Rogues & Vagabonds

theatre, film & tv past and present 2001-2008 & 2013…

Archive Interview • MICHAEL DUKE • Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme • 2003


The Trouble with Puttees

Hi, Michael, thanks for agreeing to the interview, you’re on speakerphone so it might sound a bit strange.

It sounds like you’re being held captive somewhere!

I probably will be after this interview. Michael, what was the catalyst bringing this production together?

I think Paula McFetridge [artistic director at the Lyric] was the catalyst in the first place; it’s been thirteen years since it’s been done up here. It’s also – and this might be one to check – it’s a full Ulster cast and I don’t think that’s happened before, but I think she really wanted to produce it, felt it would be very relevant with us being on the brink of war, just as a chance to look at this big area of the Protestant identity, and so on, with what’s happening in the north and in Ireland indeed, so both in terms of where we stand in Ireland and where we stand with a big war looming — I think those might have been factors. Also, it’s a classic of the modern Irish canon and hasn’t been done for thirteen years. But then once she’d decided to start doing that, Frank then decided he wanted to do some rewrites. We’re privileged to be doing a version that hasn’t been done before.

I didn’t realise that.

Yes, Frank surprised us all.

So where do the rewrites come in, how relevant are they?

They are edits and little nudges for clarity, it hasn’t wildly changed what’s going on. The honour for us, really, is that after watching it for seventeen years or so, he’s decided he’s going to trust us with doing what he thinks would be a slightly better edit.

Are the edits large enough to effect the overall timing?

No not really, it’s still the big beast that it always was – don’t quote me on that!

You’re being recorded actually.

Ah well, I’ll deny that! Someone else burst into the room. No, the timing is about the same, the monologue at the start is just a couple of minutes shorter. I think he’s made smart edits in that actually — not just in the time but in the structure — I think it plays better now. I’ve done the show once before in Scotland.

The first time you read it or saw it?

I remember my family talking about it when I was living away from home and I think they must have mentioned it around the time it was first done at The Abbey and they were knocked out by it and so I read it. I’ve never seen it other than the production I did in Scotland.

So you never saw the production they filmed for television?

I wasn’t aware there was a television version.

The BBC filmed a production in Glasgow. That wouldn’t be my favourite version of it: great play, but the direction didn’t do it for me. I’m probably putting my foot in it here, as I can’t remember who directed it, but speaking to other people, they too commented on the lacklustre direction. I have a fascination with WW1. Years ago, late seventies, early eighties, I used to speak and try and record anecdotes, or whatever, some of the old soldiers I met used to tell me, including a couple of the men that were there on the first day of The Somme. I’m glad I taped what I could and made notes as those men are all gone now and we’re now losing very quickly the men that were in that war. That’s why I’m probably a fussy bugger when it comes to anything representing WW1!

You know there seems to be a lot…it’s funny when moments come together like this, there’s been a lot of First World War stuff on TV recently, that programme The Trench

I was about to say, have you seen The Trench?

No, we’ve been rehearsing quite late some nights, but one of the lads is recording it for me, are there two or three episodes or something?

I think there are six.

Some of the guys refer to it occasionally when we’re rehearsing.

I know the people who were involved in that, they are advisors to the film, theatre and television industry on military dress, drill etc. They’re absolute experts on the First World War. Did you have any advisors on your production, on military detail etc?

The designer would have researched thoroughly. I’ve seen some of the books and pictures and so on he’s been bringing in and he’s brought into his design, and stage management would do that automatically as they source props, so I honestly don’t know if they’ve taken specific advice other than The Somme Heritage Centre which is just outside Belfast. We all went there as a company, I thought it would be good for everyone to go together and I know they’ve been regularly in touch with The Somme Heritage Centre and they’ve been very helpful indeed.

What strikes me about the First World War, and plays, books programmes etc about The First World War, is that it’s like a First World War bandwagon. I actually pulled away from it all myself as some people seem to be revelling in other people’s misery, but it does annoy me that a lot of people want to revel in what they see as the romance of it, they want to see these stereotypes, and the clichéd situations of men in muddy trenches suffering — always with a southern English accent, which annoys me as well, do you find that?

Yes. I think that’s to some degree true of war, there’s so much around. Just because it’s an Irish play I’m going to mention this: there’s such a weight of things during the troubles here, there’s so many thrillers made that exploit what was going on rather than exploring it in any way and — call them Balaclava westerns — but just stories that use killings as big plot turns and great oppositions between republicans and loyalists as a way to make a…

…a fast buck…

…and, I suppose, give them a good backdrop for a thriller and when all that’s being done it puts people off trying to write anything of any weight, actually dealing with it or exploring it, and I can see that with First World War stuff and I guess Frank did as well. If you look at the first speech in it, the first thing the guy says — talking to God out loud — is that he’s not going to remember anymore, he’s not going to say what the details are, he hates the whole idea of remembering and parading it: ‘I will not parade their suffering for the benefit of others’, and then in spite of himself begins to remember. Reading that, I can only imagine Frank was aware of exactly what you’re raising.

This play must be quite a feat for a director, quite a thing to take on?

Er…it’s huge, it’s absolutely huge, in some ways…you know, we have a good company, a very strong company and I think casting the play well is half the battle, but to have a company this good and text this good, in some ways you just have to turn up. But there are some things that are very technically difficult, just in terms of the staging of it.

Oh do tell, I’m always fascinated by technical difficulties that have to be overcome.

Eight lads arrive after the monologue, in the initiation thing when they’re arriving into the barracks; they’ve got to make beds and put on uniforms, including the puttees and they’ll start doing it and then realise they’re supposed to be somewhere else to have a moment with somebody, and where they have to be speaking to certain people defines when they can put the uniform on and you can’t do any of it without rehearsing with the whole kit and caboodle. We were working on this yesterday and you just take a deep breath and go in and hope you’ve had some foresight and your concentration is going to pay off and so on and you get two thirds the way through and it’s all going along beautifully and then you realise ‘oh fuck, he can’t be there if he’s going to be there cos’ that guy’s standing with no trousers on’. We had a big strong exit out of the room yesterday and he went out with one of his puttees trailing behind him that just made the whole thing look ridiculous! Ah, you just have to reset back if something does go wrong, then you need to say, ‘everything worked up to this point’, so you need to go back, people have to go back and work out what they were wearing at the time and how far they’d unpacked their kitbag and made their bed and…

…It’s quite a feat, isn’t it, for the actors, to get all the technical detail and concentrate on that rich language as well. Good God! I was just thinking of those puttees, they’re the most difficult things to put on properly and look as if you know what you’re doing.

Well there’s…we’ve sort of differentiated in the characters. John Millen, who’s talked about being a commander of the north county Derry Battalion, the UVF, he had to be good at it, so that actor just has to look like he’s good at it. He’s in there practising now, puttee practice…

…And they’re horrible things as well…

…Yes, they all get to the end of the day and even without the lice, their legs are itched awful.

When you think of the uniforms the men had in those conditions — where did you get the uniforms from actually?

We had them shipped over, hang on one second and I’ll just find out for you… Torbay Costume Hire.

What were your first impressions when you read the play for the first time?

I was absolutely riveted, and moved, I couldn’t believe what I’d just read. I actually had to be somewhere else. I started to read it in a half an hour before going somewhere else. I just intended to read a wee bit of it and I ended up being very late ‘cos I was completely transfixed by it, it was stunning.

What made you want to direct it – apart from the fact that it’s a fucking fantastic play with some healthy sub text going on there and beautifully written — apart from all that! — why did you want to direct it?

Well, that was most of it really! Part of… it’s fantastic getting to do it here, I must say. It was also part of my motivation at the time — I was associate director at Dundee at the time (Dundee Rep) and I suppose I felt that there’s an awful lot that people see that allows them to go away with the impression that all we write about, all we make over here, are those sort of thriller plot things I was mentioning earlier, and I really wanted people to see this great work that was Irish, that was a facet of Ireland that’s not often seen. Scotland has some points of identification with what happens over here, more in the west coast really, but I felt proud of it by association if you know what I mean, that this has come out of Ireland and people need to see it. They just think it’s Sean O’Casey and then the Balaclava westerns and…

…Samuel Beckett?

Well, for people who don’t go to the theatre an awful lot, you know, they don’t have many colours in their palette when they think of what… our way of talking, to each other and the world, about who we are and what identifies us as Irish and what our history is, so I felt it was an opportunity to state something over there that would blow people away really…

I, like many people, don’t really understand what are called the problems of Northern Ireland. I understand bits and pieces, but the pieces never seem to make a whole but I guess, unless you live there and have grown up with it, you’re never going to get a full understanding of what’s behind it all. I have tried reading about it, but there are so many factors; I can’t get it all together and I know there are many people like that… do you think this play, at least partly, brings out some of what’s behind?

To some extent. I don’t know that it explains it, but what you said about not understanding Ireland is, in a way, what’s required to understand it, just the… when you say that there’s so many different facets to it, that goes a long way to beginning to understand it. The problem, or part of the problem, is that people want binary simplicities about it and it’s not like that. The complexities…the whole point is the complexity in a sense, and I don’t think anybody here has any difficulty with people who begin from that standpoint. It’s the… in the late seventies early eighties I was told so often by strangers travelling…I went to university in Aberdeen and travelled a lot to London…so I made many journeys getting trapped beside people who would inevitably — as soon as they knew I was Irish — tell me how it could all be sorted out by putting one side or other, depending on what side they were on, up against a wall and shooting them. I just heard that over and over again until I got to the point where I thought, I’m not speaking to you fuckers.

Yeah, I worked in London at that time and at one of the places I worked we had an Irish girl working there. Everything was fine until a bomb went off three streets away and for the next four months she was sent to Coventry, I was the only one to speak to her. But can you imagine? Four months?

Horrendous, oh yes, I can quite believe… The play gives us a whole new facet on that and something wiser because it’s talking about a period of time where…this wasn’t an army of conscripts, these men joined up and they were prepared to die for an idea, which is fascinating really, in itself, just that people would do that, because previous armies were conscripted armies and didn’t have an option, but these people chose on masse to come and do this because they believed that there’d be a good outcome from it and — it’s pre-partition, so it’s pre the existence of the statelet of Northern Ireland, so when the older Pyper talks at the start about coming home and ‘I at least continued your work in this province’… [Laughs] Paula McFetridge [Laughs] is yawning at me through the glass door. I’ve completely lost the thought now… She knows I’m talking to you so there’s a big yawn!

I didn’t think I was that bad!

No, she can’t hear you – it’s me she’s having a go at! Oh, where were we… it’s pre-partition, you see — all the thoughts of what they hoped would come out of it… some of the people who survived the blood sacrifice on the Somme felt duty-bound to make sure those deaths were not for nothing, and so in that you can see, when he says things like no surrender and so on, and when you hear some of the phrases that people would have heard in the mid-sixties and seventies, through the start of the most recent troubles, and then you see in the play where that came from, yeah, you can to some degree see, when you get to love these men on their way through the story, you can sort of imagine why people would come back from that battle and have to make their lives around making sure it wasn’t in vain…

…but sadly…

…but sadly. I think one of the other reasons why I like it as this Irish classic is that it has other themes other than just that. It lets that sit, it lets them be who they are and say what it is they want to say and what he’s also exploring is this thing of joining up for an idea or of dying for each other and the love between men, that complexity in the writing…

…Oh, he’s such a bloody good writer, isn’t he?!

Yes. I don’t get star struck or anything like that… I had to phone Frank, he wasn’t in rehearsals, he’s coming up to see a run next Friday, you know, and he’d send through these rewrites, in his own hand. He’d cut things, you know, just putting lines through text he didn’t want anymore. I was holding these rewrites and you might just as well as given me George Best’s football boots… And then I had to phone him to talk about — and I don’t normally experience that, but this time! Oh my God — so exciting.

I understand, I’d be the same with Harold Pinter. I could kiss the feet of Harold Pinter and make a complete arse of myself.

Ah ha! Well you know what I mean then!

I do! He’s one of my heroes. People will be reading this with a smirk on their faces now but you know…

I do, sound politics and an excellent writer.

I love Beckett’s work though. I can get so much out of his work. In the theatre, he’s the man for me. Would you ever direct a Beckett?

I would like to direct a Beckett, yeah. Oh, yes. There’s Irish works that Irish want to do and Beckett’s one of them. I love Waiting for Godot.

That’s one of my top five plays.

I would love to have a crack at that.

Well, I’m going to see it when you do, so bring it over here. You’re writing a play for Tinderbox T.C. There’s no other way of saying this, and I hate it when people ask me this: what is it about?

It’s a comedy first of all, and it’s surreal. It’s set in a crumbling old country house where all of the workers on this estate are slowly assembling to meet the new owners and as they gather — I’ll cut a long story short here — we get to see that they have many little fights and bitternesses between them; who did what to who when, who got the maid pregnant…many things about a staff that have been together and fighting with each other for too long. And there’s another big posh estate further down the road that some of them have left and gone to, who are mentioned although we never see them. As they wait for the new owners to appear, some of these still live divisions between them are played out, and then we start to realise that actually they don’t all have a shared sense of what it was that happened between them and eventually they don’t even know exactly why they have this appointment to be here tonight. Gradually the tension of not being able to agree on the past and not knowing exactly why they’re there, playing on the differences that are already between, them gets them into a bit of a frenzy by the time they realise that no-one is coming, in fact, and they’re the new owners, that they’ve inherited the estate. So in that frenzy, they have to work out how they’re going to do that. So it’s a bit of a surreal comedy, my way of trying to deal with where we are now in some way that’s not writing a play set in Stormont about the executive, all that sort of thing.

I like that last comment. And this will be…

That will probably be staged next year.

Will it tour maybe? Bring it over here.

I certainly hope, yes, there is a possibility of things touring. The vibrant Irish culture… I mean… the Irish flavour of the month lasted for a few years over there…

…which annoyed a lot of people, I have to say. The word was that if you were Irish with an Irish play you would be in there, would you agree on that?

Oh yes. With any flavour of the month, you sit back… I mean for us over here, we’re going ‘there’s a fucking backlash coming after this’ and I don’t think it ever achieves some of what it could achieve from a northern point of view, from an all-Ireland point of view. I think some…I think we were a bit under-represented in all of that. It’s almost as if it went ‘Right, you’re the thriller people, but we’re not interested in the diddley-diddley-dee people, and they’re the good ones, they’re the nice ones and we can play the pan pipes when we’re showing movies with them in it and all that Celtic twilight bollocks!

You and me get on!!!

So we did understand that feeling you’re talking about, and there’s a danger in the same way that there’s a tourist Ireland. There’s also an Ireland that we make for export.

Like Braveheart country in Scotland. Have you seen all the brown signs saying ‘Braveheart Country’.

Yes, William Wallace territory. I think that was filmed over here actually!

Yes, but we can’t go round exploding myths, Michael! I’ve noticed that this play is on for a month — have I got that right?

Yes, three and a half weeks I think, it’s a long run.

Dreamland. That would be rare over here. You must have loyal theatre goers over there.

I think there’s a bravery now in the Lyric that’s admirable. They’ve just had Christmas Eve Can Kill You, the Marie Jones play that sold out, and straight after that another Marie Jones play that’s now in Australia called A Night in November. They get a big audience… and having them laugh and cry, the work’s accessible and it’s very popular locally. It’s great to be in a theatre where the policy is… [you] can combine something as accessible as that with something as complex as Frank McGuiness.

It sounds like a dream. Over here, to a great extent, they push Shakespeare, panto, Godber and Aykbourn at you at every opportunity. The brave ones do something different. Before we go, Michael, what do you think of TV drama at the moment?

I don’t see a lot. After I’d finished my period in Dundee, I went freelance again after that, all my work ahead, for about nine months was anywhere but Dundee, so I just travelled with the work at that time. I gave up the flat that I had and that was about four years ago and I haven’t really had a base since. So I travel round working here and there, in America sometimes, Europe, so consequently I’m hopeless at following anything on TV.

Michael, let me tell you something: you’re not missing anything. TV drama has turned into crap. I’m old enough to remember Play For Today, The Wednesday Play etc…

…I am too, I loved that.

Michael, thanks for your time. Hope all goes well with the play — and your puttees stay up.

Thank you very much, cheers.

Lynne Harvey © 2003

Originally published on R&V 01-02-03

3 comments on “Archive Interview • MICHAEL DUKE • Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme • 2003

  1. beetleypete

    Ah, The Wednesday Play…
    And ‘Play for Today’ introduced so many new talents to us at the time, both acting and writing. That said, I have a lot of time for Poliakoff, though it is fashionable to knock him these days. I think his TV dramas are usually excellent. In fact, ‘Shooting The Past’ was (and is) one of my favoutrite things ever. I still recommend it, to anyone who will listen.
    Best wishes, Pete. x

  2. First Night Design

    I couldn’t cope with Poliakoff’s most recent outing. I loved Shooting the Past.

  3. beetleypete

    I did manage the last one, despite the strange accent of the leading man.

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