For television fans, one of the most memorable — and horrifying — moments of 2013 was the Red Wedding, a [SPOILER ALERT] post-nuptial massacre that wiped out nearly an entire family on the hit HBO series Game of Thrones. In a sequence full of neck-cutting and blood-spurting, it was Michael McElhatton as Roose Bolton, uttering "The Lannisters send their regards" right before he stabs Robb Stark in the heart, that chills the most.
In Conor McPherson's drama The Night Alive, currently running at off-Broadway's Atlantic Theater Company through February 2, McElhatton moves from murderer to unwitting victim. As Doc, the simple-minded pal of Ciarán Hinds' down-on-his-luck Tommy, McElhatton is brutally attacked onstage night after night — and this veteran of McPherson's dramas Shining City and The Seafarer is loving every minute of it.
TheaterMania chatted with McElhatton about his experiences taking the play to New York from London's Donmar Warehouse. He also spoke of his attraction to the humanity in McPherson's work, and how violence, when done well, is extremely satisfying.
This is your first time working in New York City?
It is, yeah. I'm absolutely loving it…Snow…New York…It's a joy. It's great to do the play in an intimate space. That play in a bigger theater would be lost. Certainly in the Donmar, it was like you were in the room with the actors.
Was the transfer planned from the beginning?
Nothing is guaranteed. In the [Conor McPherson plays] that I've done, Shining City was about to transfer and it didn't; The Seafarer, two of them [Jim Norton and Conleith Hill] got to come. I don't think anything is ever planned unless you've got a big, big movie star in it.
What attracts you to McPherson's work?
The people he writes about…His dialogue is the best…I love the humanity of the stories. I think that's what connects with people. That's what you want to do as an actor and as an artist: move an audience. Conor has that amazing ability to do that with a line or two. He writes about the human spirit in an amazing way. He's an incredibly funny writer, as well. There's a huge amount of comedy in this and The Seafarer.
Tell me about your character, Doc. How do you view him?
He's a total innocent who relies on Tommy for everything. He's not as utterly dumb as he's portrayed to be; he's smarter than that. I don't think he can cope with the world. In his simplest form, he's a child. That's why it's so wonderful working with Ciarán [Hinds], making that relationship believable. They stick together.
Knowing McPherson's plays, I have to say — I didn't expect the violence that your character experiences. It was brutal to watch.
I love it. I've absolutely loved it from the minute we saw that it was written in. I thought, "This is gonna be brilliant. This is gonna work." We've all seen so many plays where there's brilliant acting and suddenly there's so many dreadful punches that it takes you out of the moment, or somebody does some bit of violence that jars. [But] this works so well [because it] is the way violence should be: ugly and short and shocking.
Has The Night Alive changed much in the transfer?
Cultural references. We're two nations divided by a common language. There's a gag we were trying to make work [about] a carvery. A carvery is a place in a hotel lobby where there are four or five rows, of chicken and beef, and it's like an all-you-can-eat. Within that, there was a gag when I'm trying to get the money out of him. [I say], "You said we were gonna go to a roast-beef carvery," [and he replies], "I carved you the banana sandwich." It's a cheap joke, but it doesn't work here. So there you go.
The language of music does transfers over beautifully in that scene where you all dance to Marvin Gaye and sound just envelopes the entire theater.
Which we all hated. It was written and it just said, "Tommy and Doc and Aimee get up and dance," and then the next scene starts. [We all thought], "We have to shorten the song? Can we stop there? Can we bring Jim in knocking earlier?" We didn't know. Then people absolutely…
Went crazy for it?
Isn't it just bonkers?
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