Brian Friel gave me an umbrella. It was a sensible, thoughtful gift and perfect for the time. He’d written a play called Volunteers and I was asked to direct the world première at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin… a house full of history and legend. So was the play, which was set on an archeological site with a big dig going on; that gave Brian the opening to look at all the layers past and present which had gone to make the modern Irish nation. And it rained all the time – as only Dublin can rain. It mattered to us, me and Brian, because he never missed a syllable of rehearsal and we would walk back and forth from the theatre to his hotel room chewing over and chewing over what was good and not so good and what was brilliant about the way rehearsals were going.
We’d had a big conversation about whether to use the grand old stalwarts of the Abbey company, who had rich-living written into their bones – but wandered all over the written text like absent-minded old ponies in a clover field. They never knew if they were ever going to get an accurate cue from their fellow players, so they’d evolved a superbly polished technique of going ‘A-hmmm’ before they began a speech… and if it was indeed clear that their fellow actor had stopped speaking, then the actor with the next speech would come in. But it was hell for pacing… it threatened you with an evening of reflective ‘A-hmms’ and ‘Ahaas’. Not sprightly or modern… There was a fashion, then, for using actors much too young in older parts – just because they could learn the lines and were energetic. Pretty toxic though, for believability, so Brian and I said we’d take a chance with the weathered oldies. Who touchingly explained to me that they’d got that way from years of having to learn huge parts in Shakespeare in two weeks, because the Irish theatre had no money and little support. Years of ingenious approximations to the text was their tradition. And so it fell out in performance. Never consistent. They believed me when I said the performance of the play was transformed whenever they gave correct cue lines and the next actor picked up that cue – and on nights when that happened, the show cracked along, transformed. Every alternate performance they managed it and the response out front was excellent. They were very sweet old boys and tried so hard.
But that wasn’t the only not entirely perfect aspect of the event.
Brian was soft-spoken and warm and the essence of courtesy, but also the second most stubborn man I have ever had to deal with. Volunteers was a brand-new play so the actors, the young ones, sometimes queried a line they were given to speak. Not only would Brian not change a line, but he wouldn’t alter a syllable – he even watched out for the commas and semi-colons when the weren’t observed. Nothing, nothing would move him. Which was a pity, I think, because Volunteers was two-thirds of a very, very fine play. One of its three acts was a bit of a dud, however – wordy and windy and not fully graspable. But in Brian’s mind it was written forever in granite. And to say it how it was, he was immensely pleased with the production and the work I’d done on it and entirely accepting of the intermittent brilliance of the acting.
The umbrella he gave me was completely in character – modest and useful; nothing flash or showy and it suited the tragi-comic mood of the play and the weather.
For years I kept Brian’s umbrella about the place as a trophy and reminder. But it wasn’t joining in with life usefully… I couldn’t hang it on a wall as you might a shot gun or a moose-head. So I began to keep it in the car as an emergency weather shield. It was on the back window shelf when I parked the car in a little side street, just beside Riverside Studios to see a play. It was raining, but the entrance to the theatre was just a few yards, so it was left.
When I came out, my rear window was completely smashed and Brian’s umbrella had gone. A group of lads, several people told me, had been rambling and roaring by while I was watching the play and – presumably – defying the weather in shirt sleeves and school jackets, seeing a handy umbrella just beyond a bit of glass’s reach, had smashed and grabbed it. Young fun.
I wondered what Brian would have made of it. Part of the mix of hope and horror he found in us humans and addressed in his plays? I thought, occasionally, of telling him. Would he have relished to see these young thugs hit by a London double-decker? I doubt it (I sometimes wished it). No, he’d have shrugged and smiled an accepting smile.
Now if he’d have given me a moose-head I’d still have it.