Lucy Cheseldine interviews Michael-David McKernan, star of Olympia, showing soon at Dublin’s New Theatre

By September 28, 2015

Theatre & Dance.

I have been up most of the night listening to the BBC 2015 Short Story competition. It is an annual event I partake in, with certain self-imposed conditions. I must be alone, it must be well past any reasonable bedtime and the lights must be switched off. The collection is always haunting in the most subtle ways. An overturned chair or the slow covering of another’s hand become loud objects, bumping mysteriously in the night. Each fictional tale seeps under the skin in an eerily human and familiar manner. They are life distilled to a disturbing quietness as the listener stands on the edge of constant submergence.

I wake up hours later with a chill, hungover from the isolated voices of Radio 4. It seems appropriate then, as I step out into the uncannily sunny Dublin morning, that I am on my way to interview Michael-David McKernan. A drama student at Trinity College and a part-time actor, his latest role is an experiment in brining horror to the stage. Olympia is loosely based on E.T.A. Hoffman’s short story The Sandman about a boy whose childhood fears of a figure stealing his eyes have a nasty manifestation in reality.

The play is set to run at The New Theatre in Temple Bar in anticipation of Halloween. This unique venue is the only new writing theatre in Ireland, promoting and developing establishing collaborations like Nora Kelly Lester and Lauren-Shannon Jones. Under the coinage Pygmankenstein – a combination of George Bernard Shaw’s play and the infamous Frankenstein – these two women have set out on the pioneering task of translating the horror genre for theatre.

I sit down with McKernan in a café and begin by asking how he has found the adaptation of a genre with so many expected ‘aesthetics’ for a theatrical production. “Ironically”, he tells me, “many people are scared of working with horror – as a genre – in this environment. It’s not the usual choice for producers”.

But he is convinced that in the intimate setting – a theatre of only 66 seats – it is possible to have complete control over each dramatic element so that all aspects can be used to lend to the plot. In such a small space, and as theatre has the ‘live’ aspect, shock can be used when the audience least expects it. It provides an extremely visceral and physical experience for the audience, something McKernan himself is well trained in after studying Physical Theatre at the London Academy of Dramatic Art.

My own vision of horror has been well-tarnished by films and images that create stock roles and stereotypical characters. The genre brings to mind stripped and helpless blondes, deaf babysitters, and masked men with axes. I ask Michael how he approached a role that comes with so many – possibly empty – preconceptions. “Well”, he says, “I have to see it like any other role. If I am not convinced by the script then the audience won’t be.”

He tells me that the temptation to fall into melodrama is one of the more difficult aspects of playing Nathaniel – a medical student who becomes the sorry victim of some dark match-making. But there is some humour in the play, both for entertainment and as a plot device for lulling the audience into a false sense of security before a big shock. “All sounds like a lot of fun”, I tell him. “Well, it is”, he replies. But there is also some serious work going on here, a daring to push the boundaries of expectation.

The story is set during an unspecified time in the Edwardian or Victorian era, drawing on classic inspiration for creating a sense of place. But with its winding streets and dark alleys, Dublin, as a city of ghosts, appears the perfect place to experiment with the limitations of the genre. I thank Michael as he wanders back out into the Dublin morning dressed all in black. Although the sun shines, as I step out behind him a cold mist rushes on my cheek. It’s difficult to tell exactly where it comes from, but I sense something stirring underneath the light, a mysterious and exhilarating darkness. I wonder what that darkness will look like in front of my eyes. The stage has the possibility to realise just that.

Olympia will be showing at The New Theatre.
Previews Monday Oct 12/13 | 7.30pm | €12,
Opens Wednesday 14 – Saturday Oct 24 | 7.30pm | €15, €12, €10 (groups)
01-6703361 / [email protected]

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