Arts

Belfast actor Ian McElhinney directs new play at Grand Opera House

Ian McEllhinney and his cast are currently in rehearsal. Picture by Mark Marlow

LIFE, death and reincarnation are explored in playwright Marie Jones' latest show which premieres at Belfast's Grand Opera House next week.

Archy in Manhattan is the story of AR Chybowsky, a 1930's poet who dies only to come back re-incarnated as Archy the cockroach.

Described by its director, Belfast-born Game of Thrones, Derry Girls and Krypton star Ian McElhinney (husband of Marie), as a "little bit left-field", the show is a combination of philosophy and humour.

McElhinney (70), says the characters are based on those in Don Marquis's book Archy and Mehitabel, which was written in 1927.

"Archy was a cockroach, Mehitabel a cat," he tells me.

"It was the story of this man who had at one point been a poet. He ended up a cockroach in the offices of the New York Sun. Being a cockroach he couldn't do the upper-case and he couldn't do punctuation. Everything in this book is written in lower-case only with no punctuation.

"Marquis started writing a series of short story columns that would go out in the New York Sun at regular intervals. At some point he just put them together as a book, so there is no narrative as such.

"Marie read this book and loved it. For years she was thinking I'd love to develop that in some way into a play. So now she's done that. We have found a way to give it shape and tie some of those little independent tales together."

Ian McEllhinney in the director's chair for Archy in Manhattan at Grand Opera House, Belfast. Picture by Mark Marlow

Throughout the play, Archy encounters a diverse selections characters. According to McElhinney, one thing they all have in common is that, like Archy, they were once human – and have now come back re-incarnated as animals.

He says the play poses the question of whether or not we come back to life – and, if so, do we return as ourselves or something else.

"The characters are animals who were once people, so they think and talk like people," explains McElhinney, who has been hard at work in rehearsals with his cast, which includes son Matthew, Derry Girls co-star Tara Lynne O'Neill and fellow Game of Thrones alumni Michael Condron alongside veteran Belfast actor Dan Gordon, Abi McGibbon and Katie Tumelty.

"They have the intelligence and the humour and the imagination of people. There is transmigration of the soul and reincarnation. These people have returned but their karma if you like, is that they come back as different kinds of creatures.

"Their ability to think and to communicate is still that of someone who was once human. The play is really about what it like once you've come back in another life as something else and you are seeing life through the eyes of that something else.

"Be it a cat, a cockroach or a rat. You are back living life again, but in a different guise."

Matthew McEllhinney in rehearsal for Archy in Manhattan. Picture by Mark Marlow

The central character of Archy is played by Matthew McElhinney, who has followed his father down the acting route.

Although the director says the play is "a bit of a family project", McElhinney notes that the family don't work together that often.

"Marie and I only once in our lives have actually worked on stage together and that was like 30 years ago," he tells me.

"These days I tend to mostly do screen stuff, so usually I am off somewhere else working and Matthew and Marie are each working up little projects of their own.

"But we have done it and we have survived – and would have no problem doing it again."

Ian and son Matthew, who takes the lead role in the new play written by Marie Jones. Picture by Mark Marlow.

McElhinney senior was most recently seen on-screen as Granda Joe in Channel 4's award-winning comedy hit, Derry Girls, a second series of which is set to air next year.

His character has proved to be a favourite among viewers, something he gives writer Lisa McGee all the credit for:

"I loved it, I had a bit of fun with that," the veteran actor enthuses.

"The show went down well, I think people liked the character, so that was great. Lisa wrote us great material, it is easy when the material is good

"A lot of what I have done over the years have been dramas, so to do something comedic was fun and I am happy to do more of that. In fact, we *will* be doing more of that!"

After 40 years in the business, McElhinney has spent plenty of time on-screen and finally experienced global fame after landing the role of Barristan Selmy in HBO mega-hit Game of Thrones.

During the first half of his career however, the actor spent most of his time on stage.

"I love the stage," he says.

"I've kept my hand in it. More often than not by directing not acting on stage but that's just the way it goes. I've done quite a lot of classical stuff, Wilde and Shaw or stuff like that.

"I like directing because you've got to bring so many different elements together. It encourages you to think in a different way. If I’m not working on screen, then I like a change of pace and will direct a show."

Ian McEllhinney in the director's chair for Archy in Manhattan at Grand Opera House, Belfast. Picture by Mark Marlow

The cast of Archy in Manhattan have been rehearsing in the Baby Grand theatre of the Opera House, on the same stage where the play will premiere on Monday September 03.

According to McElhinney, it has been quite a challenge – but enjoyable none-the-less.

"There are a lot of different elements because it involves quite a lot of sound effects, visual effects and actual video effects," he explains.

"I've got a great cast, there are six actors in total. It's a great team of people. It's difficult, because we are working in what is limited space and you could see that as a disadvantage.

"The one way that it is actually interesting is that it prompts you to say 'well, what can we do given that we can't do big production changes?'."

He adds: "Right now, we are having a lot of fun."

:: Archy in Manhattan will run in Belfast's Grand Opera House from Monday September 03 to Saturday September 08 2018. For ticket prices and showtimes contact the box office on 028 9024 1919 or visit Goh.co.uk.

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