Duty calls for Co Fermanagh actor and arts lover Adrian Dunbar
Adrian Dunbar brings a special Seamus Heaney-inspired performance to the HeaneyHomeplace in Bellaghy this month. David Roy spoke to the Co Fermanagh-born actor about what he has in store, his success with Line of Duty and celebrating Irish literary talent at Frielfest and Happy Days
ALTHOUGH he's been based in London for almost 40 years now, Co Fermanagh-born actor Adrian Dunbar returns to the north regularly to shoot the hit cop show Line of Duty and pursue other artistic endeavours.
On August 19 Dunbar (59) will be taking part in a unique event at the Seamus Heaney HomePlace in Bellaghy, where the Enniskillen man will create a new original work inspired by the late Nobel Prize-winning Co Derry poet's TS Eliot Prize-winning 2006 collection District & Circle.
It opens with The Turnip Snedder, a deliciously vivid description of a vintage farming implement: however, it also includes the Horatio-inspired, anxiety-fuelled Anything Can Happen, with its pointed September 11-references and the urban existentialism of its titular London Underground-set sequence of sonnets completed in the wake of the 7/7 London bombings.
Dunbar, whose CV includes films such as The Crying Game, Hear My Song (he also co-wrote its Bafta-nominated screenplay) and The General, explains he still isn't entirely sure what form his imminent performance will take.
"I'm still working my way through the poems," the actor told me earlier this week. "I wasn't familiar with this particular collection, so it's been good fun looking at it. Obviously, within Heaney's work there's lots of things you can talk about and plenty to think about in terms of places to 'step-off' from.
"I'm weaving my way through and picking a few poems that I have responded to most. I'm trying to find a flow through the whole thing."
Having been raised amid the greenery of Co Fermanagh before the moving to England to study at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London, where he still lives with wife Anna Nygh, Dunbar seems like a good 'fit' for recognising and responding to District & Circle's mix of rural and urban imagery.
"There are certain places where he identifies situations and feelings that are familiar to me," he confirms. "That's interesting: it's bringing up all sorts of musings on the past and the present."
While there are already rumours that Dunbar's Performance Response piece may feature original songs – a possibility that will come as no surprise to those who caught his occasional trad band Adie and The Jonahs in action a few years ago – for the moment, he's playing his cards close to his chest.
"The brief is quite abstract as to what you might do, which is interesting," he offers. "You can literally do anything. I'm just hoping to get an audience there."
As he approaches 60, the Co Fermanagh Thesp has never been more in demand. Along with playing Superintendent Ted Hastings in the Belfast-filmed TV smash Line of Duty – now entering its fifth series – viewers recently saw Dunbar donning a rather different uniform for his role in Jimmy McGovern's acclaimed BBC priest drama, Broken.
He has also been kept busy on stage in productions such as the hit play Brendan at The Chelsea (penned by Brendan Behan's niece, Janet), which found Dunbar winning plaudits for both his directing and his performance in the title role at the Lyric in Belfast and off-Broadway at the Acorn Theatre in New York.
Since 2012, Dunbar has returned to his hometown each year for the Happy Days Enniskillen International Beckett Festival, a week-long celebration of the Dublin playwright who spent his formative years as a boarder at Portora Royal School.
Due to a loss of Arts Council funding last year, a series of Happy Days events took place in Paris instead of Enniskillen. However, Happy Days is back in Co Fermanagh for 2017 with a streamlined programme between August 31 and September 3.
"It's been greatly reduced," confirms Dunbar. "It's all being done on a shoestring over one weekend.
"I'm doing two productions that I've done there before, Ohio Impromptu on Devenish Island and Catastrophe in a secret location in the town.
"There's still a huge demand to see these events: only 24 people can see Ohio at any one time, and we always sell out."
Despite funding setbacks, the Ennniskillen native remains optimistic that Happy Days will indeed be here again.
"Hopefully next year, when there's money around again, the Arts Council might be able to fund something which has got real legs, I think.
"These are really special, unique cultural events that happen in incredible locations. They offer insight into Samuel Beckett to people who are coming from all over the world to be there.
"There's no doubt that when they come to Enniskillen, they start to get a sense of how its landscape and environment affected his early life."
He adds: "One of the great things for me about doing Happy Days is that nobody ever asks me why I'm back: when they see me, they know I'm there for the festival."
Dunbar will also be lending his directing skills to this year's Frielfest, taking the helm for five recitals of The Odyssey by Brian Friel's beloved Homer – each staged on a different Co Donegal beach between August 24 and 28.
"I think it's probably the first cross-border festival in Ireland," Dunbar says of Frielfest's events in Derry, Donegal and Omagh, programmed by Seán Doran and Liam Brown, the duo also behind Happy Days and the Heaney HomePlace.
"It's curated really well and there are some really beautiful events. They've also come up with this really interesting new idea called The Northern Literary Lands, which will gather together all the major writers with connections to the nine counties of Ulster – and maybe even dipping into Louth a bit as well.
"We hope that The Clinton Centre and Higher Bridges Gallery in Enniskillen might become the contact point for people in the north-west to find out where they go to access Kavanagh, Yeats, Heaney, Wilde, Beckett and so on."
He adds: "I think it's vitally important that we keep these cultural events west of the Bann going."
Upcoming projects for the Northern Ireland star include directing his Line of Duty co-star (and former London flatmate) Neil Morrissey in an episode of Jimmy McGovern's BBC anthology drama series Moving On and the much anticipated return of Supt Ted Hastings to our screens.
Currently being written by showrunner Jed Mercurio, series five of Line of Duty won't be seen until 2018, which means an agonising wait for Dunbar's now hugely expanded fanbase to discover whether his top cop has actually been crooked all along.
However, even the actor himself does not yet know the truth.
"The twists and turns are just as big a surprise to us when they come," explains Dunbar.
"Jed keeps his cards very close to his chest and we don't have any discussions with him about what's going to happen. The first we'll know is when we see [the script for] episode one about two months out from shooting.
"Then we'll all be phoning each other up saying 'Where the hell is this going?', just like everybody else.
"But we'd do well not to try to second-guess Jed. You just keep your fingers crossed that he likes you enough not to decide to kill you off!"
:: Adrian Dunbar, Reflections on District & Circle by Seamus Heaney, Saturday August 19, Seamus Heaney HomePlace, Bellaghy. Tickets £15 via Seamusheaneyhome.com. Full details of Frielfest and Happy Days programmes available at Artsoverborders.com.