Dickens at the Ulster Hall – Meet the McCreadys

Working with his director wife Joan on current production Dickens at the Ulster Hall is 'absolutely wonderful' for famed thespian Sam McCready

'When you get down to being very specific, one on one, sometimes sparks fly!'

Sam and Joan McCready are sitting on a sofa in their Belfast apartment, reflecting on a lifetime spent together in the theatre. The comment is Joan's: she's talking in particular about the string of one-man (and woman) shows that she and husband Sam have collaborated on together.

The most recent of these, Dickens at the Ulster Hall, returns to the Lyric Theatre in Belfast this month. It was a big success, both critically and with audiences, at its Northern Irish premiere in 2012, and is the fifth show that the pair have put together in the past decade or so. The pair's ongoing collaborations began, explains Sam, rather romantically. 'It was a gift to Joan,' he smiles.

'Joan had been one of the top actors in the Lyric Theatre before our marriage, and for some years after. But she was prepared to give up all of that, for our two boys, and principally for me. She was there for my career, and was there for me in every way. There came a point at which I really felt that it was time to give back to Joan. And so I wrote Coole Lady, the story about Lady Gregory, for her to act in.'

The McCreadys

 

Sam also directed Joan in that 2002 production. It set a template – Sam writing, either he or Joan acting, the other directing – that the pair developed further in an adaptation of Auschwitz survivor Helen Lewis's memoir A Time to Speak, then in The Great Yeats! (about the poet's father, John Butler), and now in Sam's new piece on Charles Dickens' visits to Belfast in the mid-19th century, when he performed at the Ulster Hall to rapt audiences.

For Sam, the attraction of the one-man show is simple – it's theatre at its most rawly quintessential. 'The one-man show is as old as story-telling itself,' he comments. 'It is the original form where someone needed to share a story, either with one person or with a community.

'And it's that tradition that I'm buying into. In the end, as Shakespeare knew, the theatre is about the actor and the word, and sharing that with the audience. And that is what excites me tremendously, to get back to the purity of that experience.'

Getting back to that artistic purity is one thing; getting back to it with your wife (or husband) directing you is quite another. Is it a case of trying to forget that it is your marital partner standing in the rehearsal space in front of you, questioning your gestures, moderating your inflections, challenging your particular line of interpretation?

'Well, you do and you don't!' Sam chuckles. 'Because your own relationship is so textured and so rich, and to have to play a role which may be well outside the kind of roles that you have as husband and wife is not easy. You try to be sensitive and responsive, and it's not easy.

'But I have to tell you that when Joan brings the insights that she does to some of the stuff that I have written, when I did not see that dimension when I actually wrote it, that is absolutely wonderful. But there are times – and we're married 51 years now – when you feel you're very nearly at the end of a good marriage!'

'The one saving grace of all of this,' adds Joan, 'is that Sam and I have always, since we first met, worked together. We've complemented each other in everything we've done. It's always been a total immersion in our theatre for both of us. We have a great deal of admiration for each other's work, I think we can honestly say that.'

And although the one-man format is particularly demanding both physically and mentally for both actors, it is, says Joan, a uniquely stimulating experience. 'You're very much on your own, and I find that very exciting. You give yourself the cues, you're getting nothing back from other actors. It's the audience reaction to whatever it is you're saying that carries you along in the emotion of that moment.'

Sam McCready painted by Neil Shawcross

 

Although understandably delighted by the success of Dickens at the Ulster Hall (see Sam in costume having his portrait painted by acclaimed artist Neil Shawcross above), team McCready was certainly not expecting to be back at the Lyric Theatre so rapidly for a revival. Sam puts the invitation to return down to the audience's reaction to his portrait of the ageing English novelist.

'It was just a tremendous response,' recalls Sam. 'But I also feel that, because of the 200th anniversary last year and all the attention in the media, Dickens was almost being discovered again, the fact that he is a brilliant, brilliant writer.'

'Over and over again,' continues Joan, 'I've been amazed to hear so many people, both here and in the United States, say "Oh, I just love Dickens" – an amazing number of people who have read all the novels, or as many of them as possible. And people are very willing to know more about the man rather than the work. I think we are tapping into that too.'

The man presented by the McCreadys in Dickens at the Ulster Hall is one approaching his twilight years, burdened by personal difficulties, and increasingly wearied by the astonishing levels of feverish activity and creative fecundity he had sustained obsessively for over three decades.

Part of the fascination is that Dickens, though incontestably a great writer, was, as Joan puts it, 'a flawed human being'. She's in no doubt that, were the novelist still alive today, he'd be food and drink for the redtops, and hounded by the paparazzi. 'Married 22 years, ten children, and then suddenly throws the wife over for a young woman!' she exclaims. 'He lived large. In the media today he'd be shredded.'

The McCreadys' Dickens is a moving, but also a richly personable portrayal, warmed by anecdotes from the author's long career in public life, by readings from the novels, and by the uniquely close creative and personal relationship that exists between this particular writer and actor, and this particular director.

'It's a wonderful negotiation,' smiles Sam, 'an intimacy that we have as actor and director that you cannot achieve in the conventional professional theatre, you cannot have that relationship. The life that we have had, the experiences we have had, add another dimension to the work that we are doing together. It's so exciting for us.'

Dickens at the Ulster Hall runs at the Lyric Theatre, Belfast from March 19 - 23. Enter a draw to win two tickets to the March 21 performance.