Interview with Rory Keenan

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Image © Manuel Harlan

We chat to actor Rory Keenan about Welcome Home, Captain Fox!, the Donmar's new play this spring.

Rory Keenan is an actor who has appeared in major stage productions by Shakespeare, Sheridan and Friel. On a rainy February morning, we discuss a scorching summer in the Hamptons, the contrasting setting for his part in the Donmar’s new play Welcome Home, Captain Fox!

London Calling: Welcome Home, Captain Fox! has just begun showing at the Donmar. It’s the stage debut of the work. How have rehearsals been going?

Rory Keenan: Yes, we started previews on Thursday. It’s going great, we had about five weeks of rehearsal. It’s a new version of a 1937 play. The story revolves around a man who returns to what he thinks - or what people assume - is his home, having been kept in isolation in a military hospital after the war and a German prison prior to that. This guy has no memory and is relying on everyone else to inform him who he actually is, and we’re not quite sure at the start if he is who other people say he is. It’s essentially a comedy about identity, and people’s expectations, and whether or not you can escape your own history.

LC: What do you think the effect is of transporting it from the original WWI setting to a hot summer in the Hamptons during the Cold War?

RK: I suppose, first and foremost, it’s useful to have it in an English-speaking country. The original play was French. I think he transposed the work to that area because it lends itself to the style of writing and performance. It’s very informed by Gene Wilder movies of that era, the wisecracking American style of performance. It was also a time - we’re talking 1959 - when there was a lot of uncertainty in America. It wasn’t long after the war, the Cold War was brewing and the relics of the McCarthy era were still around. It all builds this sense of uncertainty about where everybody was in their lives, and where America was on the world stage at that point, which feeds into the play, in which my character wonders who he is and why he’s there. Even visually, it’s very stylish to look at that era: to see women in those amazing dresses and hairstyles, and men looking very sharp in high-waisted suits.

LC: The play is loosely based on Jean Anouilh’s hit 1937 play Le Voyageur sans bagage. Did you read that as research for your character or do you prefer to have a blank canvas approach to a text?

RK: I didn’t read the original, no. This is one show where reading up wouldn’t help! My character knows nothing. I kind of avoided it though, knowing that the production I’m in is such a different one compared with the original.

LC: What’s it like playing a role in a comedy rather than a more serious play?

RK: Comedy is funny because unlike any other genre of theatre, you know if it’s working pretty much instantaneously. If people aren’t laughing then something isn’t right. Whereas with drama, you can never really tell what an audience is thinking. It’s lovely to play comedy in the Donmar, because people are so close to you and they really pick up on the little nuances of the play. It’s a nice space to play in.

LC: What was it like performing in Philadelphia, Here I Come! [by Irish playwright Brian Friel]? Did the themes resonate with you a lot, given that you’re an Irish emigrant?

RK: Brian Friel passed away last October and he was a playwright I was very familiar with, so it was lovely to act in his play in England, actually. It is all about leaving home and all that entails, as well as the act of communication. This new play is quite a different piece altogether!

LC: Would you ever be interested in appearing in any other Friel plays? Translations has a couple of really good male parts...

RK: Yes, it’s a lovely play. I’m very keen to see Faith Healer, which is going to be at the Donmar in June, directed by Lyndsey Turner, who directed me in Philadelphia... When I’m older, and brave enough, I’d like to tackle Faith Healer at some point.

LC: What roles would you love to play on stage?

RK: I never really kind of have an ideal role in mind, it’s more a mix of the right theatre team, the right venue, the right time, the right play... I try not to think about those things in isolation - if something good comes up, I see if I’d like to do it.

LC: What do you like to do in your free time in London? Any recommendations?

RK: I live in Camberwell and it’s a bit of a hot spot for food. There’s a great pub down the road from me, The Hermit’s Cave. Silk Road is a great Cantonese restaurant in the area, there’s a great Turkish one too, we’re kind of spoiled for choice. I prefer to stay local, there’s no need to go into town when the south east is so nice.

LC: What’s the best thing you’ve seen at the theatre recently?

RK: At the moment there’s a lot of stuff at the National I want to see - Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is meant to be really good. One of the curses of acting is that most performances are on at the same time I’m working. I only really have the chance to go on Sunday nights, and not all venues have shows then...I might have to stick to movies for now!

Rory’s play Welcome Home, Captain Fox! is at the Donmar until 16 April 2016.