Man of the Theatre

Acclaimed actor and director 'Sir Ian' McElhinney

If any figure in Northern Ireland can be described as ‘a man of the theatre’, it is, without doubt, Ian McElhinney.

Known affectionately within the profession as ‘Sir Ian’, this tongue-in-cheek nickname is an indication both of the high esteem in which he is held by his fellow actors and directors and of his urbane, cultivated persona.

McElhinney is also one half of an extraordinary theatrical partnership. His wife is Marie Jones, one of the most talented and commercially successful playwrights to have come out of Northern Ireland and the creator of such internationally acclaimed plays as Stones in His Pockets, Women on the Verge of HRT, A Night in November, The Blind Fiddler, Christmas Eve Can Kill You, and Weddin’s, Wee’ns and Wakes – many of them directed by her husband.

Born near Lisburn, the son of a Church of Ireland canon, McElhinney came late to the theatre.  Having graduated from Edinburgh University, he took himself off to Brandeis University in Boston, where he took a second degree in theatre studies. At the ripe old age of 30, he stepped into the cut-throat world of professional theatre and set about carving out a niche for himself.

In the past 27 years, there is scarcely a theatre in Ireland in which McElhinney has not appeared. He has made many appearances at the Lyric in Belfast and the Abbey, the Gate and the Gaiety in Dublin. He has also appeared in London’s West End and in the United States.

Among his most memorable stage roles were in Seamus Heaney’s magnificent play The Cure at Troy for Field Day Theatre Company and in Beckett’s classic Waiting for Godot.

But this most versatile of actors is also a familiar face on both the big and small screen, although it is a running joke that he gets killed off long before the final scenes. He played the guard Barnado in Kenneth Branagh’s screen version of Hamlet, appearing alongside Jack Lemmon, with a cast containing Kate Winslett, Julie Christie, Judi Dench and John Gielgud.

He played a police officer in Neil Jordan’s Michael Collins, his character meeting a violent death in one of the movie’s most contentious scenes.

In over 30 feature films, such as Borstal Boy, The Mapmaker, A Love Divided, A Prayer for the Dying, Lamb, Reefer and the Model, McElhinney’s name has regularly popped up alongside more immediately starry contemporaries like Gabriel Byrne, Stephen Rea, Liam Neeson, Liam Cunningham, John Lynch, Kenneth Branagh and Aiden Quinn, as well as with lesser known, younger Irish actors to whom McElhinney is always willing to lend a helping hand and a word of advice.

In 1988, he got his big break into network television, when he was cast in the lead role of the prime time ITV thriller series Wipe Out. His response was typically downbeat and modest:

‘I suppose I have a relatively blank face, which fits quite happily into a variety of roles.  I was once described as “the thinking man’s Action Man”, which I guess pretty well sums me up.’

The character was not an Irishman, a fact which pleased the actor considerably and opened up new doors in a by now upwardly mobile career.

‘I don’t have an immediately identifiable Belfast accent,’ he reflected at the time.  ‘Nevertheless, I think they took a chance with me – not that I minded in the slightest.’

McElhinney went on to play more non-Irish characters in successful television series such as Hearts and Minds, Maisie Raines and Hornblower. Shortly after Wipe Out he was cast in the lead role of a UVF supergrass, appearing alongside actress Frances Barber, in the highly praised ITV drama The Grasscutter, which was shot in New Zealand.

In the late 1980s he began to combine acting commitments with directing. He took charge of Marie Jones’s comedy Under Napoleon’s Nose, the first production for the newly formed Replay Productions, the theatre-in-education company, which is now one of Northern Ireland’s longest established and most prolific arts organisations. He also directed a production of Stewart Parker’s notoriously challenging play Northern Star for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

But it was his production of Jones’s Stones in His Pockets for the Lyric Theatre in Belfast, which catapulted him into the directing stratosphere. The play had started life modestly enough, as a two hander for DubbelJoint productions, directed by Pam Brighton and premiered at the 1996 Belfast Festival at Queen’s.

Three years later, Jones was invited by the Lyric to revive and rework it. Under McElhinney’s direction and with the irresistible stage partnership of Conleth Hill and Sean Campion, it became a worldwide phenomenon. The director found himself flying between Japan and Scandinavia, Australia and the United States as the production found new audiences and was cast, translated and performed in many different languages.

Scarcely had the dust settled on the Lyric premiere of Stones when McElhinney took himself off on a new tack. In 1996, he had been approached to create ‘something special’ for the 10th John Hewitt International Summer School. He soon found himself immersed in a project, which was to exert a powerful personal hold on him. From a heap of newspaper cuttings, recordings and diaries, McElhinney reconstructed the life of Hewitt in a one-man show entitled The Green Shoot.

In the show he played the central characters of the poet/critic and his wife Roberta, plus a gallery of smaller cameo roles. The result, premiered in May 1999, was directed by Stephen Wright, and hailed as a tour de force. It remains one of McElhinney’s proudest and fondest memories.

As he approaches his 57th birthday, his work rate remains phenomenal. Film and television roles keep coming and, last year, he was invited to direct John Anderson’s music and dance spectacular On Eagle’s Wing, the story of the Scots-Irish and their turbulent travels and travails across the Atlantic.

The production was almost as fraught with difficulty as the plight of the Scots-Irish themselves, but through it all McElhinney retained his usual equilibrium and good humour, a hallmark of the professional approach which continues to carry him effortlessly through the landscape of an ever-changing career.

Jane Coyle