Veteran actor returns to Limerick from National Theatre

Veteran actor James Hayes of the National Theatre is returning to Limerick for The Plough and The Stars

Anne Sheridan


Anne Sheridan

Veteran actor returns to Limerick from National Theatre

Limerick born James Hayes, as he appears in The Plough & The Stars, alongside The Young Covey, Ciarán O'Brien

When Limerick actor James Hayes left for London with £20 in his back pocket in 1963, little did he know that his ambitious gamble would soon land him on stage in front of Sir Lawrence Olivier.

It was, in some senses, an “arrogant move”, he says, as he had “no grounding in theatre” and his only induction to great acting was viewing the stars on the silver screen.

Born in Limerick, he moved to Mitchelstown, and returned to Limerick at the age of eight, where as a young boy he’d sit on the wooden benches in Savoy cinema and the Grand Central, while a student at CBS Sexton Street.

“​I loved it; we used to run from cinema to cinema as we’d no TV then. I think I learnt more about watching great actors in the cinema than subsequently.”

The magic of the cinema, coupled with the suggestion that he might “meet the girls” through dramatic circles spurred him on, and they were right.

To pay his way through drama school at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London, he worked as a security guard  – once for The Beatles – and served drinks to Miss World contestants at the Lyceum Theatre, then a Mecca Ballroom.

He met his wife – who’s mixed race Jamaican – next door to the drama school – and they spent 20 years together, before divorcing but are still “very close”.

While still a student, he was picked to play a small role in Andorra in the inaugural season of the National Theatre at the Old Vic and soon he appeared in front of Lawrence Olivier in The Dance of Death.

“I was really frightened. He took me for a walk around the room, we had a chat and then he said: ‘Off you go, old boy’”, motioning him onto the stage.

“Olivier would salute me and talk to me sotto voce as he came off and that was the highlight of my Olivier days.” 

As they say, the rest is history, but Hayes is still counting his good fortune.

“I kind of thought ‘I'll have a go and if it doesn't work I'll go back to Limerick’. There were no grants in those day, and I wouldn't have gotten a grant anyway being a foreigner, but I managed to save enough for a term at the Guildhall and later got a scholarship. I've been lucky and worked all the time, and 50 odd years later here I am still working.”

“My first salary was £17 a week and we worked so hard but they were really exciting times. It's a tough life, but if you really, really want to do it just go for it, and watch other people and work out how they do things. A lot of young people now seem to be desperate to get into the media, but there's about 90% of the profession out of work.” 

His resume is now so long “it’s embarrassing”, and he has worked with many of the greats – Maggie Smith, Anthony Hopkins, Michael Gambon, Ian McKellen, Penelope Wilton and Anne-Marie Duff. 

Now 75, the veteran actor who has appeared in more National Theatre productions and was part of the National’s original Old Vic Company, is now on a whistle-stop tour around the world with The Abbey’s latest production of The Plough and The Stars.

Regarded as one of the greatest plays in Irish theatre, it is 90 years since it has first performed in Dublin amid riots, and it’s second time coming to the Lime Tree – which Hayes has never seen – after it heralded the theatre’s opening in 2012.

For the first time in years, this play will lead him back to his native city, where some of his family still reside, and onto the stage in the Lime Tree for the first time.

Set amid the tumult of the Easter Rising, The Plough and the Stars is the story of ordinary lives ripped apart by the idealism of the time.

Coinciding with Easter 2016, the Olivier Award-winning director Sean Holmes will bring a new perspective to Sean O’Casey’s absorbing play. 

Hayes and others have described it as a “very radical production”, with many modern intones, from the set to costumes.

Speaking from Cork after performing a matinee for 900 school children, the play will then move on to Wexford, then Limerick for five nights next week, then Washington, then Galway, back to Dublin and onto Toronto.

Running from February 1 to October 31, it’s a hectic schedule for any actor, not least a 75 year-old.

“Keeping the brain working gets more difficult as you get older. I have to work harder at learning lines. You always find that the adrenaline of the theatre - it's a very strange thing - I'm sure racing drivers have it too – it just keeps you going.”

It can be especially hard at 11am.

“It's not a natural time for actors, but you cannot short change an audience. You have to give it your full energy. You can't just say ‘It's only a morning show’. We've done it at least 50 times now and we have about another 50 to go.”

Does he ever get bored of playing a part a 100 times in less than a year?

“​I'd be a liar if I said I didn't, but as an actor it's your skill to keep it fresh all the time as if it's just happening in the moment.”

“When you're doing a great play with great dialogue it's such fun, it's when you're doing the not so good plays that you have to work much harder.”

His time on stage and playing alongside the greats has led him to write an account of his time in the theatre, entitled Shouting in the Evenings, which is self-published through Matador and is due out this summer.

He acted alongside Anthony Hopkins three times, and alongside Maggie Smith once, describing her as “fantastic, formidable, formidable”.

He recalled one memorable moment with her in a piece he wrote for The Guardian in 2013, to mark the 50th anniversary of the National.

“We used to have a little tatty canteen over in Aquinas Street and there were two women, Rose and Lil, who would make these wonderful lunches. Rose was very ebullient, she'd be: ‘Allo, darlin', what can I get you?’ and Lil was this little creature in the background, barely taking up space.

“There was a wonderful day when Maggie Smith was queuing for some food and someone said: ‘Isn't Rose marvellous?’ and she said: ‘Mm, but Lil's the better part.’ The little character in the background is a better part than the flashy one!”

Like most actors, he said he’d “love to get a crack at King Lear”, though that’s not an opportunity that arises for many frequently.

The other part he’d love to play is a one-man, one-act play of less than 60 minutes – Krapp's Last Tape by Samuel Beckett, which premiered in 1958. John Hurt, Harold Pinter and Michael Gambon have all claimed the part in the past, and it has a particular appeal for Hayes.

“It's a wonderful part. In the play he plays old tape recordings of his memories of the past. He's a sad, lonely man whose life is kind of empty.”

“I've been very, very lucky. I've been all over the world, and to be paid to go and do a play in those places, I prefer it to a holiday. It's a high tension game acting. I love working, and I don't know what to do when I'm not working.”

-The Plough and The Stars runs at the Lime Tree, Mary Immaculate College, from Tuesday, May 10, to Saturday, May 14, at 8pm. A number of matinee performances for younger audiences are sold out. The performance on Thursday, May 12, at 8pm will be audio described and captioned.Tickets are priced at €30, or €22 for students, OAPs, and the unwaged.