Stephen Rea returns to the MAC for Aeneid: Book VI

Actor Stephen Rea and musician Neil Martin; friends, collaborators, co-conspirators, makers of mischief

Mention of the two names immediately conjures up an interlocking string of influential figures, alongside whom, for decades, they have been part of a remarkable web of creative flourishing.  

In 1980, Rea and playwright Brian Friel founded Derry-based Field Day Theatre Company, which stamped an indelible mark on cultural and political life during and in the aftermath of the Troubles. Their aim was to create a cultural space for debate and discourse, where participants could step aside from the dubious normality of crippling political extremes. Its first production was Friel’s Translations. Also on the Field Day Board was Seamus Heaney, who encouraged them to continue with the venture and whose first play The Cure at Troy was produced by the company in 1990, directed by Rea.

Others joined hands around the circle, some through direct association with Field Day, some through a widening web of. collaborations.  Among them were film maker and singer Davy Hammond, poet Tom Paulin, writer Seamus Deane, playwright Thomas Kilroy, musican and composer Martin and the American actor/writer Sam Shepard, a close friend of Rea, who chose to premiere his play A Particle of Dread in the Derry Playhouse in 2013, with Martin playing the cello score live on stage. That landmark production, which transferred to Broadway, signalled the company’s return to public performance after several years of being in what Heaney described as '…a slumbrous state'.  

Other significant collaborations emerged. In 2003 Heaney joined forces with Liam O’Flynn, the acknowledged master of the uilleann pipes. They were to have great times together, travelling far and wide with their warm-hearted performance piece The Poet and the Piper.  

It was in the autumn of 1988 that Rea and Martin began working together.

'It was thirty years ago last year that the two of us first collaborated,' says Martin. 'It was on the Guildhall stage in Derry.  It was an evening to promote Field Day, with words and music. Seamus Deane read and Seamus Heaney read and Tom Paulin read and Davy Hammond sang and I played some music with Davy and Stephen read. Brian Friel was on the stage. I remember the evening very clearly because it was like being invited into a very special place.  I was such a fan of Field Day and it was really something to get to share a stage with those people.  

'The world changed after that because there was a little buzz in your system and you thought ‘God, I was a small part of that.’ And then the next year I wrote and directed music for a Field Day play, Terry Eagleton’s Saint Oscar.  And that started a collaboration between Stephen and myself, which is still continuing.'

Nowadays, when they direct their busy individual schedules towards reviving that creative partnership, the ties that bind them shine through, invoking thrilling memories of other performances on other stages. Thoughts of sorrowful occasions bubble up too - Martin and O’Flynn playing at Hammond's, Friel's and Heaney’s funerals; Martin playing at O’Flynn’s last year.  And the distinctive, contemplative voice of Rea present at them all.  

In 2016, Kilkenny Arts Festival commissioned from Rea an interpretation of Heaney’s translation of Book VI of Virgil’s Aeneid.  Having been performed in London and New York, it is soon to arrive in Northern Ireland, the home ground of the three protagonists, and will play a single performance in the MAC in Belfast on 7 April.

'Kilkenny came to Stephen in 2016 with the idea for a performance of Book VI,' explains Martin. 'Seamus was very close to the Kilkenny Festival and they were keen to do something special to honour him. Stephen was much taken with the notion and immediately said he thought it should have music in it.  So the idea for cello and voice came from him. 

'That first outing in August 2016 when we did it, I remember the reaction of the audience. There was a roaring, full house standing ovation. When we were taking our curtain calls on stage Stephen said to me, ‘That is some reaction. This is not normal.’ We knew from the warmth of the audience that we had hit on something.  There’s great communication between us, it’s a kind of duet.  He reads the text to me and I play the cello to him. Sometimes I listen just to his words, sometimes he listens just to the music and a lot of the time we play together. It’s a dialogue. Every time we do it we hear and feel something something extra, something different, something else because it’s such a deep, fantastic, meaningful translation.

It turned out to be Heaney's last work, its final draft completed just a month before his sudden death in 2013. On the page the piece resounds with the musicality of his familiar voice raised in harmony with that of Virgil, the leading poet of ancient Rome. Do Martin and Rea hear that same voice in performance?

'Oh God yes, very much so,' says Martin. 'In the words and the text and the rhythms you hear that Derry patois, you hear it very strongly. It’s an unmistakeable stamp of Seamus, no doubt about that. He read his own poetry so beautifully - a lot of poets can’t or don't. But Heaney had such a grip of his own stuff. It parts the hair on the back of the head, when you hear him read.'

Book VI is generally considered to be the finest of the twelve books that constitute Virgil's great verse epic.  Having fled from Troy with his comrades, Aeneas travels into the underworld in search of the shades of his dead father and other pivotal figures in his life. 

Heaney started work in earnest on the translation not long after the death of his own father.  The finished piece has been described as his farewell to the land of the living.  For the family, the decision to publish it posthumously was not an easy one.

As Catherine Heaney has explained, the translation was '…the result of work and revisions carried out by him over many years – from the 1980s to the month before his death – and the decision to publish it was one our family took after long and careful consideration.  However, given its theme of Aeneas’s search for his father in the afterlife, it would be hard to think of a more poignant way for us to mark the end of our father’s own poetic journey.'

While this is not a Field Day production, Martin says that everything he and Rea do together is in parallel with the company, which next year celebrates its 40th birthday.  Submerged as we currently are by political turmoil, one wonders whether now, once again, there is a  pressing need for the vision of Field Day.

'Well, we are thinking and talking about plans for next year and the years after,' says Martin. 'Along with Seamus Deane, we are now the three cultural influences on Field Day. If we can’t agitate for thought and social reform and new visions of things through theatre and poetry and the arts - and very specially through theatre - I think we are probably dead as a human race. Theatre offers such a terrific platform to open up alternative views and that’s why Field Day came into existence, to offer different ways of seeing things, to escape from the cultural and political stranglehold that were in at the time.'

Aeneid: Book VI will show at the MAC on Sunday, April 7. Tickets on sale now at www.themaclive.com or call the box office on 028 90 235 053. The show will be performed in the imitate surroundings of the MAC’s Luminaire Club.