Meeting Ruairi Conaghan

The Ulster-born actor discusses his theatrical CV, from Downton Abbey to his latest performances at the Lyric Theatre

There's what you could call a bit of a Friel-fest on at the Lyric Theatre this month and next in honour of the eighty-fifth birthday of Brian Friel, Ireland's finest living playwright.

Two plays are being performed back to back, Philadelphia, Here I Come! (1964), that clarion call of immigrant identity, and Molly Sweeney (1994), a smaller scale subtle work. Ruairi Conaghan (47) is acting the part of Frank Sweeney in the second play and of all the excellent performers onstage at Ridgeway Street this spring, he possibly has the most claim to be there.

That's because Conaghan has quite a history with Friel's work. This production of Molly Sweeney premiered in London to critical acclaim last year but Ruairi has also acted several different roles in Philadelphia, Here I Come! in at least four productions. ‘I've done so many versions of Philadelphia. In '92 I was in a King's Head production that transferred to the West End. I played Ned and Brendan Coyle, who became a friend, played Gar (Private). The first time I acted in it was at the Lyric Theatre over 20 years ago and the last version I did was at the Donmar Warehouse a year ago, when I played three roles including Con Sweeney.’ He adds that he can't honestly say which production he is proudest of.

Conaghan, who was born and brought up in mid-Ulster, also has a family link with Brian Friel as his father William was at school at St Columb's, Derry, with the dramatist.

He clearly enjoys bringing Brian Friel's work to stage. ‘Yes, I relish playing Friel as there are he extra moments of brilliant writing in this play and through his work. The theme of Molly Sweeney, which is about a blind woman who gets the opportunity to see, is all about sight and the metaphors around that. Even though you aren't blind, do you really see? And then if you suddenly regain your sight, as Molly does, can you see then.’

Preparing to re-learn the part, as in between the productions he has been working on Beckett's All That Fall in London and New York, Ruairi Conaghan says there's a speech he finds particularly moving.
‘Some of Friel's best writing comes in the speech where I describe my first visit to my wife when she's taken the bandages off (after the operation to restore her sight). It's four pages long, is comic but touching and there's a line in which I say...'Her eyes were bright, unnaturally bright and burnished. Her expression was open and joyous but as I said goodnight, I had a feeling she wasn't. He's right; it is a brilliant moment.

Richard Croxford, then Lyric director, travelled to London to see and book the production that had changed Guardian theatre critic Michael Billington's mind about the play. Billington admitted this in his review: ‘I took it to be an arid replay of Friel's Faith Healer: again two men and a woman engage in monologues on the curative process. But although it is a play that asks whether seeing is to be equated with understanding, it also becomes, in Abigail Graham's incisive production, a play about a shared, profoundly Irish sense of exile.’

Over the last few years, Ruairi Conaghan's theatrical cv has glittered. But Ruairi has also briefly appeared in possibly the most watched TV period drama ever written, Downton Abbey. He entered this class ridden country house as Kieran Branson, brother of Tom, Lady Sybil's Irish widower. ‘I was fortunate to be one of the few characters who travelled upstairs and downstairs. It was great fun and the biggest budget production I've done. You have several takes to get things right, and it's not like the roles when I've put on the balaclava and it's one take and you're gone. The cast and crew are happy, but why wouldn't they be, they're in Downton Abbey.’

And the popularity of the show means you're noticed. ‘Yes, I got some crazy mail afterwards.’
Yet Conaghan's enthusiasm is audible when he talks of appearing in Beckett's small scale drama All That Fall. ‘It came about because my agent phoned me and asked me to go along for this job. I actually thought it was a workshop as Samuel Beckett's radio play had never been performed onstage, because the estate hadn't permitted it. So I walked into this room and then I saw Dame Eileen Atkins, Sir Michael Gambon and Sir Trevor Nunn.’

Undaunted, Ruairi, who worked with Trevor Nunn at the National Theatre in Peer Gynt in 2000, simply got to work on his significant cameo in this middle phase Beckett. His work as Christy the carter was singled out and he was described as one of the ‘excellent supporting actors’ in reviews. The show transferred from a small stage to the West End and later went off-Broadway.

‘Sharing the stage with Michael and Eileen was exciting. But in New York, it was an emotional experience. We were very successful in London but nowhere near as acclaimed as in New York where Eileen in particular is established. The audiences went wild.’ As did the critics, including the current Butcher of Broadway, the New York Times' Ben Bradley.

Conaghan adds that the energy onstage belied the company's ages. ‘Working with a director in his seventies, with a leading actress who's eighty and other actors in their seventies, there was absolutely no sense of the dimming of the light.’ Offstage, there was some cast socialising, and Ruairi Conaghan says he feels the leads have become friends. It was his first experience of acting in New York, a city he loves. ‘I stayed on the East side, which is more real and affordable. I love New York but I like the fact that in London, I can educate my child well for free and if I fell over, somebody would pick me up and look after me.’

Now Conaghan is looking forward to playing Molly Sweeney to a home crowd. ‘Do I like returning to Belfast? Yes, it means a lot, as does acting in a Friel play. He's a lovely man. After doing the play in London, I wrote to thank him for putting those words in my mouth. I got a response within three days.’

Molly Sweeney runs from February 8 to March 8 at the Lyric TheatrePhiladelphia, Here I Come! runs at the Lyric Theatre from February 6 to March 8.