Gabriel Byrne’s 2020 book Walking With Ghosts covers common territory for an actor’s memoir, recalling entranced first trips to the cinema, personal encounters with heavyweight movie stars and waiting in the wings on Broadway. Its arc, too, is familiar: rags to riches to ruinous addiction – in this case to alcohol at the height of his 90s fame. What sets the book apart is Byrne’s evocative and elegiac, often sensuous prose, particularly when detailing his childhood and what his father called the “theatre of the street” unfolding daily in his Dublin neighbourhood.
This theatrical performance based on the memoir brings Byrne back to the Dublin stage for the first time since 1978, when he appeared at the Gaiety in Brendan Behan’s Borstal Boy. Behan himself passes through – seen on a bus by four-year-old Byrne – and Byrne also imitates his idol, Richard Burton, who he starred alongside in a TV miniseries about Wagner.
But Byrne’s aim is not to share trivia about The Usual Suspects or Miller’s Crossing or any of the Hollywood thrillers that boasted his glowering but crumpled presence, with the glint in his eye often as sharp as his suits. It’s not that he’s short of colour – this is a guy who played Satan on a millennium’s eve rampage in New York opposite Arnold Schwarzenegger in End of Days. Instead Byrne is here to offer thumbnail sketches of the ghosts – whether family, friends or the long-gone film icons of his childhood – who have stayed with the actor into his eighth decade.
The book interweaves episodes from across Byrne’s life, many lines using the familiar “I remember” creative-writing prompt. If the memoir reinforces the notion that we never shake off our childhood self, and that memories can be unresolvable, that impressionistic approach has been ironed out for this show, directed by Lonny Price and presented by Landmark Productions and Lovano. The result never quite captivates like the book. It has a more chronological timeline, and there is a rather straightforward sound design by Sinéad Diskin typified by waves and gulls for Byrne’s journey across the Irish sea to enter an English seminary aged 11.
Against the gilded concentric frames of Sinéad McKenna’s elegant set, Byrne moves from desk to bench to bar stool to recount and enact episodes. The humour is often gentle but sometimes overegged: a neighbour with “new teeth like a row of fridges” is glimpsed memorably on the page but that simile is less vivid when the woman is also imitated. Byrne is a beautiful writer and some of the other details he conjures need space to linger. But he is also a wonderful physical comedian, evoking another neighbour whose gait resembled treading on mattresses.
Most powerfully, Byrne affectionately adopts the voices of his mother and father, who provide the show with its best one-liners. He was the eldest of six children: how did they ever fit into the ramshackle home, he wonders, and later recalls the sensation of stepping for the first time on to carpet when he visits a fancy hotel with his mum. He is adept at capturing the constant bewilderments of childhood, artfully blurring it into a befuddlement of older age. The puzzles of a religious youth are particularly well drawn. (On the sacrament: how does God get into the wafer? And does he come out in your number two?)
That blend of curiosity and confusion is a constant. Was this really me, Byrne seems to ask. Are these memories mine? There are other constants throughout his life: shame, isolation, worthlessness but also a benevolence that even sees him pity, while not forgive, the priest who abused him as a child when he tracks him down in later life.
Byrne finds a sense of belonging – after stints as a plumber and a dishwasher – through the theatre, depicting the warmth while also puncturing the pomposity he encounters in his first forays into am-dram. The memoir recounted his first romances but the grand passion in this stage version is, fittingly, for acting itself. As he recreates his first cinema trip with his grandmother, we see laughter, fear and above all bliss spread across his face and he is a child again.