A powerful adaptation of Colm Tóibín’s acclaimed novel The Blackwater Lightship will make its unmissable world premiere during Dublin Theatre Festival 2022.
As the play powerfully describes: “It’s ’90s Ireland and HIV/AIDS is still a terminal diagnosis. A sister, a mother and a grandmother, along with two gay friends, have come together to tend to 29 year-old Declan. Can this makeshift family unit face up to the illness and each other?”
The cast list for this stunning show includes Ruth McCabe as Dora, Karen Ardiff as Lily, Rachel O’Byrne as Helen, David Rawle as Declan, Donncha O’Dea as Larry, Will O’Connell as Paul, Billie Traynor as Essie.
We spoke with lead actor David Rawle and the director, David Horan, who also adapted the text, on the journey to bringing this essential story to the stage.
What inspired you to take on this role?
David Rawle: Colm Tóibín’s beautiful writing left such an impression on me that as soon as I read The Blackwater Lightship I knew I had to get involved. I loved the character and the complexity and truth of the relationships, they seemed utterly real to me.
What made you think The Blackwater Lightship would transfer successfully to the stage?
David Horan: Initially, I just thought it would make a great stage play. The book had really funny and surprising characters and difficult thorny relationships and I just wanted to see actors embody these roles. I wanted to hear audiences laugh out loud at these characters even when they’re in the most terrible situation – because that’s how Irish people handle tough times.
I thought Colm Tóibín had captured that really well and I thought the stage would only enhance it. But it was after the Marriage Referendum in 2015, and thinking about how far we’d come as a society in such a short time – it was barely 20 years after the events in this novel – that I kept thinking about the novel and sat down and started adapting it. Seeing it from the perspective of today only gives it more layers of meaning and resonance.
What do you find most challenging about embodying your character Declan?
David Rawle: Depicting the physicality of his illness was hard for me to find. It would be easy to do something that could look false and unspecific, but I wanted to find something that felt real to me.
What were the challenges in adapting the story for the theatre?
David Horan: It’s a different form, so you have to rebuild the thing from the ground up. You discover all the things you can’t do on stage that a novel does effortlessly – like expressing interiority and using that to create meaning, so less dramatic scenes can be engaging in a novel as they help you understand the characters more.
On stage, the dialogue has to stay active and dynamic while leaving space for the actors to create an inner life through thought and silence. There came a point where I felt real freedom once I knew how all these characters spoke to each other, slagged each other off and supported each other.
How has this show influenced you personally?
David Rawle: Because I was born after the show was set, there was so much in the research that I was totally unaware of. This area of social history is not taught widely. By educating myself, not only did I learn about the impact of the AIDS crisis on the gay community in Ireland, but I also became informed about an area of recent history that is still having an impact today.
What has been your favourite part about the experience?
David Horan: I love working with actors, so being in the rehearsal room for the last four weeks has been one long highlight. The entire cast is tremendously talented and you can feel everyone raising each other’s game. There’s been a lot of fun, despite the difficult subject matter, and that great communal spirit that comes when you feel there’s a truth there that we’re all after. We’re very excited to have an audience encounter the work now.
What do you think this show will mean for LGBTQ+ audiences?
David Rawle: I hope it will be meaningful to see the AIDS crisis in Ireland acknowledged on an Irish stage. I can’t think of many Irish films, TV shows or books that deal with this topic. I hope seeing this LGBTQ+ story portrayed in this way will help continue the much-needed conversations on how we as a country look after our LGBTQ+ citizens, acknowledging how far we’ve come, while also reminding us how far we have to go.
In your opinion, what is the overall message of the play?
David Horan: No play is about any one thing. And I’m suspicious of ‘messages’. But it’s something to do with generational trauma. With a silence that gets handed down. A difficulty we all encounter in expressing our true selves that’s looked at in a peculiarly Irish way in this story.
The ’90s was a time when Ireland was moving beyond old certainties, we were becoming sceptical of the church and institutions. The makeshift family unit that comes together in this play – Declan’s biological family having to compromise with his chosen family of gay friends from Dublin – represents a new society that I think we’re still working to understand and figure out how we should all live together.
The Blackwater Lightship will run in Draíocht Blanchardstown on Friday 23 and Saturday 24 September before transferring to the Gaiety Theatre from September 27 to October 2.
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