Tom Hickey Tribute“He had the whole audience in his hand.”

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Theatre in Ireland in the 1980s had three Toms the likes of which will not be seen again: Murphy, MacIntyre and Hickey. The two playwrights, Tom Murphy and Tom MacIntyre produced some of their finest work and, in actor Tom Hickey, had the definitive interpreter of that work. In 1983, Hickey starred in MacIntyre’s The Great Hunger and Murphy’s The Gigli Concert, both at the Abbey Theatre, both directed by Patrick Mason. Following the sad news of the death of Tom Hickey last weekend, Arena spoke to Mason and filmmaker Alan Gilsenan about working with the great actor. 

It’s extraordinary to look back on that period – the extraordinary burst of creativity. But a catalyst for both Tom MacIntyre and for Tom Murphy, was Tom Hickey. To know that that wonderful, great actor was, you know, at the height of his powers.” 

Hickey had, Mason says, the ability to inspire an entire rehearsal room. And he wasn’t afraid of taking risks. Indeed, Mason – former Artistic Director of The Abbey, who worked with Hickey over many years – says that Hickey was the most courageous actor he’s ever seen. He could bring an audience with him, as he did with The Great Hunger, which, although very well remembered today, was not, Mason says, universally acclaimed when it premiered.  

“At the time it caused quite a lot of trouble. You know, there was quite a lot of antagonism in audiences towards the approach and towards the subject matter, even. And I’ve seen Hickey, you know, go out there, I mean, with what you might call a hostile audience and just win them over.” 

Film and stage director Alan Gilsenan saw both The Great Hunger and The Gigli Concert and worked with Hickey on stage and screen. He emphasised Tom Hickey’s work with MacIntyre and Mason, in particular, as bringing a physicality to mainstream Irish theatre: 

“They brought a sense of physical theatre, visual theatre, non-narrative theatre, into a theatre which had been predominantly literary up until then.” 

Tom Hickey was a founding member of Dublin’s Focus Theatre, which worked primarily using a style of acting from Konstantin  

Stanislavski, the Moscow Art Theatre’s founder. The theatre mainly produced classic plays from Europe and had an associated acting school, where actors were trained in performance methods that were likely unavailable elsewhere in Ireland. Patrick Mason recalled the international tour of The Great Hunger, which started in the just-reopened Moscow Art Theatre, on the stage of which there’s a very famous front curtain designed by Picasso: 

And Tom just walked downstage to the curtain and kissed it. And, you know, he was in seventh heaven. And he performed that night on the stage of the Moscow Art Theatre and he was incandescent.” 

Hickey was, as well as being a hugely talented experimental performer, noted for his versatility. He excelled in dramatic and comedic roles, as stressed by Patrick Mason: 

He was one of the funniest actors I’ve known. He was a wonderful comic. He had brilliant timing. And then he could break your heart. 

Having directed Hickey over the years in everything from Chekov to Miller and from Friel to Oscar Wilde, Mason knows better than most just how talented Tom Hickey was: 

“Everyone talks about great actors, you know, they displace air, they – and Tom was one of those. He walked on a stage and that was it, you knew he was there and he had the whole audience in his hand. And that was great as his career progressed. He was much loved, you know.” 

Gilsenan, who, as a young director making a film of Beckett’s Eh Joe, managed to get both Tom Hickey and Siobhán McKenna on board, and the two acting legends left an indelible mark on the young filmmaker: 

“He was extraordinary. You know, in the process of making that film, with him and, indeed, Siobhán McKenna, I learned all there was to know about acting from Tom.” 

It’s a fine and very fitting tribute to a very fine actor: Tom Hickey and you can hear it in full by going here

Niall Ó Sioradáin 

© The Listener 2021

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