By Joseph Hurley
Belfast-born Ciaran Hinds has been seen onstage in the New York area before, namely when he played one of the leading roles in the celebrated nine-hour Peter Brook production of "The Mahabarata," which played at the Brooklyn Academy of Music 12 years ago.
But it remained for Patrick Marber’s riveting comic discourse on contemporary Londoners and their free-wheeling sexual mores, "Closer," to bring the starkly handsome, powerful actor to the stage of a Broadway theater. The 46-year-old Hinds has been inhabiting the role of Larry, the impulsive London dermatologist, for the better part of two years, starting in London, and then, after a layover, coming to New York at the end of January for rehearsals for a March opening and a local run of nearly six months.
The controversial "Closer" called it a run with last Sunday’s matinee. Before the Marber play, Hinds was probably best known for his starring role in the Jane Austin adaptation, "Persuasion," and for his work in a couple of Irish films, "Circle of Friends," adapted from M’ve Binchy’s novel, and "Some Mother’s Son."
Hinds is the only member of the four-actor cast of "Closer" to have been with the play from the very beginning.
"It began with a workshop, and then they opened it at the National, at the Cottesloe Theater, which is a kind of small, intimate 350-seater," he recalled on a break between a recent matinee and the evening show."
Never miss an issue of The Irish Echo
Subscribe to one of our great value packages.
When Hinds decided to become an actor, in about 1977, he moved to London to train. "I went to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art," he said, "because there just wasn’t any way to do it in Belfast."
When he first went to work in Dublin, Hinds encountered an attitude he still regards with humor and affection. "They’d say, ‘oh, you needed to train, did you?’ as though you didn’t have anything natural going for you," he said.
And he tells the story with an accurate approximation of a hard-edged Dublin intonation.
The actor’s extensive Irish experience includes work at the Abbey, at Galway’s Druid Theatre and with Field Day, the company founded two decades ago by, among others, Brian Friel, Stephen Rea, and the critic and poet Seamus Deane.
"I think it was the summer of 1986 when I worked with Field Day," Hinds recalled. "We rehearsed in Derry and then did one-night stands around the smaller towns in the North, and then one-week bookings in both the North and the South, in big cities like Belfast and Dublin. Stephen Rea had committed himself to going back and working at home every year, no matter what he was doing anywhere else. It was a huge commitment, considering what his career was doing at that time."
What Hinds did at Field Day was a bill of two one-acters. "One was a version of ‘Antigone’ called ‘The Riot Act,’ " he said. "The writer was Tom Paulin, a droll Irishman from the North who works out of Oxford, I think."
The companion piece was by the poet Derek Mahon. "It was an adaptation of Moliere’s ‘The School for Wives.’ One was very light and funny, and the other was more serious, an ‘Antigone’ set in Northern Ireland."
For the Abbey, about a decade ago, Hinds did the complete Cuchulain cycle by W. B. Yeats. "There were five plays Yeats wrote at different times," he said, "and writing in different styles."
Ciaran Hinds’s New York experience was overwhelmingly positive, working with a company of actors who got on unusually well, start to finish, and, for the last few weeks, at least, living the life of a Manhattan husband and father.
Hinds and his companion of a dozen years, Héléne Patarot, a Vietnamese-born actress raised in France, have a 7-year-old daughter, Aoife. The actor’s family joined him for part of the summer, so Hinds found himself taking his child to Central Park and doing all the other things that New York fathers do.
The child’s name appears in the Cuchulain plays, and Hinds remembered it over the years. "For a while when she was learning to spell and to write," he said, "she was unhappy about having a name nobody could pronounce or spell, but she seems to have grown accustomed to it in the last year or so. For a while, it was as though people were throwing a lot of vowels out in every direction.
Hinds, who was raised as one of five children of a Belfast doctor, with the others all being girls, has some reservations about raising an only child, but that’s where things stand at the moment.
"I was raised in a mixed, middle-class neighborhood," he said, "so I never had much experience of the ghettoization in Northern Ireland although, as a Catholic, I went to parochial schools."
When Hinds went to work for Peter Brook’s company, it was at a time when the director, who had done "Mahabarata" in French at his own theater in Paris, was readying an English-language production.
"I was 34 or perhaps 35," Hinds said. "I’d been working for about a decade. Suddenly, I had to put everything I knew away, and, in a sense, start out all over again. He needed to add at least a couple of actors who, if they weren’t actually English, were English speakers."
Hinds would probably do it all again, or do something else with Brook, if the opportunity arose, but it wasn’t always easy at the time. For one thing, the touring schedule took its toll.
"Wherever we went," he said, "Brook and the local civic theater would have to find some place for us to play. I remember, in Copenhagen, we played in some sort of ancient abandoned brickworks or something. Joining the Brook company was a little like beginning at the beginning all over again. It was kind of a fearsome experience, divesting oneself of all the tricks you’d learned as an actor, and all the attitudes, and finding the humanity again, and bring it back in to your work."
Playing a part for a long period, whether it’s a mythic figure from an Indian epic like "Mahabarata," or a contemporary, flawed urbanite such as Larry in "Closer," makes demands on an actor’s resources.
"You’ve got to find a way to get into your character’s skin, no matter what, "and then dance a bit, " he said. "Sometimes it absolutely does your head in a bit, but somehow you find a way to dredge it up and make it fresh again. It’s like anything else, you hit a barrier and then you find a way to get around it. It’s all got to do with training. This is a play in which there’s a lot of contact between the people. We have to take risks with each other, and there’s got to be a kind of mutual trust, because we could hurt each other."
That’s where a strongly positive climate surrounding the company members comes in. "There’s so much in it," Hinds said, "that you find things coming at you from directions you hadn’t anticipated. It’s got layers and complications that you keep discovering as you go on. In a sense, the writing keeps providing you with ammunition that you have to keep deciding whether to use or not; whether to hold back or let loose."