Ian McElhinney's Titanic Game of Thrones

The actor welcomes a return to the stage to play Titanic kingpin William J Pirrie after wrapping season four of the HBO fantasy series

With his rich tones, crisp delivery and an impressive dramatic résumé, Ian McElhinney is very much a man of the arts. As one of Ireland’s most experienced dramatic actors he has, over the course of a 30-year career, played cops and lawyers, knights and monks. At present, however, he is preparing to portray a towering figure of Belfast’s proud maritime history.

In A Better Boy, which is due to run at the Brian Friel Theatre at Queen’s University, Belfast from December 5 – 6 before travelling to Brussells for the Arts Council of Northern Ireland's Brussels Platform, McElhinney will play William J Pirrie, master ship wright, industrial giant and, perhaps most notably, chairman and managing director of Harland & Wolff. It was on his watch that Titanic was built – it would also sink during his tenure.

It was an event that would scar a man who accomplished much in his lifetime, climbing swiftly upwards from a shipyard apprentice to the House of Lords. He would never properly recover, however, from the loss of this great vessel and the death of his nephew, Thomas ‘Tommie’ Andrews – the ‘better boy’ of the title – the man who built the mighty liner, staying with her until the very end.

Written by Belfast-born academic and Titanic expert John Wilson Foster, the one-man show sees Pirrie granting an audience to a journalist at his English estate. He wishes to speak about his beloved Tommie and to correct the record with respect to the demise of the legendary ship, whose name he cannot bring himself to say. Ultimately, it is an emotional journey, says McElhinney.

‘Pirrie was very dynamic. Those sorts of men, those masters of industry at the time, were real pioneers, and that is very much part of the script,’ he explains, suggesting that the ‘beautifully written’ play provides a real insight into how the likes of Pirrie – a great man at the helm of a rapidly changing world – tended to view themselves. ‘They were as progressive in their time as the space age was in its time.’

McElhinney was drawn to the compelling character of Pirrie, the sole presence on stage. He saw the role as representing a significant challenge. ‘It’s nice, even at this stage, to give yourself a test like this. And it is a test. It’s a hell of a lot to have at your finger tips. It’s challenging as an actor to hang onto your material. When you do something like this, you’ve really got to know it. I have to get to the point where it’s in my being. The test will come on Thursday and Friday.’

Pirrie was a ruthless business man, of course, but McElhinney points out that the uncomplicated manner of his success renders him ‘entirely admirable'. Forward-focused, driven and ‘determined to make things work'. As McElhinney underlines, Pirrie was 'a great believer in the commitment to graft and the determination to get on by helping yourself'.

What then of the ‘better boy’? ‘Part of the reason Pirrie likes talking about Tommie is because, in many ways, Tommie reminds Pirrie of Pirrie.' The focus of proceedings, the departed Andrews remains, to many, a shimmering, saintly figure in light of his tragically heroic actions on the night of the disaster.

Yet in McElhinney’s view, his character’s fondness for Andrews stems from a simple pride in his protégé’s notable accomplishments. ‘Tommie is a reflection, or is at least emblematic, of himself. In a sense it’s easier because he’s not his son but his nephew. He’s just incredibly proud of him. He sees himself in Tommie.’

Looming over A Better Boy, and much of Belfast’s history, is Titanic. Its loss was a major blow to the local shipbuilding sector and, as McElhinney states, it signified ‘a missed chance’, a disaster which killed a number of the era’s ‘major players’, leaving an indelible mark on the city. ‘For generations, Belfast used to be embarrassed by Titanic. A lot of the work force almost felt guilty as if they were being blamed.’

Pirrie’s attitude, however, was entirely practical. ‘It was not the end of the world. There was a bigger picture here and we were very much at the heart of it,’ says McElhinney in summary. It was a tragedy no doubt, but not one that would stop the wheels of industry from turning. Many more ships would be built; faster ships, bigger ships.

The Brian Friel Theatre at Queen’s University provides the production with ample space to reflect the measure of its central player. Having been exhibited last year within the evocative confines of the Belfast Barge (with Lalor Roddy as Pirrie), the play now has a full stage onto which the backdrop of an ethereal, and accurate, subaqueous lounge is projected.

It is an advantage for which McElhinney is grateful. ‘We wanted to create a big sense of space, as if we are all in this smoking room. That means I’m not tied to the chair, I can range around. It’s a bigger scale.’ Such scale, he says, promotes ‘a larger atmospheric and it allows it to seem a more powerful play than might otherwise be the case as a one-man show'.

Besides appearing in A Better Boy, McElhinney expects to begin shooting the second series of acclaimed BBC drama The Fall in the new year. In addition, for all his impressive thespian credentials, he is perhaps best known as a member of the accomplished ensemble cast on HBO’s Game of Thrones

McElhinney has recently wrapped his season four scenes and is in no doubt about the size of the enterprise. ‘It is huge in terms of the cast and scale.' As one of a number of local actors distinguishing themselves in the biggest television show around, McElhinney portrays Ser Barristan Selmy, an aged warrior with a zealous commitment to honour and duty.

Selmy is notable for being one of the few genuinely noble characters in George RR Martin’s sprawling literary saga, and the Lisburn actor brings genuine gravitas to a role that demands it. It's a decidedly different experience to performing characters like William J. Pirrie.

‘Barristan is kind of singular,’ McElhinney agrees. ‘He is the purest character, he is the most honourable. It gives him a distinction as the decent man. He is faithful to whoever rules and so is very much a character in attendance. I’m present quite a bit, but I don’t have a lot to say for myself really.’

The contrast between his two most recent roles is stark. ‘One of the challenges of Pirrie is that I don’t shut up,' McElhinney laughs. 'There is 50 minutes of talk in here. It’s quite nice, suddenly, to have an awful lot to say.’

A Better Boy runs at the Brian Friel Theatre, Queen’s Film Theatre, Belfast from December 5 – 6, before travelling to the Bozar Theatre, Brussels as part of the Arts Council of Northern Ireland's Brussels Platform, which runs from December 16 – 17.