Field Day Present A Particle of Dread

Stephen Rea, co-founder of the legendary theatre company, on collaborating with 'American literary eminence' Sam Shepard for City of Culture

‘Sam, I’ve got to do this thing for City of Culture in Derry. Would you give us a play?’

Several months down the line, Derry~Londonderry is anticipating the imminent world premiere of A Particle of Dread: Oedipus Variations, by Sam Shepard: actor, author, screenwriter and all-round American literary eminence.

Field Day theatre company founder and actor Stephen Rea has known Shepard for decades, and that personal connection has been crucial in bringing the play to the UK City of Culture. And what would be considered a coup for the average theatre company is somehow expected of Field Day – a company that built its reputation on producing new works of the highest quality.

I catch Rea during a break in rehearsals, in a sun-drenched fourth floor dance studio at the Playhouse in Artillery Street. In recent years he has not been a regular in the city, although the productions he once starred in with his now legendary company are looked back on as a golden era by Derry~Londonderry audiences.

‘People felt that Field Day was very important,’ Rea remembers. ‘In 1980, it was a bad time, a really shocking time. Suddenly we offered plays, not as a palliative, but as a different version of language. That’s what [co-founder and playwright] Brian Friel said: "It’s all about language." We introduced a new language into the ether, and I think people felt it.’

Inviting Field Day back to Derry~Londonderry for the UK City of Culture 2013 celebrations must, for the organisers, have seemed something of a no-brainer. The company’s return, however, has not been an entirely hitch-free process.

Earlier this year, a projected staging of Clare Dwyer Hogg’s new play Thirsty Dust, starring the leading Irish actress Brid Brennan, was summarily cancelled, for reasons never fully aired publicly. It’s an incident that clearly still rankles with Rea, but which he is understandably reluctant to comment on further.

Besides, there is much to be optimistic about. Directing the actors for A Particle of Dread is Long Islander Nancy Meckler, a vastly experienced practitioner with a long track record of staging Shepard’s plays in the professional theatre. ‘Sam’s been obsessed with the whole idea of Oedipus for a very long time,’ Meckler comments. ‘So I think for him it’s an opportunity as a writer to finally go for it.’

The play is notionally based on the story of the mythical Greek king who killed his father, married his mother, stabbed his eyes out and was exiled, which was first dramatised by the Greek playwright Sophocles in the fourth century BC. Shepard’s treatment of the legend is, however, far from literal.

‘He calls it Oedipus Variations,' explains Meckler. ‘And that’s exactly what it is. The thing about Shepard is that he loves jazz, and this is almost like a jazz improvisation, where you take something that’s thrown up by the story, follow it, and then you come back...

‘So sometimes we’re in ancient Greece with Oedipus, sometimes we’re in a modern version. It’s like Sam’s riffing on the myth, but it’s still about a man who does not know his origins, and gets caught out trying to get to the truth. He doesn’t realise that the truth is going to destroy him.’

Music has, it transpires, a very specific part to play in the Field Day production. Belfast-born composer Neil Martin is writing a score to complement the on-stage action, which he will perform live on cello when the play runs in the Playhouse from November 28 to December 9.

One final ingredient has been added: the presence of Sam Shepard himself at rehearsals, where remnants of the cake with which his 70th birthday was recently celebrated by cast and crew are still evident on the lunchtime catering table. Is it, I wonder, always an advantage for the director and the cast having the writer in the room?

‘Usually what happens with a new play,’ smiles Meckler, ‘is that the writer is there for a week at the beginning. Then they come later on, when you’re really getting things going. But Sam has been here throughout. What’s great about him is, because he’s an actor and also a director, he’s very good in the rehearsal room. He doesn’t intrude.’

Rea – himself a member of the cast – agrees. ‘I think it’s fantastic for Sam to hear it,’ he enthuses, ‘and to be offering us new thoughts on it. Some writers would sit thinking that everything they’ve written is being betrayed before their very eyes. With Sam, no. He’s an actor – he likes actors.’

Rea has clear views on where he thinks Shepard stands in the pantheon of playwrights from the past half-century. ‘The late 20th century in English language theatre is dominated by three writers,’ he argues. ‘Beckett, Pinter and Sam Shepard. I think Sam’s right up there with them.’

Rea is similarly clear cut in his analysis of what makes Shepard’s drama special. ‘His great mentor was Joe Chaikin, in New York’s Open Theater. Chaikin said the theatre isn’t just a duplication of life, it is a realm, just as surely as music is a realm. And I think that’s been Sam’s big influence.

'That’s absolutely what Beckett is about. That’s why they stormed out of theatres when Beckett’s plays started, because they weren’t being spoon-fed a realistic narrative, and they couldn’t work out what was going on. I think Sam has carried that on.’

Meckler also responds strongly to what she calls the ‘non-naturalistic’ elements in Shepard’s writing. ‘There’s the reality of us sitting here. But then there’s the reality inside our heads, which is completely different, and completely hidden from each other. This whole idea that we really exist on many levels at the same time, our inner life, the outer life, our dreams, our fantasies. I think as a writer Sam deals in that.

‘What’s challenging about A Particle of Dread is that it’s like a huge, explosive collage on Oedipus, so it’s about really figuring out how it needs to look and sound, what space it should be in, how much music there should be. We’re still playing with the order of the scenes sometimes.’

However it ends up playing out on stage, A Particle of Dread will surely sit happily alongside the other productions in Field Day's luminous back catalogue. Fans of the company will be happy to learn that the Field Day Review is also making a comeback during City of Culture.

First published in 2005, a special issue of the literary publication dedicated to City of Culture features a section on the late poet Seamus Heaney, a former member of the company who studied in Derry~Londonderry. Copies can be purchased from the Field Day website, and Rea hopes that the review will continue to run on an annual basis.

But, for now, the new play takes precedence. In casting the play, Rea has been at pains to put together a home-grown team of top theatrical talent. ‘We’ve got some of the best Irish actors around,' he beams. 'And it’s important to say that the play is actually being created here in the city. it’s not something that happened somewhere else being flown in.

‘Brid Brennan, Lloyd Hutchinson – who was born in Strabane – and Judith Roddy, who’s a Derry girl. It’s a wonderful company. Everyone involved is Irish, apart from Nancy and Sam. They’re getting an opportunity to do this big play by an international playwright, and a lot of them have given up stuff to do it. I hope it is appreciated in Derry, because they are wonderful actors.’

A Particle of Dread runs in the Playhouse, Derry~Londonderry from November 28 to December 7.