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George Costigan - An Actor With A Common Touch

George Costigan can’t ever see himself playing the king. Lear, that is.
The man who became a familiar face playing a council estate lothario in
Alan Clark’s big-screen version of Andrea Dunbar’s stage play, Rita,
Sue and Bob Too, doesn’t really fancy it, to be honest. He doesn’t have
the authority, he reckons. Which is why this bluffest of adopted
northerners also reckons he’s right to play Ray, a very different kind
of man on the ropes in Blackbird, David Harrower’s provocative
psycho-sexual study first seen at the 2005 Edinburgh International
Festival.

In a new co-production for Pilot Theatre Company and York Theatre
Royal, which tours to Glasgow’s Tron Theatre next week, Costigan plays
Ray, a fifty-five year old man who had a sexual relationship with Una
fifteen years earlier, when she was twelve. When Una turns up at his
workplace unannounced, old emotional scars are opened up and the new
lives each has built for themselves collapse into each other.
“It’s not an easy play to sell,” Costigan admits of a piece he first
picked up on five years ago. “It’s taken that long to get it on. We
took it to all the people we knew, and I kind of understood when they
didn’t want to do it, because no-one wants to take a risk on a play
like this, no matter how well written it is. It’s a masterpiece, which
is why we wanted to do it. If you’re not afraid of having your head
knocked about by something that’s smart and clever, then you’ll
recognise that.”

Harrower’s play has clearly tapped into something, as audiences across
the globe have made clear watching the umpteen international
productions the play has seen since 2005. Then, German heavy-weight
director Peter Stein’s production threatened to overshadow the play’s
mix of ambiguity and blazing intimacy with a grafted-on final scene
more resembling a 1980s MTV video, power ballad and all. Such excesses
have fortunately failed to define the play’s own power, which is a
somewhat exhausting gift to the two actors who are onstage throughout
the play’s full ninety minutes.

What, though, is Ray like in Costigan’s eyes?

“It’s really hard to answer that,” he says. “He’s an under-manager,
doing double shifts, and who’s not very high-achieving, but I don’t
think that’s what you mean. You never see him under anything but
pressure. You see who he could be, but you never see him relaxed. The
only time you see him relax is when he kicks the rubbish around in the
store-room.”

Costigan has made blue-collar characters something of a stock in trade,
whether playing George opposite Matthew Kelly’s Lennie in John
Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, as Willy Loman in Arthur Miller’s Death of
a Salesman, or even playing Estragon in Samuel Beckett’s Waiting For
Godot.

“They’re three of the greatest plays ever written,” says Costigan, “and
I’d put David Harrower and Blackbird right up there with them. Somebody
asked me if I was going to play Lear next, and I laughed my head off.
The thing with playing Willy and George is that they have very low
status, and that kind of suits me. Lear is someone who thinks very
highly of himself, but if I raised a sword above my head and said,
‘Come on, lads, follow me’, everyone would turn round and say, ‘Oh,
f*** off, George’. And they’d be right. I think I’d struggle with so
much. That’s the reason I started thinking about Blackbird. Ray’s
someone who’s got no status at all.”

Much of Costigan’s championing of the little guy dates back to the
Portsmouth born actor’s early days at Liverpool’s Everyman Theatre
after growing up in Salford. The eight years Costigan spent at the
Everyman can now rightly be regarded as something of a golden age, when
fringe and alternative theatre flirted with the mainstream on the back
of a boom in locally sourced working-class writers such as Willy
Russell and Alan Bleasdale.

It was at the Everyman under directors Alan Dossor and Chris Bond that
Costigan appeared alongside Anthony Sher, Bernard Hill, Trevor Eve and
Barbara Dickson in Russell’s first big hit, John, Paul, George,
Ringo…and Bert. In one of the earliest Beatles-based plays, Costigan
played the infinitely less acclaimed Bert.

During eight years performing alongside the likes of Julie Walters,
Bill Nighy and Pete Postlethwaite, Costigan would appear in as many as
nine shows a season. He even directed a show called Mum’s The Word, an
early musical by a young John McGrath, then finding his feet as a stage
writer before going on to found 7:84, and transforming popular theatre
forever.

The last play Costigan did at the Everyman was Love and Kisses From
Kirkby. Ostensibly about the closure of a Birds Eye factory in the
Merseyside new town, the play became a much bigger statement on the
nature of community. For Costigan, the production also represented a
theatrical peak.

“At the time, which was 1978, apart from Glasgow Citizens, it felt like
we were the best company in the country. But it was the writing that
made it. Actors are just the glamorous bit, but in the end you learned
to spot what good writing is.”

Costigan has previously gone further, suggesting the company was doing
the best work on planet earth, comparing the experience of Love and
Kisses From Kirkby to seeing Peter Brook’s version of A Midsummer
Night’s Dream and watching Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band.
“Like theatre was rock and roll,” he said.

Costigan went on to create the role of doomed twin Micky Johnstone in
the original Liverpool Playhouse production of Russell’s class-based
musical, Blood Brothers. At which point, as with so many of his
Everyman peers, doors to even bigger things should have opened.

“Absolutely not!” Costigan counters. “You know what Liverpool’s like.
Everyone who’s not from there’s just considered a woolly-back, and
no-one knew who you were. Let’s remember as well that the first time we
did Blood Brothers it bombed. But it was the same after Rita, Sue and
Bob Too. The phone didn’t ring for six months, then when it did ring it
was to play all these saddo keyhole-lookers.”

Set in the wilds of Bradford’s Butterworth estate where Andrea Dunbar
herself lived, Rita, Sue and Bob Too was a bleak portrait of two
teenage babysitters’ affairs with married Bob, played by Costigan.
Since Dunbar’s untimely death, Costigan appeared in The Arbor, an
impressionistic portrait of the tragic playwright’s life, which
featured actors lip-synching to interviews with real Buttershaw
residents.

One part that stands out from all of these spit and sawdust affairs is
that of Roxanne, a trans-sexual Costigan played in full drag for two
episodes of long-running TV cop show, The Bill.

“I couldn’t wait,” he says. “Most male actors will take any chance they
get to wear a frock, and now, I look back at that and think, ‘Well
done, Son. From fifteen yards’."

Beyond Blackbird, Costigan will be appearing in Forests, a new piece
for Birmingham Rep directed by Catalan taboo-buster, Calixto Bieito.
Costigan previously played Claudius in Bieito’s brutal, night-club set
Hamlet in a co-production with Edinburgh International Festival.

“He’s a madman,” Costigan says of Bieito, “but smart and such a laugh
with it, and so rude! It’s just a different way of working, and these
risks are what make this job exciting. Sometimes you get frustrated
with yourself if things don’t work, but that’s okay. It cocked up. I’m
a human being. Hurrah!”

Blackbird, Tron Theatre, Glasgow, November 15-19
www.tron.co.uk

The Herald, November 8th 2011

ends

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