Stephen Rea is not a man inclined to polite diplomacy. The Irish Independent is “a shocking newspaper”, he sighs on the phone after introductions. “The Irish Times can be unreadable as well,” he adds, launching into a critique of the national press before our interview even gets under way. But just as things seem about to turn sour, Rea reels himself back in. “Sorry, sorry,” he says playfully. Later, holding forth on the politics of famine, he apologises again. “I’m an awful bore, I know.”
Boring is not a word that would come to mind when describing the Dublin-based actor. At 72, he shows no sign of losing his fire, still combining a sharp interest in current affairs with a deep-set belief in the transformative potential of the arts. Whether talking about theatre, Brexit or Donald Trump, Rea can’t help but lay bare his own leanings. He credits the Russian drama theorist Konstantin Stanislavski as a formative influence in this regard.
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“Stanislavski talked about how actors should be connected to the politics and culture of the day,” he explains. “I read him years ago and thought at the time I had no clue about politics, but then I realised I was living in politics without even knowing it.”
Born into a working-class community in Belfast, Rea gravitated towards acting from a young age. He read English literature at Queen’s University before training at the Abbey Theatre School in Dublin, after which he moved to London, amassing a string of stage and TV credits.
In 1980, he turned his focus back on the North, founding the Field Day Theatre Company in Derry along with playwright Brian Friel as “a cultural and intellectual response” to the Troubles. The group toured throughout the country, premiering plays including Friel’s Translations, as well as establishing a publishing wing specialising in Irish history and culture.
“We felt the need to do something creative instead of just weeping and shouting about what was happening,” as Rea puts it now. “I think we did achieve something remarkable, in a way. People started to look to theatre for inspiration. I mean, we had people coming to theatre who had never gone to plays before.”
Field Day plans to mark its 40th anniversary next year with a festival involving artists and activists from across the world. Migrant rights will be a central theme: Kurdish-Iranian writer Behrouz Boochani, a detained refugee who won Australia’s biggest literary prize earlier this year, is among those mentioned as potential contributors. This is no time for complacency, Rea stresses: “I don’t want [the event] to be a nostalgic review of what happened in the 1980s. The world is in such a shambles, and we need to look to those parts of it with which we had little concern back then because of our own suffering.”
Still, the North is never far from his mind. Rea is a staunch critic of the DUP, holding it responsible for prolonging the current power-sharing deadlock at Stormont.
“There is a nostalgia there for the days of total power, which the unionists had for the first 50 years of the state. But what that total control involved was a one-party police state along with awful treatment of Catholic people.”
Arlene Foster’s party should, he contends, drop its opposition to the Irish Language Act sought by Sinn Féin.
“The DUP is looking to a Britain that is basically over,” he adds. “I mean, the Conservative Party is over. This [Tory leadership] election is about trying to save the Conservative Party. Don’t bother, I say. They’re awful.”
Rea made headlines last year for starring in a short film on the Irish border written by Clare Dwyer Hogg, in which he rebuked pro-Brexit Tories including Jacob Rees-Mogg and Boris Johnson. He remains deeply concerned about the potential fallout from the UK’s EU withdrawal, and not only for the North.
“The British are just tearing up everything that’s been good for them in the last few years,” he says. Has he been subject to any criticism across the water for his views? “No, no. All my friends there are more extreme than I am,” he chuckles. “I mean, they’re in despair because their children feel European. Most of the people I work with in Britain feel absolutely wedded to the idea of the EU.”
The Republic has serious problems of its own, Rea makes sure to note. “We can be smug here,” he says. “Of course it’s wonderful how much social progress has been made in the last few years, but let’s not forget about the 10,000 people who are now homeless. How can anyone feel comfortable with that?”
Government policy in the area has been weak, Rea argues. “Stop thinking about your friends who make money from property” is his counsel to those in charge. “There are lots of houses being built near where I live,” he adds, “but they’re for rich people.”
Direct Provision is another source of indignation.
“I don’t understand how a country that ought to understand migration can stick people in a holiday camp and treat them with such disrespect.”
Dublin will always remain home, though, whatever his own take on the state of Irish affairs.
“I didn’t want to bring my kids up in England or America,” he says. “I wanted them to have a connection to their own country.”
The actor has been famously private about his family life, particularly avoiding media questioning about his ex-wife, Dolours Price, a convicted IRA bomber who died in 2013. The couple were married for two decades before divorcing in 2003, but he has steered clear of commenting on her involvement in the Troubles.
While back in Ireland now for many years, Rea’s work continues to often take him overseas. Filming is currently ongoing for two UK-based TV projects. One is a Netflix series, called Stranger, where he takes up the role of a retired police detective.
The eight-episode thriller is being directed by two Irish directors, Daniel O’Hara and Hannah Quinn. Flesh and Blood, a four-part ITV drama, in which he plays the love interest of a recently widowed woman, is also in the works.
“I needed to do something different after Cyprus Avenue,” he says, referring to his part in David Ireland’s black comedy on Ulster unionism, which enjoyed sell-out runs in Dublin, Belfast, London and New York. “It was very taxing.”
The enthusiasm with which audiences approached new drama in the 1980s can sometimes feel missing in today’s Irish theatre scene, Rea admits, though he praises the recent direction of the Gate under Selina Cartmell.
“I understand theatre is terribly uninteresting at times,” he says, “but I always have hope because of our fantastic tradition and great writers.”
The final goal, for Rea, is always to hold power to account. “It sounds very pompous, doesn’t it? But any great art has to be about truth.”
Stephen Rea is a panellist and performer as part of Cultural Interventions, the 2019 Annual Meeting of the Consortium of Humanities Centres and Institutes (CHCI) hosted by the Trinity Long Room Hub Arts and Humanities Research Institute in Trinity College Dublin. Limited tickets (€5-€10) are available for today’s afternoon programme, in which Rea will be joined by leading academics. www.tcd.ie/trinitylongroomhub
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