Belfast stage star Marty Rea: Culture is what defines us from all other living things

Marty Rea has become the toast of Dublin theatre and has again won a major national award for his acting. He tells Joanne Sweeney how seeing so many people from the north honoured at the recent Irish theatre awards really touched him

Marty Rea in Martin McDonagh's The Beauty Queen of Leenane Picture: Stephen Cummiskey
Marty Rea in Martin McDonagh's The Beauty Queen of Leenane Picture: Stephen Cummiskey

THEY say that behind every great man, there's a great woman and Irish stage star Marty Rea would happily give that honour to his former drama teacher Marie McQuillan.

The actor, who recently won his third Irish Times Theatre award, is one of several actors who hail from his former school, St Mary's Christian Brothers School in west Belfast, who are all currently doing well on the London and Dublin stages.

"Acting didn’t run in my family. Theatre wasn’t a big thing at home actually and I really wasn’t aware of it growing up at all," explains Rea, who is currently touring the island with the Druid theatre company's production of Waiting for Godot.

"That was until I went to school at St Mary's and met my brilliant drama teacher Marie McQuillan [the school's former head of drama] who's sadly no longer with us.

"There were a load of actors that came out of there directly because of her. I also had great English teachers who introduced me to Shakespeare which is really where my interest in the classics started."

The Fall actor Jonjo O'Neill, former Hollyoaks actor Gerard McCarthy – who is currently starring in the new London production of Tina, The Tina Turner Musical – and Tony Devlin, actor and Brassneck Theatre founder, all went to the same school.

Rea won a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (Rada) in London from 1999-2002 and has gone on to become a stalwart on the Dublin stage, appearing regularly at the Abbey and the Gate theatres.

He won Best Actor at the Irish Times Theatre Awards in 2013 in Tom Murphy's Whistle in the Dark, also again in 2016, for his Richard II (Druid Shakespeare). Then came this year’s Best Supporting Actor gong for his role as Nick Carraway in the Gate Theatre production of The Great Gatsby, as well for his role as Jemmy Maguire in Druid Theatre Company’s production of King of the Castle by Eugene McCabe.

Rea has also received several award nominations for his work in previous years. However, he says that the 2018 awards were even more special, representing, "one of the greatest years for northern Irish theatre ever".

"It touched me really deeply because I watched Ulster artist after Ulster artist walk up on the stage to collect an award," says Rea. "And I mean Ulster as a province as Rosaleen Linehan, who’s originally from Donegal, collected an award for Best Actress after decades of work and Eleanor Methven, who's originally from south Derry, received the special tribute for her work as a storyteller and challenging inequalities in Irish theatre."

Rea was also referring to the Lyric Theatre and Prime Cut joint production of Red by John Logan, which won Best Production; Set Design (Ciarán Bagnall from Belfast); Actor (Belfast actor Patrick O'Kane) and Director (Emma Jordan, also from west Belfast).

Moreover it's not just on the Dublin and Belfast stages that northern artists are excelling, as Co Tyrone actor Fra Fee recently scooped a prize at the WhatsOnStage Awards as best supporting actor for his role in Northern Ireland-set play The Ferryman, a huge West End hit last year.

And just nominated for an Oliver Award for Best Actress for her performance in The Ferryman is north Belfast woman Laura Donnelly, who's up against Oscar-nominated Lesley Manville and Bafta winner Imelda Staunton.

Donnelly starred in her partner Jez Butterworth's play about a family's experience of losing a family member as one of the Disappeared. The critically-acclaimed drama was inspired by Donnelly's maternal uncle, Eugene Simons, was taken from his home near Castlewellan, Co Down, by the IRA in January 1981. Three years later, his body was discovered by chance in a bog near Dundalk.

Rea is a theatre man through and through and says that's where his interest in acting really lies.

"I was told at Rada that I was a stage animal and I remember thinking, ‘What the hell does that mean? Does that mean that I’m going to be skint for the rest of my life?" he says.

"Any interesting stuff that comes into me either film or TV based I would obviously go for it but it just happens that, for me, the most interesting things that come to my door is theatre.

"I have a bigger understanding of theatre and stage work and I get very excited and inspired by it. It's an art form that’s constantly in my head. If I wasn’t working as an actor, I still would be thinking the same way."

Inspired at Rada by the work of actor Mark Rylance – then the first artistic director of Shakespeare's Globe theatre and since an Oscar winner for his role in Steven Spielberg's Bridge of Spies (2015) – Rea just adores Shakespeare.

While he won an Irish Times Theatre award for his Richard II in 2016, and played Iago in the Druid production of Othello with a strong Belfast accent, he aspires to taking on the role Macbeth one day, and that of John Proctor in The Crucible.

A fierce defender of culture, Rea urges people to support the arts at home.

"Culture and the arts is what define us as human beings and it seems to me that it’s under attack, like so many things in the north," adds Rea.

"Culture matters and I know that people don’t always think it’s important to our lives, but it really is. It’s what makes us different from every other living thing on the planet and we must continue to support our storytellers, our entertainers, our writers, singers, actors and artists.

"Now is one of the most exciting times to be an actor from the north. It gives us something to say back to the Arts Councils and government, particularly in the UK, that you have to sit up and notice us as we have more to offer."

:: Marty Rea will be performing in Waiting for Godot at Letterkenny's An Grianán Theatre from March 13-15.