Sean O'Callaghan couldn't sleep the night before he was due to meet
director John Dove about the possibility of appearing in the title role
of Brian Friel's play, Faith Healer, at the Royal Lyceum Theatre in
Edinburgh. O'Callaghan was in the thick of playing Friar Laurence in a
production of Romeo and Juliet at the Sherman Cymru theatre in Cardiff,
where Perth Theatre's former artistic director Rachel O'Riordan is now
in charge, and his attention should have been firmly fixed on that.
As it was, there was something about the role of Frank, the alcoholic
faith healer on a never-ending tour of Welsh and Scottish villages
where he would attempt to work miracles that wouldn't leave him alone.
“There were so many resonances in the play that it was hard to stop
thinking about it,” O'Callaghan says of the play, made up of a quartet
of monologues spoken by Frank, his wife Gracie and his stage manager
Teddy, as each give different versions of a crucial incident which has
occurred. “Frank has left Ireland, and goes around Welsh and Scottish
villages trying to heal, and he gets results sometimes, but then he
doesn't, and he says he knows when he's not going to get results. When
it does happen, he says it's such a remarkable thing to happen to him,
to be able to do something so miraculous and cure someone, when nine
times out of ten it doesn't work. So to spend nine tenths of your life
failing, that's a hard thing to take on board.
“Another huge thing is, and it speaks to me as somebody from an
immigrant Irish family, is this sense of homecoming. That's mentioned
so often in the piece, what it means to live away from your country for
a long period of time, and how that changes you, and what happens when
you return, and how you kind of reinvent yourself and go back. I know
that's important from an Irish experience, but I think that also has a
resonance in Scotland.
As an actor used to living a peripatetic existence, O'Callaghan can
relate to this on several levels. Born in England to first generation
Irish immigrants, O'Callaghan grew up on a council estate in Aylesbury
in Buckinghamshire. He developed an aptitude for acting in drama
classes, and was encouraged him to pursue something he already had an
“Without that influence,” he says, “coming from my background there's
just no way I would have thought of doing it. Losing drama and the arts
in the schools curriculum today, you just wonder where the next
generation of actors and artists are going to come from.
O'Callaghan initially thought of becoming a teacher, but, encouraged by
his father, he took the plunge.
“His idea that I could do that was huge,” he says. “My parents came
from a very poor background, and I always say to my son, with what I
do, in terms of moving away from my father, the gap may look bigger
than the gap when my father moved away from his, but actually it's the
other way round. His move away from Ireland and the background he was
brought up in to come here was a much bigger leap.”
O'Callaghan went to RADA, and had a two year stint with the Royal
Shakespeare Company. He later played Andrew in Bill Bryden's production
of Dennis Potter's take on the life of Christ, The Son of Man,
featuring Joseph Fiennes. It was, he says, “the best time I've ever had
on a show. We had a huge seven or eight week rehearsal period, so he
didn't flog anyone. He just cast it brilliantly, and it was such a
tight-knit group, who'd do two or three shows a week and then went out
and celebrated and partied afterwards.”
O'Callaghan also got to work with the late James Ellis, who played
Peter, and who O'Callaghan “adored. He was quite a figure in Irish
acting, and I think played the first regular Irish character on TV in Z
O'Callaghan went on to work with pioneering director Peter Cheeseman at
the New Vic Theatre in Newcastle-under-Lyme, close to Stoke-on-Trent
where O'Callaghan now lives, and developed a long-term working
relationship with playwright Howard Barker's Wrestling School company.
Neither of his mentors were in the business of patronising audiences.
“Peter gave you local plays, but also gave you Shaw,” O'Callaghan says,
while “Howard changed my entire attitude towards theatre. I always used
to think, and still do to an extent, that theatre had to be about
politics and change and telling the truth. With Howard it becomes
something more complex, poetic and difficult.”
Given his love of new writing and the role-call of playwrights he's
worked with, it's perhaps surprising to hear O'Callaghan talk about
Beyond Caring, a devised piece about zero-hour contracts developed over
a year and a half and performed at The Yard in London earlier this
“Each part could have been written on the back of a fag packet,” he
says. “It's all about the silences and the gaps rather than the words.
The topic of zero-hour contracts is so huge, and the more we researched
into them, the more horrific things looked.”
The last time O'Callaghan appeared on a stage in Scotland was at Perth
in O'Riordan's award-winning production of Conor McPherson's 2006 play,
The Seafarer. It was, he says, “ the complete opposite to this, playing
a bumbling alcoholic – another alcoholic - who just says the odd line.
It's a different dynamic to Faith Healer.
“It's such a strange one to rehearse,” he says, “because it's
monologues, but even though it does come from a storytelling tradition,
the need for the characters to tell the story is the driving force of
the play. Because it's written so beautifully, the danger is that you
can become indulgent, and get caught up in these Celtic melancholy
washes and becomes too poetic. The language is there, but it's the need
to tell the story rather than asking an audience to come and watch how
deep I am.
“I've been wanting to do this play for years. I would have done any
Friel, but this play in particular is so fascinating and tantalising
and rewarding to watch and experience. You're constantly discovering
something new about it, and, like Barker, it's about trusting an
audience enough to not give them something on a plate, but for them to
have something that they can get into and find out and discover and rip
apart for themselves.”
Faith Healer, Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, January 14-February 7.
Sean O'Callaghan – A life onstage
Sean O'Callaghan was born in England to Irish parents, and grew up on a
council estate in Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire.
O'Callaghan trained as an actor at RADA, and from 1986 spent two years
with the Royal Shakespeare Company. Here he appeared in The Winter's
Tale, directed by Terry Hands, Romeo and Juliet, directed by Michael
Bogdanov, Richard II, directed by Barry Kyle and The Storm, directed by
Between 1990 and 1993, O'Callaghan worked under director Peter
Cheeseman at the New Vic, Newcastle-under-Lyme. Here he appeared in The
Dirty Hill, Soldiers Three, All My Sons, Twelfth Night, The Bright and
Bold Design and The Plough and The Stars. O'Callaghan has also
performed at the New Vic in The beauty Queen of Leenane, The Lonesome
West, Four Knights in Knaresborough, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and
Back at the RSC from 1994-96, O'Callaghan appeared in Pentecost and
After Easter, both directed by Michael Attenborough, Henry V, directed
by Michael Warchus, Zenobia, directed by Mike Ockrent, Words, Words,
Words, directed by Cicely Berry and Son of Man directed by Bill Bryden.
O'Callaghan first appeared with Howard Barker's company, The Wrestling
School, in 1996, in 1996 in (Uncle) Vanya, and has since appeared in
Wounds To The Face, Ursula, The Ecstatic Bible, Gertrude (The Cry), 13
Objects, The Fence, Animeuax En Paradis and I Saw Myself. O'Callaghan
is an associate of the company.
O'Callaghan has also performed at Shakespeare's Globe, Adelaide
Festival, Liverpool Playhouse, Hampstead Theatre, Bolton Octagon,
Oldham Coliseum, Derby Playhouse, National Theatre Studio, Theatre 503
and the Finborough Theatre, and with companies such as Northern
Broadsides, The Wedding Collective.
In 2013, O'Callaghan was nominated for an Irish Times Best Actor award
for his performance in Rachel O'Riordan's Perth Theatre/Lyric Belfast
production of Conor McPherson's The Seafarer, which won Best Ensemble
and Best Director awards at the Critics Awards for Theatre in Scotland.
The Herald, January 6th 2015