Theatre interview: Actor David Ganly and Choreographer / Actor Philip Connaughton

Originally published by, Friday 11th October, 2013. To read the original, please click here

A still from The Gate Theatre’s production of Brecht and Weill’s ‘The Threepenny Opera’

Extending its run from October 12th to November 16th, The Gate Theatre’s wildly successful production of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s ‘The Threepenny Opera’ shows no sign of slowing down. Philip Cummins sat down with actor David Ganly and choreographer / dancer / actor Philip Connaughton to talk about risk-taking in Irish theatre, how Irish audiences are expanding their horizons and how Sonny Knowles and Bob Fosse inspired the cast’s dance moves.

Philip Cummins: The Threepenny Opera’s Macheath has been described as the Hamlet of musicals: he’s the anti- hero who every actor wants to play. How does the role compare with other work that you’ve done?

David Ganly: “Hamlet of musicals”: I love that! It’s a dream of a part and it’s a hell of rollercoaster ride. Our first half is one hour and forty minutes and once you’re on, you’re on; it’s full throttle and you have to hit it running. What I’m loving about it is the fine line- and no better country- between Macheath being an absolute villain and a rogue. He’s an unpleasant man who’s accused of everything from murder though to raping a young bride… and yet the audience somehow understands him. And I could feel parallels between figures in Irish history and Irish politics. I grew up in Dublin during the 80’s when there was, as we now know, a lot of dodgy dealing going on and those involved were quite blatant about their dealings.

It’s also no surprise, for example, that Love/Hate is so huge in Ireland, because people understand it: they understand those characters and the violence that has ensnared them, but Love/Hate doesn’t glamorise violence, and nor does The Threepenny Opera: what we do, I think, is hold a mirror up to the audience, each night, and say “in this situation, what would you do?”

The Threepenny Opera has also been described as “a socialist critique of a capitalist state”. How did much of the current sentiment among Irish people towards the current government, the current state of the country, feed into the performance?

Philip Connaughton: I think what’s so interesting is how The Threepenny Opera has lasted: it’s still so current. So it’s really the whole idea that nothing ever really changes, which is mentioned in the play.

I went to university in Barcelona- I studied Philosophy- and I remember discovering Marxism and Brecht through that and his concepts of alienation. To me, it’s remarkable how it feeds so well into today’s society; it’s horrific, almost. Again, it’s like Love/Hate: why do we have an interest in the underworld? The answer is, of course, that there’s a transparency to it. Brecht is telling you, throughout The Threepenny Opera, “This is what it’s really like; this is why it’s alluring.”

David Ganly: I think the play works very well for a working audience and Wayne Jordan, the director, pulled a masterstroke in using Dublin accents and Dublinese for the tone of the play. It isn’t about us, it’s about them and the people in this town. There’s an ownership of what is being said.

It’s interesting how a song like ‘Mack The Knife’, perhaps the most well known song in The Threepenny Opera, has been covered by everyone from Frank Sinatra and Michael Bublé to Tom Waits and Nick Cave…

DG: It is, but then it’s been sanitized by some of those acts. Sinatra’s jazzy version is a far cry from the spirit of the original, which mentions lines like “violated in her slumber” and “Mackie, how much do you charge?” The hair goes up on the hair of your neck.

PC: The melody and the tempo, too, are like clockwork: they’re getting the message across. We’re so used to ‘Mack the Knife’ with a jazz softness, but when you listen to how Weil’s version works with the Bob Fosse-esque movements. Simplicity, for me, works well in this piece, in terms of the choreography. I think sometimes choreographers can get carried away with movements, but I think that an audience responds well to simplicity. I remember in warm ups how the audiences would be fascinated with music hall singers from the 50’s in Ireland, such as Sonny Knowles, Dickie Rock, whomever…they always seemed to have gimmicks. Sonny Knowles used to use hand gimmicks on stage and I thought “That’s what this show needs: simplicity in the Bob Fosse style, paring it all down and letting the audience in.

One of the criticisms of theatre in Ireland is that there’s no hub, like Broadway or the West End, for musical theatre. What’s your view on that?

DC: The problem is that musicals aren’t here; the problem is that they don’t start here. I’ve lived in London for eighteen years and once every four / five years I will do a major musical production, really, as a commercial necessity. The reality is that you have to put a musical on for a year and a half and that it costs so much money, which, of course, you have to make back. One of the problems here is that we can’t do that because the initial investment isn’t there. The Gate couldn’t possibly make its money back on this show with eighteen actors and the crew…you can’t possibly do that in a short run. So, therefore, who in their right mind would invest in starting something in Ireland? The exception, of course, is Once, which could have been an Irish endeavor, but which had to start in New York and is now playing in London. It’s the element of risk-taking. We are living in a climate where people are afraid to take risks and, to be fair, risk-taking should be rewarded. Michael Colgan and the board approving this production is an extraordinary brave move on their part. To endorse the young talents in this production by approving the production- to say that this talent is here in abundance- does not often happen.

PC: I think, too, that the reaction to The Threepenny Opera has been overwhelmingly positive in a way that none of us really expected. I think that Irish audiences, in the past, have enjoyed musicals a lot more than they would let on, though they had a tendency to be a little cynical about new, homegrown work, here; this seems to be changing.

Have Irish audiences broadened their horizons and gone to see new work that might be considered out their comfort zone?

PC: I think it’s hard to say. From a dance perspective, I would say yes. I think it’s important that theatres like The Gate- incredibly established theatres- are always willing to push the boundaries and move out of their own comfort zones. At the same time, The Gate has a very established audience and by moving away from tried and tested programs, they are educating their audiences.

DG: It has been hard, though, to introduce new, innovative work. I recently did a play in the Abbey called ‘Drum Belly’- a really wonderful, fantastic production that resonated with 18-25 year olds. The Abbey stalwarts- the regulars who go time and time again, fled from the play. To be fair, it was a challenging piece, but also beautifully theatrical. Sometimes, we as an audience can deny ourselves theatrical pleasure by never really embracing the newness of something. It’s really hard to get people interested: times are tight and people will go with established plays and productions with stars or productions that are well known over taking the risk of embracing new work which they may / may not like.

PC: I know with the Dublin Dance Festival that, ironically, audience numbers are increasing and one would imagine that, things being the way they are, that dance wouldn’t be a priority for most people and it is, on the whole, a tougher sell. Every year, though, audiences and sales are increasing. There’s something very real with theatre that you don’t get anywhere else and people are recognizing that.

Did you expect that audiences and critics would receive The Threepenny Opera with the overwhelming positivity with which they have?

DG: No, not all. I had no idea how this production was going to go down with audiences. It’s a very rough, edgy, blue piece that could easily offend people. But it has landed so well.

PC: Macheath’s line “I’m thinking of going into banking” has audiences rolling in the aisles every night. That’s the line: it resonates with everyone.

How optimistic would it be to think that more work like The Threepenny Opera will find its way in The Gate and The Abbey: is this the start of a new chapter in Irish theatre?

DG: I sincerely hope that it is the start of a new chapter, though the onus is always on the audience to go out and enjoy and support new work. You forfeit the right to say that there’s no good theatre in Ireland if you don’t go out and explore what’s out there. My hope for The Threepenny Opera is that the risk that Michael Colgan and the board of The Gate Theatre have taken is rewarded not just by those in Dublin and the surrounding areas who come to see the play, but also that something like The Gate’s production of The Threepenny Opera could be co- produced so that The Gate could work with an English theatre, an American theatre and showcase the standard of work that we are capable of in this country. This production is world class: it would hold its head up high anywhere in the world, but we need the fiscal support to showcase it. That’s where the future of a show like this is.

PC: It’s also reaffirming that good decisions are being made and it shows that there’s growth and progress in Irish theatre.

DG: It’s like Macheath says in scene two, “Today’s the start and starting is the hard part”.

Due to an unprecedented, The Threepenny Opera will enjoy an extended run at the Gate Theatre until 16th November.



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