Patrick O'Kane, starring in Scenes From The Big Picture at the National Cottesloe until June 21, was warned against going into acting. Laura North catches up with him to find out why, and whether it was good advice.
While the rest of the 21-strong cast enjoy a well-deserved lunch break, Patrick O'Kane is tucked away in the back room of a Southwark rehearsal room making his way through some of the National's sandwiches. Disconcertingly, the coffee table is covered with paper figures made up of bits of celebrities. A dissected Heat magazine lies next to them, bereft of some of its biggest stars. In a burst of Frankenstein-like creativity (or boredom), the head of Haley from Popstars has been reapplied to an unidentified torso dressed in Christina Aguilera's bikini ("the important bit" apparently).
Michelle Fairley & Patrick O'Kane in Scenes From The Big Picture. Photo by Nobby Clark Surrounded by these watchful figures, Belfast-born O'Kane reveals that he was warned against going into acting. A friend had asked him: "What do you want do that for? You'll just play thugs, psychopaths and terrorists for the rest of your life." What on earth gave him this impression? "Well, my Northern Ireland accent was much stronger then. And I suppose some people think I can be quite frightening." He adds in a menacing Hannibal Lector drawl, "But you're alright, you're safe here… I'll just turn the microphone off…" Shifting back in my seat I ask if his friend (who he is having for dinner later) has been proved wrong. O'Kane happily affirms this: in the course of his career, he has landed a wide assortment of non-violent roles. In fact his last character was called Socrates, a name with the historical weight of intellectualism rather than brutality.
Thugs are not banished from his repertoire however. Just a few years ago, he played a violent serial killer in Ben Elton's Popcorn, a satirical stage play modelled on the reception of Natural Born Killers. The play won an Olivier award and took him from the Nottingham Playhouse to the West End's Apollo. On television, he cropped up as one of Steve Owen's heavies in Eastenders, who are "all just varying degrees of dodgy characters". His character was involved in the demise of Owen (Martin Kemp), which was a huge event in any soap addict's calendar. The slippery soap villain double crossed some of his old conmen chums (including O'Kane) and they return to hound him to his death. "It was a few episodes, they did want me to come back but I wasn't available. I'm not sure it's for me but it was a good laugh being part of a sort of living legend." So far he has evaded playing an ex-con in The Bill, obligatory to any actor who can do a shifty look. "I'm one of the few who hasn't. I don't know whether to feel special or left out."
"It was a good laugh being part of a sort of living legend."
His character in Scenes From The Big Picture is a far cry from a thug or terrorist. He is an "an easy-going drifter called Joe, who can't make decisions", a shop steward in an abattoir who is under pressure at work and at home. "The work flow has dried up and he has to keep the work force happy. At home his wife is desperate to have a child, and he drifts into an affair with the barmaid from the local pub." Joe is just one of 21 characters, "who rarely interact with each other because, as in real life, they are obsessed with their own lives"; the play pieces together 40 scenes set within a single day. "It's a huge play, a panorama of urban life" says Nicholas Hytner, the National's new artistic director, and O'Kane agrees: "It's a day in the life of Belfast, a huge kaleidoscopic, panoramic play in that respect." But O'Kane is keen to point out that, although the play covers a lot of ground, each individual story is developed. "It's lots of little snapshots. Absolutely every character goes on their own journey. Owen's plays are essentially all rites of passages in one way or another. No character has an individual road to Damascus experience and yet they all have mini epiphanies."
Nicholas Hynter chose Scenes From The Big Picture to open his first season as artistic director. But why choose this play to announce his arrival rather than the loud and proud controversy of Jerry Springer The Opera, say? Remember that Hytner has thrived on presenting productions like Mother Clap's Molly House, with its uncensored gay sex orgies, and the self explanatory Shopping And Fucking. O'Kane reckons the answer is simple: "Because it's a really great play." This may be the case, but it also is a perfect example of what Hytner wants to present at the National: new writing that addresses contemporary issues. O'Kane indicates that McCafferty does things differently to comparable writers. "Most contemporary Northern Irish writing for the last couple of decades has really focussed on sectarianism and political strife and he chooses not to do that. It has a presence but it doesn't dominate the action of the play. The play is about mirroring real life, so that all that stuff does go on but you also have to get the shopping in and send the children to school."
Irish writing has recently featured heavily in O'Kane's CV, but he puts this down to doing more Owen McCafferty plays: "He's the only one left who'll employ me". This is his third, having appeared in Closing Time at the National and Shoot The Crow at the Royal Exchange. He and Owen go back a long way, having grown up in the same Belfast village. O'Kane joined a youth club at the age of 15, where the 19-year-old McCafferty was a youth leader, and they both went on to play Gaelic football for the local club. The age gap unfortunately renders any request for embarrassing childhood stories obsolete, although O'Kane generously still offers not to "tell about him if he doesn't tell about me." They did not form a professional relationship until two decades later when McCafferty was attached on secondment to the NT Studio, where it turned out he was writing the first draft of Closing Time.
"Look at that fire extinguisher chat over there, that other dixie."
Does this long standing relationship give him an insight into the writing? "No, I'm still stupid. I'm quite stupid when it comes down to knowing how to say something and what it is its trying to say." But their shared history has proved useful. "Without having to say anything or discuss it, we know the environment: not just the geographical environment but the social and political environment. It also provides certain shortcuts. It's written in a very heightened Belfast language, not necessarily the way everybody speaks. I've only heard some of it in the village where we come from. Having prior access to that is an advantage." He demonstrates, with his accent softened by years in London becoming more clipped: "Look at that fire extinguisher chat over there, that other dixie." Both words, 'chat' and 'dixie', apparently mean 'that thing' and are variables, changing with the context of the conversation. The explanation is useful as O'Kane admits, "I've personally only ever heard a few people say it."
Whereas McCaffety is an old friend, Peter Gill is a fresh face to O'Kane. The director, who started off as an actor, is also a playwright: his play The York Realist sold out at the Royal Court last year before transferring to the Strand Theatre. He is well known for giving line-readings where he shows his actors exactly how to say the lines. "He stresses the imperative of hearing the line: you have to hear what the line is about in order to move the story on. In this play, if you don't plant the word correctly in the beginning, then the pay off doesn't happen later." O'Kane can draw no negatives from Gill's technique. "He just gets on your case, which is quite alright. He also has lots of respect for actors and gives you the space to be creative." With such a multi-facetted mentor as Gill, has O'Kane been inspired to branch out himself? O'Kane candidly reveals that writing is not for him. "I don't think I have any authorial skills, but I would like to direct. I've done some stuff. Not full productions, but some workshops. I really enjoyed it, it's very satisfying."
At the moment, acting is keeping him fully occupied and he has to return to work. As George Michael's eyes follow me towards the door, O'Kane insists that the Heat-based Frankenstein figures on the table are nothing to do with him. "Not me, I would never do anything like this. I'm much more serious than that". So he goes back to piecing together Scenes From The Big Picture, leaving the shards of celebrity to another, less serious actor.