Growing up in West Cork provided plenty of inspiration for actor and playwright John McCarthy. He tells Ellie Byrne how travelling around to farms with his dad as a kid gave him a lifelong fascination with people and their stories
WHILE some of us used lockdowns as an excuse to faff around, West Cork born actor, director and playwright John McCarthy embarked on a hugely ambitious creative project; writing, rehearsing and performing his beautifully intriguing one-man show, CITY.
It was filmed at the Everyman Theatre over five days in April and large numbers got to enjoy the performance from their homes when it was recently streamed.
I watched it from my kitchen table, which while not quite the full theatre experience, it still allowed an insight into the intricacies and nuances of John’s stage craft, of his subtle changes in tone and expression as he hops between the various characters he’s created in CITY. I was interested to hear the background to the play and the process of adapting it for an on-line audience but began by asking John how it was to perform to an empty auditorium.
‘When we finally got into the Everyman after months of mostly Zoom rehearsals, it felt very strange,’ he said. ‘I’m so used to performing to an audience in that particular theatre, so not having any reaction felt very odd.’ However John is hugely effusive about how director Niall Cleary made the experience less disconcerting.
‘Largely thanks to Niall and his attention to detail, I got used to speaking directly to camera and focussing on trying to imagine someone was watching,’ he explains.
John also credits him with much of the success in making the play accessible to a remote audience.
Given that some of the play was written in the Covid era, there are resonances which loads of us will associate with.
‘I wasn’t consciously referencing Covid or lockdown, but taking from my own experience and writing about someone basically talking to themself would resonate with mine and many peoples’ experiences of not having an outlet for creativity,’ he said.
There are many laugh out loud scenes. One in particular was a two-way conversation he has about the monotony of cooking dinner: ‘I’m not having spaghetti again cause it’s pasta every night with you. That’s like the only thing you ever looked up how to do. I didn’t look it up. I just know. You just know? Everyone knows pasta. But it isn’t stirring up much for our date night is it?’
Others too, such as the story of the Fearless Frogman in Cape Clear. I presumed this character was a fictional creation of John’s, but in fact he was a real person.
‘I came across the story some years ago when researching for another show I was making on Cape Clear,’ he said. The Frogman’s real name was Paul Boyton and he was born in Co Kildare in 1848. How he ended up in the water off Cape Clear after jumping from an American steam liner and rowing to Baltimore to conduct a press conference is quite the story.
‘I was drawn to the ridiculousness and the comedy of the story at first but revisiting it during lockdown the humanity of Boyton came across strongly,’ explains John. The play puts a spotlight on Frogman’s extraordinary tale and why Cape Clear and Baltimore were the epicentre of news media in Europe in the 19th century.
The West Cork theme continues as it’s where John started life.
‘I lived in Ballinascarthy, outside Clonakilty for the first seven years of my life and my sister lives there. My grandfather, also John McCarthy had a newsagents there, which only closed recently.
‘My father (another John) and my uncle Dave played football for Clonakilty and my dad was the District Veterinary Officer for West Cork in the Dept. of Agriculture.
‘Travelling around with my dad to many farms as he tested cattle when I was young gave me a lifelong fascination with people and their stories. And growing up in West Cork made me an outsider to the city in a way that’s always stuck, allowing me to look at the city from a different angle, even as I live here.’
Observing a city from the outside is a theme central to the play. As John says: ‘CITY is performed from the inside out, using 14 intersecting streets, three time periods and a stretch of bog in the midlands. With occasional nineteenth century ocean-liners. This is a show about the weight of a lifetime’s discarded stories and about keeping going, even when the shop lights are off and the last taxi’s long gone.’
I wondered if John thought that on-line theatre performances which have been a necessity during lockdown, might in fact have some more long-term appeal, or would he miss the adrenaline of performing for a live audience too much?
‘I’d like to think we could do both. I love the idea of making theatre available to people who otherwise wouldn’t be able to access it.
‘On-line performances also have a potentially larger audience reach which is always a good thing to aspire to.’