Catching up with…Daithí

Catching Up With… is a new series wherby I ask 21 questions to figures from music, theatre, TV and film. First up is Galway based Clare musician Daithí Ó Drónaí.

Clare musician Daithí Ó Drónaí. Image: Daithí Facebook page

Clare musician Daithí Ó Drónaí. Image: Daithí Facebook page

Originally published by Entertainment Ireland. To read the original, please click here.

MERE MONTHS AWAY from the release of In Flight, his eagerly awaited début album, 24-year-old musician Daithí Ó Drónaí is busy putting the promotional wheels in motion for a record that he has laboured over for three years. However, a busy schedule hasn’t stopped the Clare man from particing in this year’s Trócaire Live gig at The Grand Social and supporting a charity close to his heart. 

“The line- up, this year, is really great. Trócaire ran the line up by us before we committed and we were just really impressed with the diversity of the performers. I’m just really happy to be doing it and with the type of music that’s featured for the gig, Trócaire Live seems to be going for a real good fun night: a really light- hearted night. It needs to be a celebration of Trócaire.

“We’ve a little bit of work with them before and it’s been great, but Trocaire has been with me my whole life. I grew up in Clare and the Trocaire box was always a real household thing: it’s the first thing that I think of whenever someone mentions Trocaire to me, so it’s been a charity that me and my family have been contributing for some time, as have so many other Irish people. Growing up in Ballyvaughan, there’s a grassroots feeling about Trocaire: it was always featured in our homes, our schools, our church…it seemed to be one of the main charities that I was involved in when I was a child.”

What’s been the highlight of your year so far?

Finishing my first album, which I’ve been working on for about three years.

When did you first realise you wanted a career in music?

When I started playing in bands in boarding school. Any time I wasn’t studying, I was playing bass in bands. It seemed something that was so enjoyable and required little effort.

In three words, describe the five minutes before you walk on stage.

Nervously freaking out!

How do you wind down after a gig?

I have a really strong group of friends that have been with me for a while who hang around after shows. We play late, so we’re never home early!

In three words, describe the live scene in Ireland.

Incredibly forward thinking.

Whose career do you envy and why?

Totally Enormous Extinct Dinosaurs (Orlando Higginbottom). He’s got a great ethos. He doesn’t define himself by genre: he just wants to make people dance., which he’s been doing for years. That’s the way I want to go: to create dance music for dance music’s sake and not get hung up on sub genres or where it should be at any given time.

Vinyl or digital downloads?

Digital downloads for the moment, but I’ve just recently started to collect vinyl. All my favourite stuff is on vinyl, it’s fast, I can get to it immediately.

What is your favourite record shop in the world?

Bell, Book and Candle, Galway. It’s local and the people in there are so unbelievably enthusiastic about music.

Name one rare record you don’t own, but you want more than anything.

Prosumer’s remix of Murat Tepli’s ‘Forever’. I think they only printed a couple of hundred copies on vinyl. I’d love to own that one.

Name one piece of music memorabilia that you wish you owned.

Anything from that first studio that Daft Punk had in Paris. It was such a special time in dance music or anything from Studio 54.

What is the one thing in your life that you couldn’t go without on a daily basis?

I live out of my laptop. I freak out if I’m not near the laptop at any given time: I carry it every where with me. I create all my music out of the one laptop and everything that I have on the laptop is backed up by about four or five hard drives, so if I didn’t have my laptop I’d have nervous chills and I’d freak out! 

Name one record, one book and one film that everyone should hear / read / see.

Record: Swim  by Caribou. Book: On the Road by Jack Kerouac. Film: Searching for Sugar Man

Name one overrated TV series and one underrated TV series.

Overrated: True Blood. I never got that show at all! Underrated: Oz. It’s up there with The Wire.

Pick the director and lead actor for a biopic about your life.

Wow…we’ll get Matt Damon to star as me and Woody Allen to direct. Who wouldn’t want to see Woody Allen making a music film? He’d romanticise it all.

Describe the perfect night in.

Playing video games until very early in the morning and nothing else.

Describe the perfect night out.

There’s a scene of people in Galway having nights out where nights out wouldn’t be the norm, which is great. Places outside the city limits like Innisheer. Galway’s always had great nights out in some form or another.

Where did you grow up and what are the best and worst things about that place

I grew up in Ballyvaughan, Clare. Best things? The scenery, which I never appreciated when I was younger: absolutely beautiful. The worst thing? If you want to go to anyone’s house, you have to drive like 15 minutes! So you’re social life is built around the internet.

What is your biggest fear?

Getting to a point where I wouldn’t be able to create anything.

Who is the person in your life without whom your life wouldn’t be the same?

Definitely my mam. When I was growing up, she shaped me as a person.

What is the most important lesson life has taught you, so far?

My whole family have an ethos of never giving up. It’s developed as constantly upgrading. When it comes to live shows or recording, I never allow myself to enjoy the level I’m on; I’m always trying to upgrade to the next level.

If you could give one piece of life advice it would be…

Do what you love. I see way too many people my own age getting stuck in jobs that they do for money. Never get complacent do what it is you really want to do. Otherwise, you’ll regret it.

Trocaire Live takes place this Saturday 10th May in the Grand Social. Tickets are €10 via

Interview: Damien Dempsey

Originally featured in the print edition of the Irish Post, February 8th, 2014

The Last Dubliner: Singer- songwriter Damien Dempsey

The Last Dubliner: Singer- songwriter Damien Dempsey

THE BUILD of a heavyweight champ, the heart of a saint, the soul of a gritty street- poet; Despite his connection and understanding of his hometown, Damien Dempsey isn’t your average Dubliner.

The Donaghmede native- who has lived for spells in New York and Kilburn- darkens the door of the Library Bar in the Central Hotel on Exchequer Street, a quiet enclave in the heart of Dublin city centre, his 6 foot 2 inches frame clad entirely in black, save for a sandy- colored flat cap.

Dempsey conducts himself like a pro and pleasantries are exchanged ahead of what is his first engagement in an afternoon of press interviews in support of his ‘Best Of’ compilation, which collections 15 years of highlights.

Softly spoken and considered in his answers, Dempsey’s pregnant pauses after answers portray an image of someone who understands the responsibility that come with being in his position as a singer- songwriter who has, over 15 years, reflected the ever- changing nature of Irish life…

PC: I’d like to ask you, firstly, about John Reynolds, who’s been on this 15-year journey with you and with whom you have collaborated extensively. When did ye first meet and how was it that you hit it off?

DD: I met him at a house party in London. I was doing a gig in London- supporting The Hothouse Flowers in Shepard’s Bush Empire in 1999. It’s gonna be great to be going there and doing my own show- it’ll be like the 33rd county, that night! Anyways, I went to a house party after The Hothouse Flowers show with Fiachna Ó Braonáin from the Hothouse Flowers. I didn’t know anyone there, so I just stayed in the kitchen. You go to a house party, where I’m from, you put beer in the fridge…it’s gone!!! People on the rob! So I just stayed in the kitchen keeping an eye on the beers. And you always get a good chat in the kitchen; you’ve got a bit of quiet away from everything else that’s going on in living room. John was in the kitchen cooking up food and we just got chatting away.

He said to me: “I’ve got a little studio upstairs” and he brought me up. It was in his bedroom. I had no idea that he was such a great drummer or that he had produced some of Sinéad O’Connor’s big records; he never said it to me.

I think I was in the Shepard’s Bush Empire, again, the next night and he said that he was going to come down and take a look at me. He came down and, afterwards, I asked him what he thought of the show. “The sound wasn’t great”, he said. He said he asked the sound- man to turn it up a bit, but the sound- man wasn’t even there during at the desk; some of them care, some of them are arseholes.

So the same night, the Flowers were staying at the Columbia Hotel, so we all went down there. I remember John Hurt and all was there and a few other heads. The guitar was going round and someone said “here, give it over to the this fella: give him a shout”. And we sang and the whole room stopped and all; John saw me then and thought “wow…that’s it.” I didn’t meet him much, then, during that night, but it was during that night that he heard me properly and he thought: “Jesus…this guy’s got something.”

I went back to Dublin and, about a month later, John gave me a call out of the blue. I heard this cockney accent on the phone and thought…what the fuck? “It’s John, from London. Y’know, from the house party?” I thought “what the fuck is he doing ringing me (laughs)?” I thought “Has something been robbed from the house and does he reckon it was me?!!!” He goes on, anyways: “Listen, I was just wondering if you’d like to come over to my bedroom studio in London and lay down some tracks?”

So I went over. I didn’t realize he was the producer that he was and that he had worked with so many big names; I just thought that it was a part- time thing for him. I had nothing else going on, so I went over, stayed for a week and just put stuff down- whatever good songs I had at that time.

PC: And how where the songs coming along at that time: thick and fast?

DD: Yep, absolutely. I had a glut of songs- about 26, 27 in all. I only had one record out- They Don’t Teach This Shit in School- so I had a load of other songs waiting to go. I stuck down my strongest songs, he thought they were brilliant and he went mad over them.

I left the songs with him and he said: “Leave them with me and I’ll see what I can do with them; let me work on them.” He sent me on a cd with Sinead O’Connor, Brian Eno, Caroline Dale, Claire Kenny and all playing over it and when I heard it, I was crying. I couldn’t believe what he’d done with the songs.

PC: There’s a massive leap in the sound of that second record…

DD: You’re right, there is definitely a leap in terms of sound. And the voice, too; John really brought my voice up. The voice on the first album is a bit dull and muffled. The headphone mix wasn’t right. I was so shy in the studio that I couldn’t hear what they were doing. I didn’t have the balls to say: I’m singing anymore until I can hear myself. I didn’t know to keep one part of the headphone on the ear and the other off the ear so that I could hear myself sing. So a lot things that got done on that first record kind of just went over my head for the sake of getting it done. I had so little say in anything because I was so nervous.

PC: There’s always been a strong reggae influence that’s come through, particularly that of Bob Marley, in your music. Where did that come from?

DD: When I was growing up in the 80’s in Dublin, reggae and SKA were absolutely huge in Dublin- it was the main music that people were listening to, rather than rock or trad. It was always reggae on the ghetto blasters in the parks, in the fields.

Bob Marley was similar to Luke Kelly: They were singing for the downtrodden, I suppose. The war up the north was raging at that time, too, and you had people fighting for their civil rights. And Marley was talking about Jamaicans fighting for their rights. There is a link there, definitely. And when Marley came to Dalymount Park in July 1980, his music spread like wildfire through Dublin.

PC: Speaking of the north…one of the most recent events that brought your native Donaghmede into the press was the assassination of Donaghmede local Alan Ryan, the former Real IRA chief in the south. The subsequent IRA- style funeral procession that went through the main street of Donaghmede made the font pages of the national papers and was commented on by Minister Alan Shatter.

DD: Em…(long pause, laugh) I don’t know how to answer that…I have to be careful; I see some of these heads in the shopping centre…haha…that’s a tough one…I don’t think the funeral impacted all that much on the community, though having said that, I’m not out there looking for a job, so I don’t really know. I think that the address “Donaghmede” might have a bit of a name for itself, now, and it might be harder for younger people to get a job.

After Alan Ryan got shot, people in Donaghmede were very much on edge. They were waiting for the Real IRA’s retaliation for Alan Ryan’s murder.

PC: Is it fair to say that you’d be happier seeing young fellas joining Donaghmede Boxing Club rather than the Real IRA?

DD: Yeah, sure, absolutely. I think that politics is the only way that their goal is going to come about. I think cross community activity and getting to know the Loyalists and building bridges with the Loyalist community is the only that anything is going to change; bringing those people together. The days of the gun are over and dead in the water- that’s my view. A lot of them [Real IRA] are of the mindset that Padraig Pearse’s way is the only way: that “Ireland unfree shall never be at peace” and a lot of them are going by what he said.

Certainly, it’s [Alan Ryan’s murder / funeral] has left house prices in Donaghmede. There have been other murders in Donaghmede, too, unrelated to the Real IRA: gang related stuff, drugs related stuff- mostly cocaine. I don’t know why it happens in Donaghmede and not in some of the surrounding areas. But I still live there and I feel that there’s an awful lot more good than bad in the community: there’s a great spirit amongst the people there. I find it’s a very friendly place and the neighbors and the people look out for each other. I didn’t find that when I was living in the city. There’s a great sense of community in Donaghmede and, hopefully, it stays like that.

PC: You lived in Kilburn, some years ago. How did you feel as an Irish person in Kilburn?

DD: I loved Kilburn. I found it to be very diverse, especially up the High Road, where you can just sit in a café and watch everyone go by. And didn’t find that many Irish people there, except in the bars where you would find older fellas- guys who went over in the 40’s and 50’s Young Irish people in London aren’t going to Kilburn like they used to; they seem to be scattered all over London, which is fine, but I think when the older generation when over to Kilburn- to a specific place- people probably looked after each a bit more.

I did a show for the Aisling Centre over there, where we raised a hundred grand. Finbar Furey was there, Dermot Desmond gave something like a hundred grand on the night- small change! I’m working with the Camden Irish centre, doing a couple of gigs there, and they were trying to get the Irish community together, which as I said is scattered. A lot of them [that are scattered] wouldn’t have a sense of Irishness or Irish history. Maybe it’s the way it’s thought in schools…we’re not really taught the real history of Ireland.

And, now, for the Junior Cert, history is not going to be a compulsory subject, which I think is a fuckin’ travesty. The history of Ireland gives us a sense of why we are who we are, why we like we think, y’know? And to see the similarities that we have with other colonized people around the world.

PC: What aspect of Irish history stimulates you the most; the period that should, absolutely, be taught to Junior Certs?

DD: (long pause) Around 1798 / 1916 / War of Independence. The Cromwellian War, 1641 rising…The Battle of Clontarf…the time before that where there was a seat of learning. People used to come from all over Europe to send their kids to college in Ireland- the monks of Clonmacnoise and all. And the Brehon Laws, which are never taught in school. The Brehon laws were much fairer laws than what we have now: you see the law nowadays and they favour the wealthy. The wealthy never seem to go to jail for all the white collar crimes. You see what’s gone on here [Anglo Irish, Seanie Fitz, etc.] how many of them actually went to jail? The Brehon laws brought down High Kings in Ireland. If a High King did you wrong, there’d be a hunger protest on his doorstep and the rest of the community would boycott him; they’d blank him.

PC: 2013 marked the centenary of the 1913 lockout and we’re steadily approaching the centenary of 1916. Do we celebrate our history as we should? I felt there was very little done, last year, in the way of public commemorations of the centenary of the lockout…

DD: There was very little done. I don’t think kids don’t know about James Connolly or the lockout, they’re not being taught in school, passionately, about who these people were, I don’t think. It’s not in the history texts. We’ve just been homogenized. American culture and the Internet has gripped young people. And people wonder why Irish people aren’t out protesting on the streets.

And you see now that fluoride has been in Irish water since the 50’s. It’s been tested and experts have found that fluoride makes you docile- maybe it’s the water (laughs)! In most European countries, fluoride has been taken out of the water as it’s seen as toxin waste.

So I’m going to make stand, now, when they try to charge me for water: take the fluoride out or you’re not getting my money. I’d be part of the anti- fluoride campaign and the campaign to take the fluoride out of the water. It’s poison and it the proof is there: it lowers the IQ in children, it makes you docile, it makes you sick. Experts have made comparisons have been made with the six counties where fluoride isn’t in the water and the difference in the levels of sickness, dementia is off the charts.

PC: Just to go back to the point you made about Irish history and how the significance of Irish history has been lost on the younger generation: If you were to go into a class- full of Junior Certs- who are not being taught history- and you were to play them three Damien Dempsey songs that encapsulate you passion and interest in Irish history and your sense of Irish identity, what would those songs be?

DD: ‘Colony’, ’Chris & Stevie’, because it’s about being proud of who you are, whether you’re rich or poor, black or white, Catholic, Protestant, Jew, whatever…and maybe…’Sing All Our Cares Away’…(long pause again…) yep, I think them three, just show kids how singing is therapeutic, y’know?

PC: ‘Ghost of Overdoses’ is such a vivid song. Our relationship with drugs in Ireland is quite strange: alcohol has always been a problem across every social strata; heroin has been a huge problem, broadly speaking, for the working classes since the 70’s / 80’s and cocaine was the drug of choice for those who benefitted most from the Celtic Tiger. Does it surprise you that you were able to write ‘Ghosts of Overdoses’?

DD: No, not all. When you’re at people in the inner city, you think “They’re my people.” They go back thousands of years and look at the state of them; that could have been me, there, if my family had stayed in the inner city; if my family had stayed in Ballymun flats, that could have been me. When I was 12, all of my friends were doing what they could to get out of their heads- sniffing glue, gases, acid…if I had stayed there, I could have ended up on heroin.

I’ve one cousin who’s on the heroin, now, another cousin who died of the heroin: it’s fairly close to me. I think the past is still with us now. People say “colonization: that’s in the past”. I think it has affected us, mentally, and I think we [the Irish] still have a lot of demons- Irish men, in particular. I think women are a bit stronger, but Irish men are very vulnerable. Look at the huge suicide rate that we have here. We’re the first generation to come out of the Catholic Church: the power that they had, even when I was a kid, was huge. So we’re only after breaking out of that. And the north was huge in the 80’s and 90’s. We’re the first generation that has seen the skeletons come out of the cupboard. You don’t just get over that stuff overnight: all that shit that has gone on over centuries and centuries, from the Roman Catholic Empire to the British Empire. We’re only just trying to come to terms with all that stuff now. I think we all need counseling- we should be probably be all getting free counseling!

You look at the suicide rate: stuff is being passed on from generation to generation in the Irish psyche. I think’s why we’re so crazy for the drink and drugs and we have the highest rate of alcoholism.

PC: What’s coming after the ‘Best Of’? Are there any artistic ambitions that haven’t been fulfilled, yet?

DD: A couple of duets, maybe. I have another album bubbling up, now, which should out next year. There’s two new songs on the best of: a song called ‘Happy Days’.

The next record is definitely taking on an influence from Latin America. I find the history of Latin America fascinating. But I’m also trying to write song about how in 1966, in Australia, these Aboriginal Australians walked off this place called Wave Hill- they were all stockmen, like cowboys. They were being paid a pittance and being paid much lower wages that the whites. They walked off and they had a strike for 9 years until 1975. They tried to double the wages and they said: “No: we want our lands back”. The Gurinji people, they were called. A liberal government got into power in 1975 with a fella called Gough Whitlam. There’s an iconic picture of Whitlam pouring land with a fella called Vincent Lingiari and that’s when the Aboriginal Land Rights Movement took off and they started get some of the land back. So I’m writing a song about that: the anniversary is in 2016. So I might go down and do a gig in Wave Hill. It’s way up in the Northern Territory.

So I’m trying to write more about the world- have a more global scope rather than just focusing on Irish stuff. That said, I’ll be writing about some Irish focused stuff. Bullying is a big one at the moment, particularly online bullying. Kids bullying other kids with texts and online messages. I want to write a song that gives a voice to those kids that have been affected by cyber bullying.

PC: So Shepard’s Bush is going to be coming up soon. What can fans expect?

DD: Well, the place will be hoppin’, I’ll tell you that now! It’s been a dream of mine to headline Shepard’s Bush for a long time. I always maintained that someday I’d go back there and headline. I supported the Hothouse Flowers there, Sinead O’Connor, The Frames.

I’m just going to enjoy these next few years, instead of thinking “I wish I was up here, I wish I had that audience, I wish it was easier, financially…” I’m just going to cherish what I have. I’ve worked hard to get where I am, so anything else is a bonus. I’d like to get the music to more people. I don’t necessarily want more fame, more money…I just want to get the message to more people.

It’s All Good: The Best of Damien Dempsey is out on February 17th.

New features: The Saturday Song, The Sunday Poem

As of this weekend, I’ll be running two regular, weekly features on music and literature: The Saturday Song and The Sunday Poem

Keep an eye out for two weekly music and literature features that I’ll be running, as of this weekend: The Saturday Song and The Sunday Poem

SO I’m going to start uploading some new, regular features to run along my published work.

Every weekend, I’ll post up The Saturday Song and The Sunday Poem on their respective days. These features will consist of a detailed, critical analysis of a song and poem, applying music theory and literary theory / poetic terminology to the song / poem in question, though done so- I hope- in a way that is entertaining, at the very least.

Every song that I feature will have either a Soundcloud or Spotify link embedded in the feature. For copyright reasons, it won’t be possible to post an entire poem on the site, though I will encourage readers to dig out the poem in their libraries and, indeed, from their own bookshelves. Certainly, I will list the collections and anthologies in which the chosen poem is published.

Another feature that I am toying with is The Friday Film, which would be written in the same tone as The Saturday Songs and The Sunday Poem. The Friday Film, however, is a longer term idea that I may develop, depending on the success of the The Saturday Song and The Sunday Poem. 

This week’s Saturday Song will be Vampire Weekend’s Obvious Bicycle.

This week’s Sunday Poem will be Simon Armitage’s The Shout. 

If there are songs and / or poems that you would like to see covered, please comment below with your suggestions.

Poetry Ireland Introductions 2013 Series One: Featured Writer: Brian Kirk

Dublin poet Brian Kirk

Dublin poet Brian Kirk

Over the course of the next few days and weeks, I’ll be posting interviews with those writers reading as part of the Poetry Ireland Introductions series 2013. One of this week’s featured writers is Dublin poet Brian Kirk, who reads this Thursday. 

Philip Cummins: What is your earliest memory of poetry at home or in school?

Brian Kirk: It has to be Patrick Kavanagh. Like thousands of others on this island, Kavanagh’s poems on both the Inter Cert. and Leaving Cert. syllabuses were a starting point. My father was station master at Iniskeen railway station in the 1950’s when Kavanagh was travelling between Iniskeen and Dublin regularly; I felt that I had a further and closer connection to him, in that way. My mother said that Kavanagh was a very vulgar man and I think that always impressed me, too. Apart from poetry there were, of course, song lyrics, which is how a lot of young people  develop an interest in words and what they can do. Punk was happening when I was a young teenager, so that whole idea that you could do anything that you wanted was prevalent at that time.

PC: Is there a particular poet, poem or book of poems that was, for you, like discovering rock n’ roll for the very first time? Can you describe what it was like?

BK: It’s funny; there was no particular poet at the outset. Yes, there was W.B. Yeats and Patrick Kavanagh, but I also loved Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg in my late teens and early twenties. I also liked William Blake from an early age and Percy Shelley and John Keats; I still read Blake and Shelley. The Romantics were very rock n’ roll!

PC: Which poets do you think best characterise the qualities that are found in your own poetry?

BK: I’d like to think that I write pretty direct poems that speak to people – not in a moralising  way – but as commentaries / meditations on modern life, private and public, in the manner of Blake or Yeats around the time of Responsibilities. Recently, I’m very influenced by Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop and also the more playful work of Paul Muldoon and Paul Durcan. Scottish poet Don Patterson is also a particular favourite, at the moment.

PC: What was your first “Eureka!” moment in writing and publishing poetry; the moment when you realized “Hey, I’m actually on to something here!” in terms of your work coming together and first getting accepted and published in magazines and journals?

BK: I started out as a nineteen year old reading my (not very good) poetry in the Underground on Dame Street in the 1980’s to people who were there to see bands and not poets. Youth brings with it great self-belief! Though it was probably when I had a poem published for the first time in Night and Day, an anthology edited by Dermot Bolger for New Island about six years ago that I really felt that I’d done some good work. I’d been writing poems on and off for years, but that publication gave me the belief to write more regularly and to be rigorous in how I edited my work, which I think is the most important element of any kind of writing.

PC: Finally, if you could own and keep just three collections of poetry on your bookshelf- excluding, of course, your own- which collections would they be and why?

BK: This is impossible to answer. There are so many brilliant and diverse styles of poetry it would be impossible to reduce it down to three. One poem I would have to have would be John Milton’s Paradise Lost, but I’d also love Edward FitzGerald’s translation of the Rubiyat of Omar Khayam, and I’d want some T.S. Eliot and Sylvia Plath. Also, Theo Dorgan’s Greek, and two recent Salmon Poetry publications; Colm Keegan’s Don’t Go There and  John Murphy’s The Book of Water. Of course, I’d also want Howl by Allen Ginsberg, and many, many more. Sometimes you look for meaning in a poem; sometimes rhythm; sometimes sound; other times you just want beauty.

Brian Kirk reads as part of the first in a series of three readings as part of the Poetry Ireland Introductions readings series on Thursday 30th May at 6.30pm at the Irish Writers’ Centre, 19 Parnell Square, D1.

Also reading with Brian are:

Madeleine Barnes

Stephanie Conn

Annemarie Ní Churreáin

Venue: The Irish Writers’ Centre, 19 Parnell Square, D1
Time: Thursday @ 6.30pm
Admission: Free
T: (01) 8721302

Feature: Behind the scenes with The Lion King at The Bord Gáis Energy Theatre

Originally published on To read the original, please click here.

I never did do musicals. While I can play any number of songs from many musicals on guitar and piano, I’ve often found musical productions themselves – on film and on stage – to be overblown, mawkish, portentous and, sometimes, pretentious affairs. My tastes across the performing arts have always leaned towards performers and performances that take a “less is more” approach rather than “everything but the kitchen sink”, be it Beckett or Bob Dylan. Similarly, while music remains my first love, I’ve never once wanted song, as a form, to be a vehicle for dramatic narrative. My favorite music – again, on film and on stage – is twisted and bended out of language; give me Mamet Speak over ‘Maria’, give me Pinter’s Pause over ‘The Sound of Music’.

Yet, here I am at a media call for The Lion King, the biggest theatre production ever to come to Ireland. Requiring 23 giant trucks to haul it from Manchester to Dublin, it’s a production on a scale that few venues around the globe can accommodate. Throughout the day, press releases, PR people and, not least, Stephen Crocker – Disney Theatrical’s Director of Marketing and Creative Services – are all giving The Lion King the hard sell to those members of the media assembled atThe Bord Gáis Energy Theatre.

Of course, they don’t need to sell anything. Over the next eight weeks, 85,000 people will flock toThe Bord Gáis Energy Theatre to watch this lavish production, complete with 50 actors, singers and dancers from 17 different countries. Already, 70 million people have watched the show in 15 different countries across 5 continents, since it was first performed on Broadway in 1997. The tour of Ireland and the UK has been four years in the making. Crocker, however, seems unfazed by the enormity of the production. He knew that expectations from audiences outside of Broadway and the West End were high.

“One of the assumptions when we were going on tour was that the show would be somehow shrunken down and not be the London version, or the Broadway version. I think a lot of people assumed that it would be a smaller version of what had gone before, because it’s such a huge production that it didn’t look as if it could be brought on tour without any sort of compromise. But there was never any intention to do that, because Julie Taymor’s vision deserves to be seen in full. Similarly, why does an audience in Dublin deserve to see a lesser version of the show than an audience in New York? It’s crazy. So we had to find a way to bring the full scale of it, because that’s just what the show is.”

The affection for The Lion King is not just held by the tens of millions who have seen the production since 1997, but also by cast members. Actor Stephen Carlile beams when speaking of the effect the show has on audiences. “I love seeing what this show does to people: it really makes people very, very happy”, claims Carlile, who plays Scar, the show’s villain. Described by Carlile as “bonkers…a nasty piece of work”, the actor never felt any creative limitations in building the character. “I can have a lot of fun with the role: anything goes.” Jeremy Irons originally voiced Scar in the 1994 animated movie version of The Lion King. Carlile, however, never once considered aping the distinctive voice given to his character by the Oscar-winning Cork resident. “I never really thought about it. I just played the part as I wanted to in rehearsals. This production is very fresh and we didn’t feel we had to adhere to anything that had been done before.”

The cast also includes South African Nicholas Nkuna, who plays Simba. The seasoned actor, who is the youngest actor ever to perform the role of The Phantom in The Phantom of the Opera discusses the difference between those two roles. “Huge difference. The Phantom, though I see him as a good guy, is obviously considered the bad guy. Simba is obviously the king, the good guy. With emotions, it’s so different and it was challenging coming from a very dark character to a very light, though still strong character. He’s a good guy, but he’s lost. He struggles to find his way.”

For Carole Stennett, the Londoner who plays Nala, the biggest challenge was mask work, which is featured heavily in the production. “It was a nice, new element that I had to explore and develop.”

Though all professionals and, clearly, not short of any confidence or self-belief, Gugwana Dlamini, who plays storyteller Rafiki, the “heartbeat” of the show, as she puts it, has at times allowed the weight and the enormity of the production to get to her. As the performer who utters the first notes on stage each night, she does worry, at times, that she may make a hames of it.“Every night, for real, every night. I do get scared every night. Trust me. It’s the first note the audience hears every night. I’m not getting the opening note from the orchestra, so it has to be exact. Energy wise, if I’m flat at the beginning, I’m going to be flat throughout the whole number. So the energy – physically and vocally – has to be there. Meditation helps me. I pray. I pace up and down the corridor, every night, thinking about my notes.”

Watching sections from songs performed during a run-through for the press, it’s hard not to be impressed by the scale of it all. Percussionists are fully set-up in the boxes of the wings of the theatre. The operatic splendor of the costumes and choreography is something that Dublin has possibly never seen quite at this level. And as a city that boasts world-class theatres that stage world- class performances, 52 weeks of the year; that consistently brings through writers, directors and actors, though lacks a Broadway / West End-type hub for musical theatre, it’s feels like a refreshing development for the arts in Ireland.

And while Disney’s The Lion King doesn’t appeal to me now quite as the animated film did in 1994, I can appreciate the production in the context of Paul Simon’s Graceland and that classic 1986 record’s accompanying documentary, last year’s Under African Skies. The songwriting genius behind a countless amount of great songs was one of the first western artists to bring a full, uncompromised vision and representation of African culture – music, particularly – to the west. With his Mali Music project, Blur front man Damon Albarn also immersed himself in the music and culture of the continent, which he further explored on Blur’s 2002 album, Think Tank.

So while I remain a spectator not fully converted to the form, though fully appreciative of the collective effort and co-ordination that goes into an event on such an unparalleled scale, The Lion King’s roar shows no sign of quieting any time soon.

The Lion King will play the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre, Dublin from: Saturday 27th April – Saturday 22nd June 2013. For more information go to