Field Day Enjoy Fairytale in New York

Marie-Louise Muir follows Stephen Rea and his acclaimed theatre company to the Big Apple for its first ever run off Broadway

It’s the opening night of Field Day Theatre Company’s latest play, which has transferred from Derry~Londonderry to New York City. A Particle of Dread, the 90-minute riff by American playwright Sam Shepard on Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, has just ended.

The audience spill out into the foyer of the Signature Theatre on West 42nd Street. I’m there making a documentary for BBC Radio Ulster, which will air in the New Year. It’s an historic moment, as this is the first time that the celebrated Northern Irish theatre company has played in the USA.

Exiting the auditorium, I see Liam Neeson, head bowed in conversation with actress Lindsay Duncan. Salman Rushdie walks alongside Beckett actress Lisa Dwan, reporters, photographers and audience mingle, and then comes a general murmur of approval as actor and Field Day co-founder, Stephen Rea, joins the throng.

The alignment of Rea and Shepard in this new production has had the box office ticket lines ringing off the hook. While the sparkling wine flows around him, Rea stands in the centre of the storm, glass of water in hand, being congratulated by all and sundry.

Despite the impressive CV of films and stage shows, the Academy Award nomination for The Crying Game and theatre awards, this is his moment. Field Day Theatre Company is his baby, and tonight he is a very proud man.

I hang back a moment, allowing him to decompress post-show. Rea has, after all, just played the lead role of Oedipus, dressed in blood-spattered overalls, a physically and emotionally demanding task given that he also plays the dual role of Otto, a wheelchair-bound man who is struggling to remember the horror of his past.

I approach gingerly with my producer, Paul McClean, and ask Rea how he is. He is literally dancing; Stephen Rea has just done a jig in front of me! We laugh, and, as we record him speaking, a couple of dozen smartphones photograph him for posterity. In New York City, Stephen Rea is a bona fide star.

'I think they know me because of Maggie Gyllenhaal,' Rea says, self deprecatingly. He was, most recently, in the television drama The Honourable Woman, which as well as airing in the UK has been shown on US television. But, of course, Rea has also starred in many big budget Hollywood films, such as Interview with the Vampire, as well as many successful independent films like The Crying Game.

He has just finished a gruelling run of Enda Walsh’s black comedy Ballyturk from Galway to Dublin to London with Cillian Murphy and, after this Field Day run ends off Broadway, he heads to St Petersburg to start filming a new television adaptation of Tolstoy's War and Peace.

At age 68, Rea looks well, his lean frame belying his years. He is in robust form, despite the physical exhaustion of performing two roles nine times a week. He has big plans for Field Day, a company he co-founded with playwright Brian Friel in the 1980s.

Their first production, Friel's Translations – which premiered in Derry's Guildhall in 1981 – proved to be a game-changer in Irish theatre. The company's commitment to new writing and performing in venues not on the beaten track – and operating under a powerhouse of a board including Seamus Heaney, Seamus Deane and Tom Paulin – made Field Day a formidable force in the 1980s and 90s.

The theatre end was on dry ice for just under a decade, until the UK City of Culture 2013 celebrations in Derry made it possible for Rea to re-visit Field Day. Two one act plays by David Ireland and Clare Dwyer-Hogg were produced. Then came A Particle of Dread, which was work-shopped in the Playhouse in Derry and played there for ten performances.

It brought together the music of a long-time Field Day collaborator, composer and cellist Neil Martin, with the text of Sam Shepard, director Nancy Meckler and a cast of acclaimed Northern Irish actors including Brid Brennan, Lloyd Hutchinson and Judith Roddy. Rea was, at first, reluctant to take on the lead role, preferring to funnel his energies into the production side of the company.

But there was always the feeling that Shepard had written the part with Rea in mind. Theirs is a creative partnership that stretches back to the 1970s, when Rea appeared in Geography of a Horse Dreamer in 1974. Shepard would go on to write for Rea again. And, when the idea of a new Field Day production was mooted, he was foremost in mind as a writer who would invest in the Field Day ethos.

Despite the Mid West feel to part of the play, the Greek myth resonates with Derry, and Shepard spent five weeks in the city, walking the city’s walls and writing and re-writing much of the play there. As they stand together post-show, Shepard and Rea's friendship is palpable, and you get the feeling that there is more to be explored. For Rea, the future of the theatre company lies in nurturing and supporting new talent.

While in New York, he adds his voice to the Arts Council of Northern Ireland’s #13pForTheArts funding campaign, saying that Field Day 'wouldn't be here if it weren't for the foresight of the Arts Council'. He is passionate about the role that theatre has to play in Northern Ireland’s future, and his ambition is to use his traction within the international theatre world to shine a light on his part of the world.

But for now, the opening night of Field Day's first New York run is over. There is a party to be had. Shepard’s son, Walker, is in a band called The Down Hill Strugglers, an old time string group. They entertain the guests.

My jet lag kicks in and I leave, but I hear the next day that the party and the band played on into the wee small hours of the morning. Where to next, then, for Field Day Theatre Company? With Rea at the helm, the future is bright for one of Northern Ireland's most ambitious and promising artistic outfits.

A Particle of Dread runs at the Signature Theatre, New York City until January 4. Field Day: From Derry to Broadway will be broadcast on BBC Radio Ulster in the New Year.