Arts

Dubliner Jimmy Fay on directing Belfast's Lyric theatre

Having been at the helm of Belfast's Lyric theatre since 2014, Dubliner Jimmy Fay is currently directing a play there about Joan of Arc. He tells Joanne Sweeney about dramatic and box-office success and his love for the Lagan-side venue

The Lyric theatre's executive producer and director of St Joan Jimmy Fay Picture: Hugh Russell

MORE than two years after Jimmy Fay took over as the Lyric theatre's first executive producer, he is back in his beloved director's chair, helming a contemporary retelling of the Joan of Arc story.

But if you're expecting medieval costumes and armour and a burning stake, think again; this production of the George Bernard Shaw play – which has already received a full house standing ovation on its opening night – has had a shot of the 21st century injected into it, its setting a contemporary office.

The story centres on the well-known historical figure, a peasant girl in medieval France who believed that God called her to lead her country to victory in its long-running war against England.

Having been 'hearing God's voice' since her early teens and despite having no military training, in the early 1400s Joan led a French army to victory over the English at the besieged city of Orleans. However, as both the English and French feared her becoming too powerful, she was captured, tried for witchcraft and heresy and burned at the stake, aged 19.

As with Shaw and many others before and since, it's a story that intrigues Fay.

"It's a play that I really wanted to do as it grapples with relevant themes," the Dubliner told me. "I chose it as I knew it would chime with 2016, even though it was about a figure from the 15th century. I think that what's brilliant is that this play feels very relevant and right up to date. It doesn't feel like it's lost in the past."

In fact Fay sees 'the Maid of Orleans' as she is known in France to this day, as comparable modern women who take a stand against major powers, such as the Church or the state.

"This play is clearly about 'now' and Joan is really rebelling against this sense of feudalism and patriarchal hierarchy as she's basically rebelling against men and the order they have put in; she reminds me of people like Sinead O'Connor and Pussy Riot," he says.

"The setting really helps as you are still watching something based in the 15th century, written in the 20th century and placed in a 21st century office. The whole idea of revolution in the midst of it, Joan upsetting the established order, the order saying that 'she's a bit mad and will lead to chaos' – there's real argument in the play.

"Corporations like the state or the Church will always go against the individual; the individual can't win. But you will always have rebellion against it."

The set by award-winning designer Grace Smart adds that extra dimension, along with stunning performances from Belfast actor Lisa Dwyer Hogg as Joan and Alan McKee – one half of comedy duo Grimes and McKee – who Fay says "acts his socks off" in St Joan.

The production is typical of the edgy yet classic stage plays that Fay and his team have brought to the Lyric since 2014 – and it's a strategy that appears to be winning at the box office. Ticket sales for all shows at the Lyric were up by more than half a million pounds in 2015/16 compared to the previous financial year.

But the 47-year-old is pragmatic about the impressive numbers.

"I want the Lyric to be an inquisitive theatre so it's not always about the box office. It's about engaging with themes that are current and interesting our patrons and audience," he says.

"My whole thing is for the Lyric not just to be a BT9 theatre," he says, referring to leafy south Belfast, where the Lyric is located. "That our audience know there are stories can be told here and actors can use it as a springboard and go elsewhere.

"I really do get the sense that theatre is important to Belfast and for a small population, you do take your theatre seriously."

Fast-talking and ever enthusiastic, it feels like Fay is on a mission for the Lyric but more as a producer and curator than director.

"The Lyric is my complete love at the moment and I love working here," he tells me. The problem is sometimes when you are called 'executive producer' and being away from the rehearsal room, is that you lose contact with it so it's good to plug back into it.

"But I wouldn't direct more than one play a year. Directing is what I've always done but my feeling now is that I do direct the building. I choose the shows that we put on and find directors for them."

Fay had been a regular director at Dublin's Abbey Theatre for about 12 years but he's now well settled into Belfast life. His wife Amanda and nine-year-old son Daniel moved up from Dublin when he was appointed to his present role.

Aside for his own directing of St Joan, Fay is determined to establish the Lyric as one of the top theatres beyond the island of Ireland.

"My big thing in 2015 was to establish the Lyric Belfast more in Dublin and we did that with [Brian Friel's] Dancing At Lughnasa and [Conor McPherson's] The Night Alive which we brought to the [Dublin's] Gaiety theatre," he says.

"Now it's time to look towards London. But there's a balance to be kept as the main thing that the Lyric serves is Belfast and those around the whole of the north."

:: St Joan by George Bernard Shaw, directed by Jimmy Fay, is at the Lyric theatre until October 8. See www.lyrictheatre.co.uk

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