Barry Ward and Simone Kirby in a scene from “Jimmy’s Hall.”
By Frances Scanlon
If you go to “Jimmy’s Hall,” which opens in theatres on Friday, be prepared to shake a lot of leg, and to hear the glorious sounds of liver-than-live Irish music, with a jazz kick-back and bluesy spell. You are on your way to a place that you may think is decades ago, but it’s not: it’s right here and now, where and who you are. Dancers never leave the ballroom.
Of course, not everyone is happy with all that dancing in the film from British director Ken Loach, a flashback to early 1930s County Leitrim, which enjoyed Official Selection status at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival and a North American premiere at the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival. Father Sheridan is certainly not.
At a recent Tribeca press conference, Jim Norton said that his Father Sheridan “is very rigid in his beliefs, but he is, I think, essentially a good man. He’s doing the best he can from what he knows. He’s following the dictates of the Catholic Church at that time, which were very tough and obsessed with controlling the moral life of the people in the community.”
Diametrically opposed to every word the parish priest speaks, the Dublin-born Broadway star Norton longs for the day when Ireland can relinquish itself from a few remaining vestiges of that period, which he called “hangovers.”
One that isn’t still around, thankfully, is the belief that communist insurrection can being channeled by a devil’s music-playing gramophone brought back from the United States.
This might be outlandish except that the central character, Jimmy Gralton, was a real historical figure and a real communist, with a history of activism in New York and Leitrim.
The backdrop is post-Civil War Ireland and the election of the first Fianna Fáil government in February 1932. The jet-stream of hope, progress and political freedom galvanizes Jimmy and he decides to go home to his native county.
He even joins Fianna Fáil, in an apparent effort to get some investment into the area. Jimmy, though, becomes the embodiment of all that might be and all that is not, especially for the local youngsters who beseech him to re-open the village hall. ‘
Ask Barry Ward, who plays Jimmy, about the dancing, as I did during the press briefing at Tribeca, and he’ll laugh uproariously at both the delight and the challenge presented. Ward described his dancing skills as “passable,” although after four weeks of extensive pre-production rehearsals in London, he is totally captivating and fleet of foot as Gralton, ably demonstrating the creative output of thrice-weekly dance classes and even a ballroom visit prior to the barely 30-plus days’ sequential shooting schedule in Leitrim.
Brought in for a 10-minute meet-and-greet chat with the director, Ward’s audition entailed improvisations about subject matters, scenarios and scenes that had nothing to do with the film.
Simone Kirby, who wows as Oonagh, Gralton’s love interest, was sent by her London agent to meet with the director for a five-minute chat, which was followed up a couple of weeks later with a request to do some improvisations.
She was intrigued by the possibility of a narrative set in the 1930s. “My grandmother’s times, so that interests me,” she said. “It’s lovely to do a costume thing.”
Kirby, originally from Ennis, Co. Clare, moved to Galway when she was 17 to do youth theatre. She then trained more formally in Dublin, before moving to London, where she is based, though her impressive resume includes work at the Irish Repertory Theatre in New York.
She had not read the full script, which she found “really liberating, actually.”
Kirby explained: “I’m not playing for something that I know is going to happen to her in the future. I can only play what I know now. It makes total sense to me; just play what you know. Even though we try and do that anyway as actors, it’s a bit of a gift to genuinely not know what’s round the corner.”
And finally, a spoiler alert might be appropriate for some future fans of “Jimmy’s Hall.” Stop reading now, if you’re likely to want to stay in the 1930s moment. But others can hop on the No. 4 train to the last stop, whence they can quickly find the majestic Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx, which is the final resting place of Jimmy Gralton. He is at Plot Summit, Range 30, Grave 39, and has been since Dec. 29, 1945, and his bride, Bessie (nee Cronogue, Drumsna, County Leitrim), there since Oct. 6, 1975. Although once you step into “Jimmy’s Hall,” you will be hard-pressed to suspend disbelief that he really has a final resting place.
Karen Butler will interview Barry Ward next week, while Michael Gray will be review “Jimmy’s Hall” later in the month.