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Meet the Irishman who learned to mime with Marcel Marceau

Niall Henry went on to found Blue Raincoat Theatre.

OBIT MARCEAU Marcel Marceau Source: AP/Press Association Images

MARCEL MARCEAU HAS one of the most recognisable faces in performance history – the white painted face, dramatically drawn-on features, and Breton-striped top.

He was a mime artist – playing Bip the Clown – who became internationally famous, a French actor who was active until his death at 84 in 2007.

He was also, it turned out, very good friends with one Michael Jackson.

Obit Jackson Source: AP/Press Association Images

Marceau passed his skills on to others, one of whom was an Irish man, Niall Henry, who went on to found the Blue Raincoat Theatre.

Blue Raincoat is based in the west of Ireland, and as Ireland’s only professional theatre ensemble, it has an impressive and respected reputation for tackling works from Shakespeare to Flann O’Brien.

The company recently got a nudge to review their history when approached by lecturer Rhona Trench about writing a book on their 24 years of theatre.

It was a trip down memory lane, and made them realise they needed to keep more of an eye on their archive. “We started one about five or six years ago – a proper one,” says Henry.

“Prior to that we were literally gathering things – ‘does anyone have a poster for that show’. You wouldn’t consider it the most impressive archive in the world,” he laughs.

Looking back at the two decades-plus of work showed him that the theatre has changed “loads” but stayed true to its roots (most of the core staff have been there from the beginning).

“You don’t realise how quickly the time goes – you find it a little bit bizarre that it’s actually 23 years ago. I suppose there’s days where it feels like it was 100 years ago,” he says wryly.

The funny thing is you’d imagine you’d have learned loads of things, which of course you do, but you continue to make the obvious mistakes going forward. I suppose that’s predicated on you taking risks – if you don’t keep taking risks you are evidently not going to push yourselves.

From the west of Ireland to Paris

Niall Henry backstage Niall Henry Source: Steve Rogers

Henry’s background in theatre could be the plot of a juicy play itself. A young man from the west of Ireland hopping to France to study under the tutelage of the world’s foremost mime artists. Years following in the footsteps of Paris’s adopted creative set; wandering by the Seine; creating art in the world’s most romantic city.

He spent three three years studying movement with Marceau and others, after a couple of years trying to get into the course. He first applied at 19, and was finally accepted on board aged 21.

Life in Paris

It was an amazing experience to go to school in Paris. It was a cheap place to live - it’s either expensive or dead cheap – if you’re happy to live with a baguette in your pocket. It was an amazing experience for a boy from the west of Ireland.

He “hung out” there for a few more years, knowing that the experience is one you can’t replicate. He was introduced to people of different races and cultures. It was eye-opening and mind-expanding.

“The intensity really comes with the teachers, some teachers are more intense than others,” he recalls. “The second school, the second woman was very intense, she was no fun at all, a pain in the ass. She was a brilliant teacher. I don’t think I’d have managed her at the beginning.”

“We haven’t done a normal play in 14 years”

(L-R) Ciaran McCauley and Kiefer Short in Blue Raincoat producti Purgatory, which was performed on Knocknarea Mountain Source: Photographer: Steve Rogers

Henry says that Blue Raincoat haven’t done a “normal play” in 14 years, which was what led to their most recent production of the Playboy of the Western World.

A friend asked: “Why don’t ye lighten up and do a normal play?”, and so they did.

“I was completely taken back – I thought it was a shocking thing to say. After about an hour I thought it was a great idea,” remembers Henry.

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In July, the company staged WB Yeats’ On Baile’s Strand on a five-mile stretch of beach in Sligo. They’ve also staged a play atop a mountain. They’re not constrained by the regular rules of theatre.

“I can’t honestly tell you why that’s the way we operate,” says Henry of their approach. “If you sort of want to do what you want to do, in our instance, what has changed is the way we do the theatre. As opposed to a theatre company that does a newly written play, we are devising and doing different types.”

They have learned their lesson about when not to mess with a play. About 10 years ago they were due to stage the Bald Soprano.

“The week before it opened, it was a disaster.” Then they took the production apart and went back to brass tacks – doing what the play told them to do. Henry says this is just like with Samuel Beckett: You do what Beckett tells you to do.

“We started doing what he said, and all of a sudden the thing started to work.”

Blue Raincoat Theatre Company stage WB Yeats' play On Baile's St Source: Steve Rogers

Blue Raincoat is involved with various projects, some of which it teams up with partners for.

“Resources are scarce but at the same time those types of projects work better when there’s collaboration,” says Henry, who has founded or co-founded The Factory Performance Space, Cairde Arts Festival, The Sligo Youth Theatre, Blue Raincoat Theatre Academy, Tread Softly… Yeats Festival and The Mad Hatter Children’s Theatre Festival. He says that if you put art into an area, everybody benefits.

“We’ve done shows that haven’t had full houses, but I’ve never seen people not come to something that’s very good. If the efforts and quality and standard are there, I think people will be supportive.”

First Cosmonaut by Joyceln Clarke, about the life of Yuri Gagarin, visits Project Arts Centre from 16 – 28 February 2015.

A book about the company by Rhona Trench, Frontiers of Representation: The Theatre of Blue Raincoat, is published by Carysfort Press.

Read: Shane’s parents are Deaf – so he wrote the first Irish play for deaf and hearing people>

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