Best Actor of Our Generation?

Jane Coyle profiles Lalor Roddy

A couple of years ago, the distinguished Irish Times theatre critic Fintan O’Toole described Lalor Roddy as ‘surely the finest Irish actor of his generation’.

O’Toole’s assertion came as little surprise to many theatregoers in Northern Ireland who have followed Roddy closely through his relatively short acting career. There is nothing showy or ostentatious about this soft spoken Belfast born actor. Indeed, there have been many instances when Roddy’s stage appearances have been consciously designed to render his character virtually invisible. Yet, in spite of – or even because of – his deliberately downbeat performance, his is the very character to which audiences find themselves drawn.

A perfect example was his portrayal of the trombone player Lennie in Stewart Parker’s Pentecost. Under the direction of Stephen Wright, the producing company Tinderbox – of which Roddy was a co-founder – had given itself a monumental challenge in attempting to emulate Field Day’s much talked about 1987 premiere.

Roddy had picked up the gauntlet thrown down by no less an actor than Stephen Rea, who, in that same premiere, had almost definitively made the role his own. In the event, Wright’s Belfast Festival production was hailed as an all round excellent piece of work, with Roddy’s low profile, downwardly mobile Lennie generally acknowledged as one of its most compelling elements.

As with all experts, Roddy makes his craft look easy. Never an actor given to affectations or mannerisms, his abiding, single-minded obsession is to get right under the skin and inside the very psyche of his character. Sometimes that approach takes time and patience and he has frequently admitted that it might be well into the run of a production before he feels that he is getting it just right.

Roddy came late to acting, which could explain the reason why he has seemed almost driven in his acceptance of one demanding stage role after another.

‘I’ve had a lot of catching up to do,’ he reflects. ‘I was 33 when I came into the business. Definitely getting on a bit. My younger brother and sister Andrew and Ethna were already actors. I had been working as a psychologist in England, but decided the time had come to get out. I had had enough therapy to last me a lifetime. Maybe it was the lurking actor in me, but I found I was taking too many people’s problems onto myself – and paying the price. At least now, I can inflict them on others!'

He took a course in drama therapy, came back to Belfast and rang director David Grant to see if he had any work going. Grant invited Roddy to play Gandalf in a youth theatre production of The Hobbit. He didn’’t get paid, but he had taken the first step.

In 1988, Roddy met actor and director Tim Loane, then a student at Queen’s University.  With a small group of like-minded people – BBC presenter Mark Carruthers, BBC drama producer Stephen Wright and Angela McCloskey of the Lyric – they founded Tinderbox, still one of Northern Ireland’s leading independents and a company pledged to the development of new Irish writing.

Roddy’s earliest professional roles were with Tinderbox, but it was not long before the Lyric’s then artistic director Roland Jacquarello cast him in his production of Arthur Miller’s Over the Bridge. Shortly afterwards, he came to the attention of the Royal Shakespeare Company and was cast in Billy Roche’s Amphibians and James Robson’s King Baby for a short season at the Barbican.

In 1998, Roddy was invited back to the RSC to join a group of Irish actors in a full season at the company’s home in Stratford-upon-Avon. They appeared in John Crowley’s Shadows, a thrilling collective staging of three plays by JM Synge and WB Yeats in the studio space of the Other Place. Roddy was also cast as the Provost in Michael Boyd’s highly praised Measure for Measure in the RSC’s main house.

The Abbey Theatre’s artistic director Patrick Mason cast him in his landmark production of Frank McGuinness’s first world war play Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme. At the same theatre he appeared in the world premiere of Gary Mitchell’s scorching play about Belfast loyalists, In a Little World of Our Own. Directed by Conall Morrison, Roddy won the ESB/Irish Times Award for best supporting actor.

A few years later, he went on to appear in another of Mitchell’s works – this time on television – in the powerful screen adaptation of As the Beast Sleeps. The Abbey also cast him in Basque director Calixto Beito’s highly controversial production of Barbaric Comedies, which took Dublin and the Edinburgh Festival by storm.

Some of his finest – and favourite – work has been for another Belfast independent, Prime Cut Productions. He played the hostage Gerardo Escobar in the Irish premiere of Death and the Maiden, and the depressive farmer who strips himself physically and psychologically naked in Athol Fugard’s A Place With the Pigs. His most recent Prime Cut was in David Mamet’s American Buffalo at the Lyric Theatre and on tour.

During the past few years, Roddy has hit a purple patch back home in Belfast. He made an outstanding contribution to Tinderbox’s award winning suite of plays, Convictions, staged at the Crumlin Road Courthouse during the 2000 Belfast Festival.

A recent run of successes at the Lyric Theatre began with a nomination in the best actor category of the 2004 ESB/Irish Times Theatre Awards for his outstanding performance in Fiona Buffini’s production of The Weir. He returned there in June 2004 to play the central role of Belfast Celtic’s legendary manager Lish Scott in Paradise, a new play by Padraig Coyle, Conor Grimes and Alan McKee. And in the autumn, he turned in another coruscating performance as the crazed priest Peter Keegan in John Bull’s Other Island.

In between this flurry of stage activity, Roddy also managed to fit in a couple of film roles, although he still maintains that his first commitment is to the theatre. If this means that audiences in Northern Ireland can continue to enjoy at first hand the work of this intelligent, versatile actor, nobody will be complaining.

There is, however, a sneaking suspicion that his break onto the big screen cannot be far away. When that happens, there will be few who will begrudge Lalor Roddy such richly deserved success.

Jane Coyle is theatre critic for The Irish Times