“AFTERPLAY” is a play about what happens after – inspired by the great Russian playwright writer Anton Chekhov, and written by Brian Friel, widely recognised as one of Ireland’s greatest dramatists. In his masterful one act play Friel (1929 – 2015) revisits two iconic characters created by Chekhov (1860 – 1904) from “Three Sisters” and “Uncle Vanya”, and hauntingly evokes what might have happened next.
“Afterplay” starring Rory Keenan, premiered in early March at The Coronet Theatre in London. Our contributor, Margy Kinmonth was lucky enough to catch it before the production was forced to close due to the Coronavirus pandemic. The theatre went dark and many involved either caught Covid19 or were furloughed, but the taste of this play remained strongly in her mind. With all that is going on, what is it really about?
The play is an imagining of a near romantic meeting. Two characters meet by chance at a Moscow Cafe, their dreams have given way to a different reality. When they look in the mirror they don’t recognise themselves, but when they are together they catch sight of the possibility of a different future. True to the spirit of Chekhov, where death exists alongside life, and failure alongside reinvention – imagination has the power to change the course of a character’s life. But we are not in the theatre, we are living in a real world, where today’s pandemic has already changed our lives and we cannot return to the ways things were.
Margy Kinmonth finally caught up with Irish actor Rory Keenan to talk about the play, what he has been up to in lockdown and what “Afterplay” means now on Planet Covid. Keenan, who recently married film star Gemma Arterton, has worked extensively on stage and screen, including “The Seagull” at the Dublin International Festival, “Saint Joan” at the Donmar and “Long Days Journey into Night” at BAM New York. As a screen actor his movies include “The Guard” directed by John Michael McDonagh, he also was in Andrew Davies’s “War and Peace”, “Peaky Blinders” and has recently completed “The Duchess” for Netflix.
There’s something about sitting in the audience at The Coronet Theatre that is transformative, to experience performances that bring you directly into the heart of great writing. Keenan draws Chekhov’s Andrey as an all present character, who still longs for success and his bachelor days, but is now stuck in a bad marriage with growing debt.
Margy Kinmonth: I’d like to talk a bit about “Afterplay” and playing the role of Andrey?
Rory Keenan: I was aware of the play but hadn’t read it. I’m a big lover of Friel and of Chekhov. I liked the brevity, the play is lean – it’s an interesting shot in the arm. Brian Friel was known as the Irish Chekhov, he’s a brilliant dramatist and it’s a richly coloured character study we have available. They are talking in the past tense a lot, unlike in real life, and there’s an incredible amount happening in the retelling. It forces you to look at the detail under the magnifying glass which is an interesting process. The whole play is a lie detector test, you can’t get away with anything. It’s a mixture of three elements – playing that character, that play and The Coronet Theatre, which is a very special place.
Margy Kinmonth: How did the rehearsal process work for you to help develop the character?
Rory Keenan: Normally when performing, I don’t get enough time to spend with the characters, so a lot goes undiscovered. But on this occaision we had time to draw on the enormous resources of Chekhov. What I love about Friel and his writing is that he changes the angle – tone and inference are his skills, so combined with Chekhov’s observation of character, it’s a large mood board.
In rehearsal we talked about the American painter Edward Hopper, he understood isolation and loneliness. It’s interesting that people are fascinated with Hopper right now, during this pandemic. The story is yours to decipher, no answer is correct.
Margy Kinmonth: How do the 2 playwrights work together?
Rory Keenan: Chekhov and Friel sing together. The concern for most playwrights is normally about where they are going. But in “Afterplay” both Chekhov and Friel were concerned about what they were leaving behind. There’s no sentimentality. They both write about the disappearance of a way of life, but what is the life that’s disappearing? The characters don’t believe in their lives, they feel they are not good enough, so they lie. It’s about the power of inventiveness.
Margy Kinmonth: I like the set very much, designed by Lucy Osborne, it’s perfect for this space. The audience arrives to find this tableaux, with the girl alone at the table. The set is at a steep angle, with entrances and exits stage left and right, mirroring Chekhov’s plays with their aspirational “otherworld” off stage – the city and the unrealised possibilities.
Rory Keenan: It’s a room you might dream yourself in – a cafe in the mind. The set is a moment in suspension, allowing the meeting of minds over time. The show is mystical, set in a dreamlike slate of time and place, Friel is reaching back and holding Chekhov’s hand.
Margy Kinmonth: I’ve shot many films in Russia, it’s an inspiring place to work, with so much cultural history, have you ever been there?
Rory Keenan: Yes we shot the BBC series “War and Peace”, adapted by Andrew Davies in Russia. I played Bilibin, the Russian diplomat. We got the full works, and we shot on location in the Catherine Place itself, in the famous hall of mirrors. I’d never been before and I loved St Petersburg.
Art is deified in Russia and I admire their elevated relationship to art and culture. Ballet and the performing arts are held in high esteem – close to religion. It’s culture for all, unlike here.
Margy Kinmonth: I found these locations very powerful too, I shot a movie in the the State Hermitage Museum called “Hermitage Revealed” whose story is a microcosm of Russian history. And also the “Mariinsky Theatre” where ballet history is still made, especially behind the scenes, where the audiences cannot normally go. My trailers are at www.foxtrotfilms.com. We’re both Irish, I’ve directed films in Ireland too, so it was great to meet up with some of the Keenan clan over from Dublin for the play, just before lockdown. How did the acting start?
Rory Keenan: I was brought up and went to school in Dublin and started doing plays aged 10, I was in “Carousel” with Cyril Cussack, and on stage with the legendary Spike Milligan. I joined the Abbey Theatre aged 16, and used to go straight to the theatre direct from school, and did my homework in the dressing room. I then studied at the Samuel Beckett Centre in Trinity College Dublin.
Margy Kinmonth: There’s a connection between Ireland and Russia, isn’t there? which playwrights have picked up over and over.
Rory Keenan: Yes there’s a similarity between Russian and Irish people – the rural life has much in common, what the “peasants” have been through. They share the poverty and the isolation, and a longing for the Mother country, but they also share the comedy – that “side of the mouth” sense of humour. Friel found this resonant with the Irish experience. Russian plays transpose well to Ireland because they share the social and political discord.
Margy Kinmonth: Lockdown has dealt a brutal blow to the arts, it’s hit all sectors of the entertainment industry. As a film director, with production halted during lockdown, I’ve been writing, casting, revisiting projects, applying for grants and funding, as well as doing a lot of painting towards an exhibition. Have a look at my Instagram @margy_kinmonth. For actors it’s especially hard, but you have been inventive during this crisis.
Rory Keenan: It’s a strange and worrying time. We’ve both had Covid, Gemma and I were sick for 2 weeks. But in the enforced lockdown, creative people are getting extra creative. Next I’m preparing to film “Krapp 39” by Samuel Beckett at The Coronet Theatre in June. This is based on “Krapp’s Last Tape”, I am 39, the same age as the young Krapp in the play. For the filming, we have to conform to social distancing which is quite Beckett.
Margy Kinmonth: Do you and Gemma work together?
Rory Keenan: I’ve written film script which I hope to direct, it’s a contemporary story which I wrote in March – a baby of lockdown. Gemma will star, and it will be shot on location in London during the summer. We have an amazing team and hope to get funded by August.
What the pandemic has done is to teach us to use our time well, to rethink the importance of art, there’s always a thirst for it. Now we are in preparation for the next phase. We’re both getting stuff aligned and ready to go, both assuming that stuff will happen. We’ll broaden our perspective. We don’t know what’s happening next, so like Chekhov we’ll invent it! Imagination has the power to change the course of our lives too. Time is all precious, and we’ll be fruitful!