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Buggy’s at home in ‘Oscar’ role

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Joseph Hurley

Niall Buggy hasn’t done much Shakespeare, which is odd, considering the fact that the 52-year-old actor joined the Abbey Theatre when he was 16, and has been working on one or another Dublin or London stage more or less constantly ever since.

He’d love to play "King Lear" sometime, and once he did the Gravedigger in "Hamlet," doubling as the First Player, an experience he remembers with fondness.

"I played the Gravedigger as a regular Dublin working man," he recalled over a cup of tea in his dressing room at the Irish Repertory Theatre before a recent evening performance of his solo show, "The Importance of Being Oscar," which recently completed its run at the Irish Rep.

Buggy launched into a flawless fragment of the dialogue from the scene where the laborer unearths the skull of Yorick, that "fellow of infinite jest."

If the actor hasn’t often been seen in a Shakespearean play, then the bard of Stratford-Upon-Avon is about the only major playwright whose work he’s seldom done.

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There have been O’Casey and Synge, also Chekhov, including the recent Dublin production of Brian Friel’s adaptation of "Uncle Vanya," which played at Lincoln Center two summers ago in honor of the Donegal playwright’s 70th birthday.

Buggy is no stranger to Friel’s work, including the New York and London productions of "Aristocrats."

"The Importance of Being Oscar" represents a departure for the actor, in that it was created by a celebrated Dublin actor of the recent past, Micheal MacLiammoir, co-founder of the Gate Theatre, for his own use. Indeed, MacLiammoir performed the show regularly in Ireland and around the world from 1960 until 1975, just three years before his death in 1978.

"Only one other actor has attempted this show," Buggy recalled, "and that was an Englishman, Simon Callow. He had been MacLiammoir’s dresser in Belfast, when the show played there."

Buggy had done another one-actor show at the Irish Rep, namely Shivaun O’Casey’s "Song at Sunset," dealing with the last years of her father, playwright Sean O’Casey, but he had never considered MacLiammoir’s "Oscar" until the Rep’s artistic director, Charlotte Moore, came to him with the idea.

"Many years ago," Buggy recalled, "there was interest in Ireland in my doing it, but I always felt that it was very much MacLiammoir’s piece, and that his whole persona was in the show. What one has to do as an actor is to make it your own, and while Micheal was a wonderful performer, he was also an extremely mannered human being."

Buggy’s "Oscar" drew solid audiences at the Irish Rep and has complemented other Wilde observances in the city, most particularly the ongoing series of readings, performances and lectures sponsored by the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at various venues around the city, including three evenings at the Rep’s home on West 22nd Street, the last of which will take place Monday, March 17, with a reading of a little-known play, "Vera, or The Nihilists."

The New York Public Library’s celebration of Wilde will continue through April 21, the concluding event being a performance of the restored version of "After the Ball," a musical based on the playwright’s "Lady Windermere’s Fan."

As for Buggy, he will very probably be called upon to do "The Importance of Being Oscar" again, having broken the show in so successfully in New York.

"It was a question of making it my own," he said, "of personalizing it. Because it is an actor talking to the audience, it must be personalized. There’s no point in me going on and pretending to be Micheal MacLiammoir or Simon Callow. It had to be Niall Buggy talking about Oscar Wilde. That’s what I had to try and achieve. I had to personalize an extraordinary and complex man for the audience, in the hope they’ll come to know him better in the space of a couple of hours."

The current public concentration on the life and work of Oscar Wilde appears to have had one result that no one could have predicted.

"The family, which had been using the name Holland since the scandal and the trials," said Buggy, "is apparently going to take up the name Wilde again. Isn’t that extraordinary?"

Niall Buggy has very recently been involved in another celebration of the work of an Irish writer, namely Samuel Beckett.

Dublin’s Gate Theatre has just completed a venture called "Beckett On Film," bearing the descriptive subtitle "19 Films X 19 Directors."

The series was unveiled in a week-long premiere at the Irish Film Center, Dublin. Two of the films, "Krapp’s Last Tape," starring John Hurt, directed by Atom Egoyan, and "Not I," with Julianne Moore, directed by Neil Jordan, were part of the New York Film Festival, held last fall at Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center.

Buggy starred in the film version of "That Time," a brief play Beckett wrote the mid 1970s

"The character I play," Buggy recalled, "is an old man in the process of dying. The audience hears three monologues, all in the man’s voice, sort of A, B, and C, spoken at different times in his life. He’s trying to remember certain times and certain events, and, eventually, he learns that it doesn’t really matter. One time or another time, it’s all the same."

"My character is called ‘The Listener’ in the text," he said, "and only his face, surrounded by masses of white hair, is visible."

Onstage, Buggy had to stand in front of a black backcloth, onto which a mane of long, white hair was stapled. "The voice, sometimes young, sometimes old, came from different places in the auditorium," he said. "When I did the play on film, I had to sit in a chair, very still, from about 6 in the morning until something like 11 at night, with a brief break for lunch. They had about an acre of white hair sprayed back from my face. My teeth were blacked out because the old man was supposed to be toothless."

The Listener, all in vain, tires to remember a place where he had courted a girl he loved. "Finally," Niall Buggy recalled, "he flashes an incredible, toothless smile and the audience hears the final words of the play. ‘All gone, gone in no time.’ "

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