Interview: John Keating Talks TWO BY SYNGE at Irish Rep, His Background With the Company, and More!

Previews for Two By Synge begin April 13 and opening night is set for April 24.

By: Apr. 06, 2022
Interview: John Keating Talks TWO BY SYNGE at Irish Rep, His Background With the Company, and More!

Irish Repertory Theatre will present Two by Synge by John Millington Synge and directed by Charlotte Moore, beginning next week. Two by Synge will run April 13-May 22, 2022 on the W. Scott McLucas Studio Stage, with an opening night set for April 24, 2022.

Directed by Charlotte Moore, Two by Synge pairs early masterpieces by John Millington Synge, inspired by the stories he heard and witnessed while living among poor Irish peasants (at the behest of none other than WB Yeats) at the turn of the twentieth century. Synge celebrates the hardscrabble lives of country people, especially the headstrong and powerful women.

The cast of Two by Synge will include Ciaran Bowling (Les Misérables), Terry Donnelly (The O'Casey Cycle), Sean Gormley (Kingfishers Catch Fire), John Keating (The O'Casey Cycle) and Jo Kinsella (Dancing at Lughnasa).

Keating specifically has a long history with Irish Rep, and we got to chat with him about his past experiences with the company, what it's been like working on this unique production, and more!

Read our interview below:

Firstly, tell us a bit about your background with Irish Rep?

I came to New York in 1994 with a green card and almost no acting experience and was beyond lucky to be in the first two productions at Irish Rep's permanent home on 22nd street a year later, in the fall of 1995 (Same Old Moon and Juno and the Paycock). I can still remember how much I learned from being in both of those shows, massively so from Charlotte Moore and Ciaran O'Reilly, and also from wonderful actors in both productions like the late Pauline Flanagan and the late Paddy Croft.

What was the process like returning to Irish Rep for Autumn Royal, the company's first in-person performance since the pandemic?

Autumn Royal was Irish Rep's first full production 'back' and we began rehearsals right after Labor Day in September. It was so exciting to be once again in the rehearsal room - there were times in 2020 in particular when I wondered if that would happen again, and.... there one warm day in early September we were. Naturally, the street itself was quieter than it is now, and the theatre was too as hybrid and remote work was still fully in practice, so the process was a quiet but often hilarious one - the playwright, Kevin Barry, known primarily as a leading novelist and short story writer, writes dark and really funny dialogue. (The experience meant even more to me because I, entirely coincidentally, became a huge fan of his writing in the first year of the pandemic and was stunned in the best way when Ciaran O'Reilly asked me to do his play, with my not knowing that Barry had even written a play!). It was a time filled with the often-unspoken hope that we'd get to October and first previews without a new variant - and thankfully, we did, right through our final performance shortly before Thanksgiving.

Talk a bit about Two By Synge, the production itself, characters you play, etc?

Two by Synge features a pair of the playwrights most acclaimed plays, In the Shadow of the Glen and The Tinker's Wedding. Both are brief and both are rightfully considered to be masterpieces of the Irish canon. In the former, I play an easygoing tramp who, on a stormy night, knocks on the door of a lone woman whose husband has just passed away a little before - or has he? And in The Tinker's Wedding a tinker, Sarah Casey, decides on a whim, after raising a family, that she'd like to be married - and proceeds to stop the passing parish priest on the road to ask him to marry her and her partner, Michael (a tinsmith, who I play). Michael's rambunctious mother Mary also lives with them and complications with the hastily arranged wedding ensue. Synge's ear for the rural Irish dialogue of the time (both plays are set in Co. Wicklow) is simply unmatched.

Tell me about the differences between performing in the two plays that are part of Two By Synge?

Coincidentally, the first professional play I ever acted in was In the Shadow of the Glen in a different role (Michael Dara, a young herd) to the tramp. And back then, fall of 1994, it was also twinned with The Tinker's Wedding. I think the principal difference I see between the plays, both then and today, is in the language. Three of the characters in Tinker's are travelers and speak in a rhythm and sentence structure which is somewhat unusual, even within Synge's writing, whereas the four characters in Shadow speak in a slightly more conventional way, perhaps closer in many ways to the characters in his full-length masterpiece Playboy of the Western World. It's been a great treat to come back to the plays all these years later and hopefully, hopefully I understand the language and rhythms a little more with the years!

What unique experiences have come out of performing in two separate stories within the same evening?

I think a unique experience with these roles in Two by Synge is that I play a tramp and a tinker, both of an indeterminate age, both are men who exist on the very periphery of an Irish Society still under British rule, and both are wise from hardship and hardscrabble living, but both are very different in terms of their way of speaking, their energy, their demeanor and their personalities - the tramp rarely draws breath and has a story for any moment and the tinker rarely speaks beyond what serves the moment, if even then! And changing one's energy and physicality to allow for that in both is a challenge and a joy.

What have been some of your favorite productions or roles you have played at Irish Rep?

I believe that Two by Synge is my 25th production at Irish Rep. I have countless amazing memories from these shows and so many roles that I've been extremely lucky to play. Getting to play Joxer in Juno and the Paycock twice, most recently in the company's acclaimed O'Casey Cycle in 2019, was a dream, and he remains a character that I still quote from ad nauseum! I loved playing Jim in both of Ciaran O'Reilly's stagings of The Weir (in addition to the virtual staging of the play Ciaran directed in July 2020, when all five actors were filmed in isolation in different states and which helped to establish Irish Rep as a leader in virtual theatre that year), creating 'Pigeon' in the world premiere of Laoisa Sexton's The Pigeon in the Taj Mahal directed by Alan Cox in 2016 was very exciting, as is always the memory of playing Casimir in Brian Friel's Aristocrats, which Charlotte Moore directed in 2009.

What is it about the company that keeps you coming back?

What keeps me coming back to Irish Rep are the people and the roles. I think many, many actors over the last 30 plus years would agree that there is little that quite compares with the warmth that you feel on 22nd street, not only from both Charlotte Moore and Ciaran O'Reilly but also from everyone who works there. But in tandem with that warmth also comes a huge feeling of creativity, of continuing to strive to produce the best of the best new material and the strongest revivals of the strongest classics. And I've been handed a bagful of great roles in those plays over many years and it's an honor to be asked to come back. Irish Rep feels like a true artistic home, even more so at a time when the idea of a theatrical home feels ever rarer.


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