Celebrating Peter Quigley

NI's theatre community comes together this month to launch an archive of the much-missed actor/director's work at the Linen Hall Library

On a sunny day last June, a noisy procession wound its way down Belfast's Ridgeway Street en route for the Lyric Theatre. A samba band, dancers, singers, jugglers, percussionists and a large crowd of revellers dressed in pink and carrying balloons and streamers were playing their part in a funeral the like of which Belfast had never before witnessed.

It marked the premature end of a flamboyant life in theatre and followed the instructions left by the occupant of the glittering white coffin, which ended its journey on the Lyric's main stage. Actor/director Peter Quigley’s finale was as colourful and public as the man himself and the spectacular farewell production was choreographed exactly as he would have wished it.

'There was Peter taking his curtain call centre stage at the Lyric, with everyone’s eyes on him. The event was a sell-out and he received a standing ovation. He would have been absolutely thrilled,' says actor Gerard McCabe, artistic director of PintSized Productions and the driving force behind Love:Arts, a week-long celebratory series of readings and performances at the Linen Hall Library from February 15 to 19. 

'I heard from the Linen Hall’s director Julie Andrews that Peter had donated his entire collection of over 300 plays to the library,' continues McCabe. 'We thought it would be great to have a week of readings taken from them, so we fixed a date in February as an appropriate occasion to launch the Peter Quigley Archive, which will be available to the public for reading or research purposes. The programme will contain plays and songs which were important to Peter.

CIIbj0FWcAAv0Iz

June 22, 2015: NI's arts community bids farewell to Peter Quigley (Image via the Lyric Theatre)

'I went on Facebook and called in favours from actors I knew. Not one of them refused. The difficult part was not leaving people out. I don’t know all Peter’s friends, but it was amazing the number of people who came forward wanting to be involved. The slots filled up in no time and the next dilemma was which plays to select.

'I have always loved Edward Albee's Zoo Story, which Peter directed for c21, the company he founded with Stephen Kelly. Michael Condron and I will be performing that on the first evening. Then Christina Nelson, who got her Equity card through Peter, said she would like to revive A Slice of Saturday Night, with the original cast - herself, Alan McKee, Mark McCrory, Denise Kelly Brown - and two young actors Jazzmin McClure, who is Christina’s daughter, and Cathan McRoberts.

'Abigail McGibbon, who has just been nominated for an Irish Times Theatre Award, is doing a reading of Harold Pinter’s A Kind of Alaska with Conor Mitchell. In just five days, some of our very best actors will be in action, doing their bit in memory of Peter.'

Nelson is one of a huge number of Northern Ireland performers whose lives and careers were touched by Quigley’s encouragement and positivity. She first came into his orbit at the age of twelve, when she pleaded with the director of the Lyric’s production of Oliver to be admitted to the cast.

'Peter was the choreographer,' she recalls. 'The director was not willing to let me into rehearsals but I ranted on about being brilliant and that I’d work hard to catch up. Everyone laughed, except Peter, who said, "give her a chance".

'That was Peter, he gave everyone a chance. The following year, I took the title role in Annie at the Lyric, which was also choreographed by Peter . That was the start of our friendship. He continued to give me opportunities and was a great inspiration to me on and off stage.

Peter Quigley 2

'He set an example of how you could be whatever you wanted to be, never take no for an answer and that rules are sometimes made to be broken. He was always pushing boundaries. I watched him perform in many productions. My favourite was Cider With Rosie, also at the Lyric. He was captivating, a real old school character actor. We worked together on stage many times but the most fun were the pantos at the Arts Theatre and the Spires Centre. As you can imagine, he was a great dame.

'On 17 August 1991, he made a lovely speech at my wedding. Two days later, he was directing me in A Slice of Saturday Night at the Arts Theatre. We sang those songs and reminisced right up until the night before he passed away and I’m looking forward to doing it all again just for him.'

In a newspaper article written in the immediate aftermath of his death, 65 year-old Quigley was referred to as ‘the rainbow of Belfast’. It is, on a number of levels, an apt description for a person who spread light and colour into so many lives, whose dress sense was never drab nor modest, who was one of the first men in Northern Ireland to wear make-up and was a bold and outspoken advocate for gay rights. In a Facebook tribute on the morning after his death, actor Dan Gordon brilliantly nailed his mischievous, subversive spirit. 

'When Peter was on teaching practice from Stranmillis Teacher Training College, he refused to use black paint with children in his art classes - "… there is enough darkness in their world", he declared. He was summoned to the principal's office. He dutifully attended, sweeping in like Balthazar of the Magi, adorned and bejewelled in a flowing kaftan, Moses sandals and a light(ish) day make-up. The principal demanded to know if he thought he was on some sort of a mission? Peter explained that, yes, indeed he was. He was a one-off.'

Hospitable and kind, deliciously fond of a gossip and a terrific raconteur, Quigley was famously never afraid to voice his views, particularly on the subject of arts funding. When he dropped his voice to a whisper and raised an eyebrow, one knew that he was about to impart a particularly subversive nugget of information or opinion.

'He was certainly no saint,' laughs McCabe. 'He was honest, straight to the point and a very vocal critic of the establishment. He did not hold back from letting the Arts Council, for instance, know what he thought of their various policies and strategies. He was an agent for change and was always willing to go out on a limb for what he believed in.

Peter Quigley

'He was incredibly generous too and that’s the big thing about the week’s programme - all the events are free, none of the performers are being paid and all proceeds will go to the Macmillan Cancer Nurses charity.'

Niall Rea, artistic director of TheatreofplucK, the company which gave Quigley his memorable final role as a transgender housewife, remembers him as a fearless trailblazer for the LGBT community.

'Peter was an inspiration as a performer and as an out and proud gay man in conservative Ulster society,' he says. 'He bravely tackled homophobia and championed civil rights in every corner of the province. He was unafraid of debating with anyone from either side of the two community politics entrenched here.

'His final starring acting role in Tuesdays At Tesco’s for TheatreofplucK was a tour-de-force and had sold out before it opened at the MAC in Belfast. He had been invited back for another run last summer at the MAC and to perform it in Dublin too. He was really looking forward to reprising the role before his sad passing - a devastating loss.

'On the evening of February 17, we will be showing a video of Tuesdays At Tesco’s, filmed during its performance at the Market Place Theatre, Armagh in 2014. He might have left us back in June, but he will be right there among us on the night.'

For more information about Love:Arts, the Linen Hall Library and the Peter Quigley Archive, visit www.linenhall.com.