I would say, with hand on heart, that ‘Frank Pig Says Hello’ was one of the best pieces of theatre with which I was ever associated; a genuine groundbreaking event.
And everything comes back around eventually. These past three weeks I have mainly been preoccupied with producing ‘Frank Pig’ along with ‘The Leaves of Heaven’, the double bill of plays by Pat McCabe at the Dublin Theatre Festival for Co-Motion Media. I don’t produce any more, other than (reluctantly, because nobody else will) my own plays on tour. But this collaboration between Pat and my fellow Co-Motion director, Joe O’Byrne, is rather special. That’s partly because the last time we all collaborated was exactly 25 years ago when the first part of the double bill premiered; ‘Frank Pig Says Hello’, the stage version of Pat’s award-winning novel ‘The Butcher Boy’, but with a different title and a somewhat different take.
I take no artistic credit for the work – my job as producer then, as now, was to confirm bookings, write cheques, ensure posters went up and so on. But to witness Pat, just emerging in 1992 as a soon-to-be superstar of Irish literature, and Joe – a wizard of the stage – collaborate on this magical production was a real privilege.
The show opened at Lombard Street, the original TCD Drama Studies performance space, a former coffin-maker’s workshop. Much of my limited experience of theatre management to that point had consisted of discreetly removing the front row of seats to make the sorrowful numbers look a bit better for actors, in the small independent shows which were all the go by the early 1990s – often quite excellent plays, but definitely minority sports. Suddenly I found myself on box office duty every night with a hit on our hands, gaping down the coffin-maker’s stairs at queues that wound around the corner onto Pearse Street.
Frank Pig was the sensation of the 1992 festival. I recall my heart sinking as I sold the very last ticket on the final night, and then looked down the stairs at the disappointed waiting list only to see the brilliant human rights journalist Mary Holland who I knew and hugely respected. She had no ticket: we had to send her packing. The house was bulging. It helped, of course, that the novel of the same story had appeared a month or two earlier and had suddenly and deservedly been short-listed for the Booker Prize. But there was more to this phenomenon than an opportunistic adaptation of a bestseller.
A THEATRICAL MASTERPIECE
Pat’s tale of the wide-eyed provincial boy whose disappointments become epic and whose innocent confusions charm us all the way to his dreadful murderous deed, is unique in how it succeeded in novel, movie and play form. The play stands out however as a theatrical masterpiece in its own right. We have grown rather accustomed nowadays to the smart two-hander where one or both actors plays multiple roles. In 1992 such clever plays did exist, but none quite like this. The world of Francie Brady, trapped in a pathetic childhood even into early manhood, was conjured up through two extraordinary performances guided by the most subtle direction. To this day, friends who saw the play only once or perhaps twice, still quote from it to me: ‘Ah, the Old Pig Days’, or ‘Hello, hello, hello, hello, hello… helloooo!’ or ‘Am I doin’ good sweepin’, Da, am I doin’ good diggin’?
Two weeks ago I attended the first read-through of the new production by two young actors, one of whom wasn’t even born when the original ‘Frank Pig’ burst onto the scene, and I felt the immense excitement, sorrow, awe and painful laughter that I recall from those days. The current cast are superb, just as the original guys were. And the play is as fresh and immediate as the day it was written. Plus, there is an added bonus. ‘Frank Pig’ is re-presented at this year’s Dublin Theatre Festival alongside ‘The Leaves of Heaven’, a new companion work by Pat, and the two will form a unique double bill. Theatre enthusiasts can, of course, choose to see just one or both. But both, being short, is highly recommended. ‘The Leaves of Heaven’ finds Francie Brady 25 years later, preparing to leave Dundrum Mental Hospital for a new facility, reflecting on old ghosts and new visions. A mature and exquisite work of words, images and moments of belly laughter, it enjoyed a brief run in The Complex last year and is now about to be seen by a much wider audience at Draiocht, Blanchardstown and Axis, Ballymun.
THE CRAIC WAS NINETY IN ’92
Returning to 1992, when the Dublin festival eventually ended, I sat down one day with Joe O’Byrne in the old Co-Motion office in a run down building on Thomas Street, discussing what we might do next with this artistic gift entrusted to us. “Let’s call Michael Colgan”, one of us said, and we both chuckled merrily at the absurdity of this idea. Michael Colgan ha ha ha! But why not? We didn’t know Mr. Colgan then, other than by the reputation he had already cultivated for himself as a kind of enigmatic Mr. Big in Irish (and British) theatre. Well, we would be just as big! I tilted back the rickety stool that served as my office chair, put both feet up on the table like a classic movie mogul, and turned the dial – yes it was an old black dial phone. I mentioned Pat McCabe’s name to the receptionist. “Just a moment…” Michael took my call. He bought in and brought his legendary producer’s skills to the work, assisting us along the road to international fame.
At Colgan’s invitation, we revived the show for a week at The Gate, and shortly afterwards returned there for four weeks. My mother, Joan, was in her dying days, losing her long battle with cancer at the young age of 62. She came with my Dad (who lived on to be 94) to the grand opening and was introduced to Gay Byrne among others. She had by now resigned herself to the troubling reality that I was going to work in theatre probably for the rest of my life, and had begun belatedly to warm to some of the weird plays I had performed in or promoted. This was a particularly great night, and she whispered to me that she was proud of me. I accepted her praise, knowing I was basking really in the genius of two other men, but I felt I had her blessing to continue at my chosen trade wherever it might take me. I guess I owe that and a lot more to Pat McCabe.
We went on a national tour, opening amidst tensions, in a hotel ballroom in Pat’s home town of Clones. Mischievous remarks he had made in an ironic newspaper essay had been misconstrued and there were rumours of planned pickets. None materialised. Up to the last day or two, however, booking was slow. A local radio announcer implored the people of County Monaghan to buy their tickets in advance from the Clones shop where they were on sale, because, allegedly, hordes of cultural bargain-hunters were coming over to stockpile from Cavan where the tickets were a pound dearer for the following evening. On the night, the reception in Clones was fantastic – emotional and enthusiastic. A very late session was enjoyed by all in the Busted Sofa. The following afternoon we were all packed into the small van, the crew, the actors Sean Rocks and David Gorry, Pat, Joe and me. As we drove out of town on the short hop to Cootehill, we saw an old man with a black bicycle whacking dirt off his trousers, in an exact re-enactment of a scene in the play. “Me trousers, me trousers! Me trousers is covered in grace!” somebody said, and we almost veered off into a field, the van heaving with so much laughter.
The show sold out all over Ireland and then we went to the Royal Court in London. At the previews, in contrast to the raucous, knowing, tearful laughter that had greeted the work at home, the audience reaction was quite muted, although there was loud applause at the end. Londoners were seeing the darkness in the work but, we worried, not ‘getting’ that odd Irish brand of humour that has seen us historically through so much sorrow. At the premiere, however, one man laughed with great relish from the opening moments and very quickly the audience felt released to laugh with him. We wondered who he might be. None other than the late Dave Allen, mythic comedian. That night was spent in an Irish club in London somewhere, Pat singing humorous songs and banging on an old piano, his great buddy, the late Dermot Healy reciting absurdist limericks and everyone delighting in our success.
The show went on to wide international acclaim and toured to the USA and Australia, but I did not travel beyond London. My new day job at City Arts Centre was calling me back. An unknown emerging playwright called Conor McPherson had a show about to open. I look back at that time with great pleasure – a time before I began to write and direct myself, when my work was largely to do with assisting other artists to get started or make advances. Unlike Michael Colgan, I hadn’t a clue, really, about how the business of theatre worked, but I recognised a great artist when I met one and did what little I could. Pat McCabe was, and remains, one of the greatest. I am pleased now briefly to reconnect with the work which projected him from a promising novelist to an international icon, and to be part of introducing ‘The Leaves of Heaven’ where Pat and Joe rejoin forces with a fantastical new dream play of the great anti-hero of Irish writing, Francie Brady, aka Frank Pig.
I am particularly happy that a new generation will get to experience an hour and a half that changed Irish theatre and my life forever!
The Dublin Theatre Festival season of ‘Frank Pig Says Hello’ and ‘The Leaves of Heaven’ (which can be enjoyed as single plays or as a double bill) will be officially opened on Wed 4th October at Draíocht, Blanchardstown by Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Heather Humphreys TD.
The season runs over two weeks at both Draíocht and Axis, Ballymun. Info and booking via Dublin Theatre Festival
or via the local box office of either theatre.