A Man (Dis)Possessed: Pat Kinevane

Ahead of three solo shows at the MAC, the actor/playwright reveals the personal roots of his disenfranchised characters and why theatre is still 'magic'

You could call the brand of drama that actor and writer Pat Kinevane (50) is bringing to the MAC at the end of the month a theatre of the dispossessed. The two one-man-shows that he and Fishamble theatre company are presenting from September 27 - 29, Underneath and Silent, feature marginalised characters.

One is a homeless Dubliner, Tino, who replays scenes from his past in the manner of his hero Rudolf Valentino. Reviewing Silent, The Guardian critic Lyn Gardner said that the eponymous silence was of 'an older, less kind Ireland' in which Tino’s gay brother Pearse has been murdered 'with giggles' – and in which mental illness was ignored.

In Underneath, a woman whom we discover is dead speaks to us from her gilded tomb. Her monologue has been described as 'a testament to people who live on the fringes, under the nose of everyday life' and is for all the world like an offcut of one of Beckett’s masterpieces.

Kinevane, who is speaking down the line from Dublin, explains how the human need for compassion forms his starting point in theatre, and why he concentrates on the disenfranchised. 'I like to write from a compassionate angle,' he says. 'Working by myself, I want to challenge people’s perceptions. The compassion is there, I think, but people don’t know how to express it.'

The performer has been on the road with Silent for six years, but the relevance of the show, with the European immigrant crisis, just increases. 'People need to wake up to the human condition. Beckett is an influence, I suppose, but my work is very influenced by (local playwright) John B Keane.'

When Kinevane tackles characters who have temporarily lost the ordinary sense of themselves, he is writing from experience. 'As a younger man, I was challenged in my head. You could call it depression. Going into my thirties I was very lucky and was surrounded by very good people, personally and professionally. I caught their lack of fear but then I came to a point when I was absolutely f***ed.' But when you’re hit,' he adds, 'there is a way up, and you take people’s help. I do feel evangelical about this.'

Pat Kinevane in Fishamble's Underneath, photo by Patrick Redmond 5 (1).jpg

In his work, you sense the authenticity. One particular line in Silent sums up Tino’s predicament and the way the human herd tends to ignore those who are psychologically bruised. 'The character goes to the doctor and says: "In all fairness to the doctor, I think he heard me but didn’t listen." And there is a big difference,' Kinevane explains. 'A smile in the street to somebody who needs it makes a difference, all those little incremental things help people living on the street.' The playwright observes that those on the streets sometimes make a great effort to retain their dignity. 'Some people are just buttoned onto it, while others can’t hold on to it.'

Originally from Cobh in Cork, Kinevane's background didn’t make a career in the arts a natural choice, even though he had extensive experience in amateur dramatics. 'After I left school, I dabbled in nursing, then tried the civil service for a bit,' he admits. 'I did some touring but couldn’t afford to go to a technical drama school to train. This was a middle class thing and I come from a working class background.'

Luck or good fortune, however, played a cameo part and he was seen by a director who got him work at the National Theatre in Dublin. To Kinevane it was like being a rep. 'My roles at the National Theatre were right across the board. I played the famous PQ part – that stands for Peasant Quirky. I did a lot of Oscar Wilde, including roles in Salome and Lady Windermere’s Fan. In a way, it was easier to be an actor then as there were less acting school people about.'

Modestly, the performer attributes his early success to being in the right place at the right time. His connection with Fishamble theatre company, the innovative outfit that produces new plays and is named after the street in Dublin where Handel’s Messiah was allegedly first performed, stretches back over a decade or so. 'They’re very contemporary,' he says, 'whatever is happening, they’re on it. This theatre company is vital and that’s what new writers need.'

Kinevane has also written a couple of full length plays – The Nun’s Wood, which won a BBC Stewart Parker award, and The Plains Of Enna. 'That’s a rite of passage play all about dark secrets, love affairs and familial complications. It’s not about incest, but the family don’t know where brothers and sisters come from. There’s a lot of reflecting back on happier days.'

Encouragement from a second or third reader is what most writers need as they toil in one of the loneliest occupations, and Pat is no exception: 'The team at Fishamble gave me great encouragement and spurred me on to write more,' he reveals. 'There is a moment you want to be told "It’s OK, it’s OK."'

The man is nothing if not adventurous and in Underneath, he has inhabited the skin of a woman. 'The play is really about this 50-year-old woman,' Kinevane explains. 'She has always been very tall and masculine and she’s speaking from her tomb. We know from the start that she is dead. The iconography in the piece is very Egyptian, there’s a lot of gold. And yes, I get to play her, referring to the very unfortunate incident that occurred when she was nine and was struck by lightning, making her very disfigured.'

'I grew up with two beautiful older sisters,' he adds, 'so I would never be afraid of taking on a female role. I was inspired by them. But I was intent on portraying this woman in a man’s body and had to work hard to find the right movement.'

And so far in Kinevane's words he's gotten away with it – a throwaway, self-deprecating Dublin line that indicates the humour between the tough, on the street act. Revealingly though, his voice offstage is quite twinkly. 'I am only assertive or aggressive when acting, in reality I am a softie.'

Talk in artistic circles sometimes centres on the idea of the death of theatre. Yet like the supposed death of the novel post-Kindle, the truth isn’t quite so simple.

To Kinevane, the question of why a theatrical portrayal of a dead woman and a man who’s undergoing a breakdown might be better portrayed onstage than in a documentary, is simple. 'There is a particular magic in theatre,' he asserts. 'People are in a darkened room and I could say I am anything, I am the King of England. Theatre is about the imagination. An audience wants to use it - not necessarily see the whole kit and caboodle. Cinema, of course, is nice, you’re shown things and although I love cinema, my love for theatre is much different.'

He adds that TV and cinema have to with aesthetic beauty a lot of the time and, in a droll aside, that character roles have been his bag: 'I’ve mostly been policemen, well a policeman or sometimes a thug. I was never pretty enough to be a juvenile lead.'

Pat Kinevane in Fishamble's Silent, photo

Of course, Kinevane is no stranger to the screen, having had numerous film roles including 2004's King Arthur, where he learned from some of the industry's top stars. 'I worked with a lot of British actors on that and was really inspired by them – people like Clive Owen, Ray Winstone and Keira Knightly, who’s a sweetheart. In fact, we’re still in touch. What I noticed was that they had a skill and a confidence that was enviable. I’d have my own great work ethic and love to work hard.'

For the past decade the writer/performer's work has found eager audiences around the world – 'and thank God!' he exclaims. 'But the company and I have been really surprised how similar audiences have been in their response, maybe because they’re willing to translate the situations I describe into their colloquial [language]. We have had surtitles in Turkey and Bulgaria but other places, even far flung places like Thailand, we haven’t.

Kinevane does however feel this part of the world has ground to make up beyond its native tongue, declaring 'It’s mad how lazy the Irish are when it comes to languages. I speak Irish and that’s it but Europeans routinely have five or six languages.'

Nevertheless, he's looking forward to returning to Belfast before the month is over. 'I played here as a young man, and the audiences are really open and appreciative,' he recalls. 'I was at the Grand Opera House with the National Theatre (of Ireland) and did Dancing at Lughnasa in the early 1990s. We were up and down all the time.'

He parts with a memory of Silent at the Waterfront some years ago, when the audience just went for it. 'They didn’t hold back, the appetite for storytelling in Northern Ireland is huge.' This ticket is going to be a must-see.

Pat Kinevane and Fishamble theatre company perform Underneath on September 27 at the MAC, Belfast followed by Silent on September 28 and 29. For further details and tickets visit www.themaclive.com or contact the venue box office on 028 9023 5053.