When DC Jackson asked David Ireland what might be the Belfast-born
actor and playwright's ideal part, for a man who had nominally quit the
stage to concentrate on writing, it was a no-brainer.
“I said I'd love to play a psychopathic loyalist gun-man,” Ireland
remembers, “because it seemed that I only ever got to play losers.”
Ireland's declaration clearly lodged inside Jackson's pop culture
infested brain just as a bullet might. The result is The Killing of
Johnny Glendenning, Jackson's scurrilous comedy which looks at the
celebrity status of an imaginary set of Glasgow hard-men who live the
high-life while make-believing they're in a gangster film. Ireland
plays the title character in a play, which opens the Royal Lyceum
Theatre, Edinburgh's Autumn season with what one suspects will be a
bang before transferring to the Citizens Theatre in Glasgow. An Ulster
gunman and self-publicist extraordinaire, Johnny is headed for the
mother of all showdowns with his nemesis in an Ayrshire farmhouse.
“It's about me,” Ireland laughs, before correcting himself. “It's about
Johnny Glendenning, who is very funny, very articulate, and has a very
clever turn of phrase, but he's also a psychopath who enjoys killing
people. He's also a celebrity, is revered by young hoods, and has had
seventeen books written about him. He misses the old days of the
Troubles and the Peace Process, and he doesn't really enjoy living in
Scotland and working with all these Glasgow gangsters. He romanticises
the past when he hung out with Tony Blair, Peter Mandelson and Mo
Mowlam. Although he's not really based on anyone, there's a bit of
Travis Bickle from Taxi Driver in there, and I think all the characters
in the play fancy themselves as being characters in a Tarantino movie.”
Extreme comedy becomes Ireland. This is something he recently proved
with his tellingly titled play for this year's Edinburgh Festival
Fringe, I Promise You Sex and Violence. As produced by the
Newcastle-based Northern Stage company, Ireland's predictably
potty-mouthed three-way split between a racist, a homophobe and a
misogynist received something of a mixed critical reaction. Yet, in its
wilful sense of provocation, the script resembled a comedic ruck
between Martin McDonagh and a young Sam Shepard.
“I'm really proud of the play,” Ireland says. “I called it I Promise
You Sex and Violence so people who don't like seeing sex, violence and
swearing onstage won't go and see it. I had a play on that was
originally done in Dublin called Half A Glass of Water, which also
played in Londonderry as part of European Capital of Culture. It didn't
shock people so much in Dublin, but then really shocked people in
Londonderry, and I think with it having such an innocuous title I was
probably asking for it. Then I realised that plays like mine have
really obvious titles, so maybe calling a play I Promise You Sex and
“I suppose a lot of my plays are violent or extreme, but I don't intend
it that way. That's just the way they come out. I suppose a lot of the
time I'm writing about Belfast, which historically has been a violent
and extreme place. It's interesting, because when I was writing I
Promise You Sex and Violence, the characters talked like they were from
Belfast, and had the attitude of people from Belfast, but none of them
actually were. I expected people to find it extreme, but I also
expected them to find it funny, which I don't think was necessarily the
If I Promise You Sex and Violence is typical of Ireland's oeuvre as a
writer, it was as an actor he first came to prominence since he trained
at RSAMD – now the Royal Conservatoire Scotland - in Glasgow. Ireland
had attended youth theatre in Belfast, and had wanted to be an actor
from an early age having feasted on film culture.
“I grew up wanting to be Jack Nicholson,” he says, “but it never really
Straight out of drama school, Ireland found himself understudying David
Tennant in a production of King Lear at the Royal Exchange, Manchester,
featuring Tom Courtney in the title role. After two years in the
doldrums, Ireland was seen for Decky Does A Bronco, Douglas Maxwell's
swing-park set tragedy which was being produced by site-specific
auteurs, Grid Iron. Ireland played the lead role in what went on to
become a smash hit that toured extensively. For a while on the back of
Decky, Ireland didn't stop working, at the Royal Shakespeare Company,
the Traverse and the Citizens.
After appearing in another Douglas Maxwell play, If Destroyed True, at
Dundee Rep, however, acting work dried up, and Ireland turned to
writing. His first play to be performed was What The Animals Say, which
was produced at Oran Mor in Glasgow in 2009 as part of the venue's A
Play, A Pie and A Pint seasons of lunchtime theatre. Since then,
Ireland has written a multitude of plays for companies such as
Tinderbox and Ransom in Belfast, as well as Oran Mor in Glasgow. He was
Playwright-in-Residence at the Lyric Theatre, Belfast. and has won both
the Stewart Parker BBC Radio Drama Award and the Meyer-Whitworth Award
“I got into a situation where the only things I had time to do
inbetweeen writing commissions were small parts on TV,” he says, “and
then people stopped asking me to audition for theatre. Then people in
theatre saw me getting these parts and started asking me again.”
While Kill Johnny Glendenning has finally put Ireland into a leading
role, with writing commissions for the National Theatre of Scotland and
others ongoing, it may be a while before audiences get to see him again.
“For a couple of years I said I'm a writer,” he said, “then acting work
started overtaking the writing.
I think temperamentally I'm a writer, but you get an adrenalin rush
from acting that you don't get from writing. I think I'm a better
writer than an actor, but with Kill Johnny Glendenning, I suspect
playing a funny psychopath might be well within my range.”
The Killing of Johnny Glendenning, Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh,
September 17-October 11 : Citizens Theatre, Glasgow, October
David Ireland – At a glance
David Ireland was born in Belfast, where he joined a youth theatre
before training as an actor at RSAMD in Glasgow.
His first professional role was understudying David Tennant in a
production of King Lear at the Royal Exchange, Manchester.
Ireland first came to prominence in Grid Iron's production of Decky
Does A Bronco. Ireland also worked with Grid Iron in Variety and Tryst.
With Ransom Productions, Ireland appeared in The Winners and The
Gentleman's Tea Drinking Society, and with Greyscale in Tonight David
Ireland Will Lecture Dance and Box.
At Dundee Rep, Ireland was seen in The Cherry Orchard and If Destroyed
True, a co-production with Paines Plough.
On TV Ireland has appeared in Taggart, River City, Shetland, The Dear
Green Place, and on radio in Translations and Jimmy Murphy Makes Amends.
As a writer, Ireland's first play, What The Animals Say, was produced
at Oran Mor in Glasgow, where his plays, Arguments For Terrorism, Most
Favoured and Trouble and Shame have also been seen. For Tinderbox,
Ireland wrote Everything Between Us and Summertime, and for Ransom,
Yes, So I Said Yes.
Ireland has also written The Hen Night for Royal Conservatoire
Scotland, Half A Glass of Water for Field Day at the Abbey, Dublin, and
Can't Forget About You for the Lyric Theatre, Belfast, where he was
Ireland has won both the Stewart Parker BBC Radio Drama Award and the
Meyer-Whitworth Award for playwriting.
The Herald, September 15th 2015