Making A Man of Faith

He's played a Hurricane and endured the Hunger. Brendan Deeds meets actor and writer Richard Dormer

Richard Dormer’s first play, Hurricane (2002), a one-man show about the rise and fall of snooker legend Alex Higgins, was a whirlwind success.

The play enjoyed sold-out performances at the Edinburgh Fringe before a run on London’s West End and transferring to New York to a rave reception off-Broadway.

His new play, This Piece of Earth, is a harrowing portrait of the agonising last hours of a couple during Ireland's Famine. It is a powerful piece of writing, delivered with a searing honesty which lingers with the audience long after the play’s end.

When I meet Dormer in Belfast’s Old Museum Art Centre, he looks like an old testament prophet: bearded chin curving as he smiles, dark eyes alive with passion. I soon discover that, much like a prophet, he has been guided by signs, visions and faith.

Dormer had been contemplating writing about Higgins when he bumped into him by chance in Dublin’s Connolly Station.

‘It got off to a bad start. I wouldn’t swap the jacket I was wearing for one of his jackets so he just told me to clear off.

'Later on he came back with a beer and said "no hard feelings". I thought, right, that’s my sign, I’m gonna write about this guy.'

Higgins is, like any Belfast icon, a tarnished, tainted hero; his heavy-drinking and violent nature became as famous as his sporting achievements. Was this what interested Dormer about Alex’s character?

‘There’s something about the male psyche in NI. There’s an element of self-destruction in every bloody man in this country. Higgins showed the world a different face. He was destructive, but had such a creative spirit.'

Higgins at the peak of his powers was, like Dormer, a natural showman.

‘He played like Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire danced. He actually used to pirouette when he hit the ball. Sometimes, rather than just hit the ball in, he’d knock it off all four cushions.

'He never went for the easy option. Like in art, you don’t go for the easy option, you go for the hardest option and if you get it, it pays off.’

In portraying Ireland’s Famine in This Piece of Earth, Dormer has shown that he is not one to shy away from the hardest option. Why did he feel compelled to attempt such a feat?

‘I’ve never had this experience before, where I’ve been haunted by an image.

'I can remember exactly when I had this idea - it was September 3, 2005, and I was sitting in Bath, outside a café, about to do the final performance of Waiting For Godot.

‘The nature of ‘Godot’ is about the Famine, at least that was my theory, and I got this image of a man standing over a woman in the earth. It was quite horrific.’

The image refused to leave Dormer's mind. It was on a night in a guesthouse in Ballycastle when the pieces fell into place.

‘I thought I heard a baby crying out in this wilderness out the back, and the next day we went out and discovered that there was a famine graveyard out the back of this guesthouse.

'I was amazed that there would be a mass grave in the north of Ireland. I had no idea that the famine spread that far.’

Dormer now knew the tragic background to go with the image that initially haunted him. However, once he knew the story he had to tell, the full challenge of the task ahead was almost overwhelming.

‘Suddenly you think, my God, I’m writing about one of the great injustices of history and very few writers have done it. I know exactly why; it’s because it’s almost impossible.’

During the Famine years, every patch of earth was blighted, 2 million souls perished or emigrated and the country which was left behind was irreparably altered by this bitter episode. How can such a monumental catastrophy be fully examined on stage?

Dormer's solution was to focus the audience’s attention on the plight of a couple, John and Maeve Hardy, and use this microcosm to suggest the greater horror of the famine.

‘What I wanted to do was to show that if we could care about these people then when we reach the end of the play we’ll realise what we’ve lost.’

With their jokes and their shared reminiscences there is beauty and loss for the characters who appear in each of Dormer’s plays.

This almost spiritual grace saves the sanity of John and Maeve, yet brings no solace to the Priest, played by Dormer himself.

There seems an uneasy attitude towards religion in This Piece of Earth, yet Dormer is a very spiritual man.

From the chance encounter with Alex Higgins in Connolly Station that began Dormer’s run of success, to a sound in the night that brought him to a Famine grave behind his guesthouse, there is a synchronicity in Dormer’s life that he weighs with meaning.

‘I believe in God but, like every believer should, I have my doubts,' he says.

‘I’ve realised reading through Hurricane, The Half (2005) and This Piece of Earth that the one thing that unites them is faith. Every single one of the male characters asks at some point or another, ‘God, where are you?’’

Dormer's mobile starts ringing. ‘That’ll be Him now,’ he jokes. For a second, I almost believe him.