through the dappled branches of the trees, knowing that Batman definitely hangs out at night on top of that big gothic tower on the south side of the park. (Sure, Central Park is more awesome, but it’s also kind of a big deal, you have to explore into it. Bryant is quite happy to welcome you for a minute or ten. I think that would hurt Central Park’s feelings …)

*Alternate option when they re-open: the Cupcake Cafe on 9th and 41st, where you can get a great cupcake, artfully decorated with flowers, in one of the city’s bastions of old-school Gotham, with a grouchy, burly, white-bearded old barista straight out of a Hemingway bar, who queries your very existence but is also very happy to jollily natter about soccer, theatre, baseball and old movies. After your chat, take your La Colombe beverage and vanilla cupcake with chocolate frosting to a mismatched table in one of the nooks and crannies. And make sure you pull a good book out of your bag.

5. Take a breath in the New York Public Library Rose Reading Room.

rose-roomWell-fed by 2p.m., let’s take the afternoon for spot of cultural spirit-lifting. First step, nip around the corner of 40th Street to 5th Ave, to the New York Public Library. Say a quick hello to my two regal pals, the lion statues, trot up the steps (exercise done for today), up some more stairs inside (exercise done for tomorrow), and into the stunning beauty of the Rose Reading Room. Nearly 300 foot long, 50 feet high, it’s a great deep-breathing space, filled with a powerful quiet, a church of thought; it’s just the most marvellous place in the city if you need a great wooden table to sit and study at, knowing how many other minds have turned their cogs and scratched their pencils here in this mighty echoing space. Try not to squeak the chair as you leave …

6. An afternoon wandering in awe in the Morgan Library

morgan-library… and from one august institution to another: we cut east to Madison Avenue and down to 36th Street, where we enter my favourite museum in the city, the Morgan Library. Of course the Guggenheim and MOMA are amazing for modern art, you can get lost in the Met, and I also have a soft spot for the Society of Illustrators, but the exhibitions at the Morgan always seem to be about the inside track of an artist’s process and practice, which utterly fascinates me, and their acquisitions are astonishing – to see the crossed-out notes and crumpled drafts of great artists is just revelatory, such a gift. I’ve been able to see there the very handwriting and working ideas of Austen, Dickens, Shelley, Twain, Hemingway, Salinger, Tolkein; a first Folio of Shakespeare; sketches by Da Vinci, Lichtenstein and Pollock; not to mention the private letters and speech copies of great leaders like Churchill and Lincoln. And alongside these, you can go into two magical permanent spaces: the library which is like something from Hogwarts, and Pierpont Morgan’s imperious office, both amazing and atmospheric, fruit for thought in themselves. Always inspiring.

7. Al fresco dinner at Shake Shack on Madison Square Park

shack_mspOkay, it’s 5p.m., evening is calling, so it’s time to start heading back downtown. Let’s keep nipping down the relatively quiet Madison Avenue, until we hit the north-east corner of Madison Square Park. Mmmm, yes, I’m hungry too. Let’s walk south along the winding paths to the silver-grey shack with the sand and fairy lights, and get in line (this is New York, people) for a Shake Shack burger. Yes, there are other outlets in the city, and even in the airport now, so maybe it’s not so extraordinary. But (old man voice) “I remember when this was the only Shake Shack in the city, and it was only open in the summer. Arr.” And there still is something special about people’s excitement in the queue (sorry, in line) and then the buzz (the actual electric buzz of the alerting device) of seeing your burger is ready, and eating it out in the grassy open as the sun starts setting over the skyscrapers. (Two tricks: I never eat the last bite of a Shake Shack burger, for some reason it’s always disappointingly slimy-greasy. Put it down with a bow of respect to the other bites of salty-niceness. And don’t feed the squirrels. They’re NYC squirrels. They’ll just come and take your food. One jumped right into my lap once. Felt his claws through my jeans.)

(And if you need dessert after this, you can nip across the street to Eataly, where they have a nummy and adorable little tiramisu in a cup).

*I never claimed this was a healthy-eating day in the city. Look for low-carb options on Yelp.

8. An early evening perusal at The Strand

strandIt’s 6p.m. And the city is starting to get hectic again as people get out of work and head to activities in the bright lights. We’re walking down Broadway, past the Flatiron building, down to and through Union Square, and down to 12th Street, where we are welcomed by the red banner of the Strand Bookstore. They say it’s 18 miles of books, and its packed shelves, the top rows too high to reach (without a staff-member clambering up a ladder), and its second-hand nature meaning you’ll often find a book here that’s been on your list for ages that’s (a) out-of-print and (b) on sale. I’m always enticed and amazed by the depth of their theatre and movie book section; their comicbook section used to be about the level of an average yard sale, but it has improved dramatically; and I think a book lover on any topic – history, art, sports and definitely novels – will be in bliss caressing the shelves and likely to leave with a heavy bag. And they have great events with authors in their rare book space: I once saw Paul Auster (my favourite novelist) discussing Beckett there with Edward Albee. (Now that is an “Only-in-New-York” experience.) Yes, there are many great bookshops in NYC (such as the impeccable McNally Jackson, the super-knowledgable Three Lives, the sprawling Housing Works, or the dreamy children’s bookshop Books of Wonder, plus a shout-out to neighbourhood superstar WORD – can you guess I like bookshops?) but the Strand is a special kind of musty labyrinth joy.

(And if you get out of there a little early, a great next shopping stop is Blick art materials on 13th Street. So many lovely pencils and paints and journals and stationary. You may not want to bring your credit card in there…)

9. See a play at Barrow Street Theatre

ourtownbarrowOkay gone 7p.m., it’s the evening in New York, so that means: you’re going to see a show. (Phew, thankfully you already bought your ticket!) For some people, that would mean leaping in a cab back up to Broadway, and that’s fun, but my pick is for us to keep walking west on 12th Street, then south on 5th Avenue, cut through the NYU students and general amusing weirdos in Washington Square Park to head west on 4th Street until we take a left on Barrow Street, and arrive at the theatre of the same name. It doesn’t look like much from the outside – wait, is this a school hall? But once we get inside this magic little venue, intimately seating 199, each time set up differently, you know you are going to see a cracking good play, as programmed by Scott Morfee and Tom Whirtshafter (and maybe if we’re lucky directed by David Cromer). I’ve seen an terrific run of shows there: Cromer’s Our Town, Tribes and The Effect; The Flick; Every Brilliant Thing, each one intriguing, theatrical and impactful.

10. A jazzy, ping-pongy drink at Fat Cat

fatcatIt’s heading towards 11p.m., we’re pumped full of ideas – let’s grab a nightcap. We’re in the Village, the place is sprawling with bars – but let’s go to a personal favourite: a 3 minute walk up 7th Avenue and onto Christopher Street, then down the rickety stairs into Fat Cat. Sure, it’s kind of a dive, but where else can you grab a drink, play ping-pong AND listen to some pretty darn good live jazz at the same time? Scruffy greatness.

 

Right, phew, I don’t know about you, but I’m bushed. That good kind of tired from a full day. Time for bed.

Wait, where are we staying again?

***

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