Dubliner Shane O’Regan, who has had glowing reviews for his New York debut, learned some relevant family information when in Belgium doing research for his role.
PHOTO: PETER MCDERMOTT
By Peter McDermott
As the audience files in for the one-man show “Private Peaceful,” the actor is lying on a bed on stage. Inevitably, people ask themselves “What’s this?”
Shane O’Regan’s question on opening night in Dublin was, “Will I remember my lines?”
He plays Tommo Peaceful, a 17-year-old English soldier who is due to face a firing squad at dawn on the Western front during World War I, and 40 or so other characters over the course of 90 minutes.
However, after a successful national tour in Ireland and now in the middle of a New York run, O’Regan is long past worrying about on-stage memory lapses. And there is no need for any tweaking of a production that relocates next month to Pennsylvania, moves on then to Chicago for four weeks – finishing up there on Nov. 11, the 100th anniversary of the Armistice – and concludes with a late swing into Austin, Texas.
The reviews for his acting from the New Yorker, the New York Times and several other outlets have been terrific, and O’Regan can explore a city that in a sense he’s already conquered on his first try.
The weather is better than during his first ever trip to New York early last year, which coincided in part with a blizzard. He did get to visit friends and to see all of the places on his planned itinerary, except the observation deck of the Freedom Tower, but will go there soon.
He's been going to plays, but as Broadway is dark at the same time as the off-Broadway “Private Peaceful,” the opportunities are somewhat limited. “I can only see them on Mondays and Wednesday matinees,” he said.
The Gaiety School of Acting graduate O’Regan has found New York theatre-goers rather different to those he’s become used to at home.
“It is the toughest critical audience that you’re going to face. A lot of time, the audience seem to be a little bit older than they are in Ireland,” he said. “They’re quite vocal at times where Irish audiences seem a bit more reserved and it takes time to get them out of their shell.” In New York, he’s found that “they’re right there with you at the start, which is lovely.”
It may be that in the case of “Private Peaceful” the anti-war theme resonates with mature audiences. The original source material, though, is the 2003 novel of that name for younger readers by Michael Morpurgo, who tends to be best-known for “War Horse.”
Simon Reade’s adaptation of “Private Peaceful” for the stage is more “generalized” in appeal, according to the play’s Irish star and indeed not suitable for some readers in the young adult category. Audience members as young as 12 came to the show in Ireland, but that’s too young, he believes. “Anyone from about 15 up is fine,” said the Killiney, Co. Dublin, native.
“When you’re seeing these things happen, it’s more real,” O’Regan said. “It definitely ups the intensity of it.”
Some reviewers have attributed the rawness of the stage version to Reade’s adaptation. He first brought it to the theatre in Britain in 2004 and then wrote the screenplay for the 2012 film version. “Private Peaceful” was directed by Pat O’Connor with the then rising young star Jack O’Connell in the role of Tommo.
O’Regan, the first non-British actor in the role of Tommo, has had something of a rapid ascent himself in recent years. An important milestone was the 2014 production of “Borstal Boy,” his first professional part on the Gaiety stage. Getting the title role in “Hamlet” was another.
“At 23, it’s sort of ridiculous in itself, but it was a brilliant challenge and a lot of fun as well,” he said of that iconic Shakespearean role.
Playing the lead role of Renton in the stage version of “Trainspotting” at Smock Alley, and its remount at the Olympia Theatre, was important for a couple of reasons. It was put on by the company he co-founded, and is artistic director of, Reality: Check Productions.
“Trainspotting” also played some part, he believes, in Reade seeing him as the right fit for Tommo in “Private Peaceful.”
It helped more generally that accents aren’t a problem for him, he’d had experience in character-switching and he looked young enough to play a 17-year-old army recruit.
One by-product of his acting success has been his parents’ renewed interest in theatre. They regularly took in plays in early adulthood, before they had four children. When their youngest told them he wanted to be an actor, their reaction was, “That’s not a career.” But once they realized he was deadly serious about it, they were supportive and are enthusiastic theatergoers once again (they’ll fly in for the production’s opening night in Chicago).
His father joined him when he traveled to Belgium as part of his research for his role. The younger O’Regan had heard that Morpurgo had been inspired to write “Private Peaceful” after reading a letter at In Flanders Fields Museum in Ypres.
“I became obsessed with it,” he said of the 1914-18 conflict. He has no recollection of it being covered at school. “It’s more World War II where we’re at,” he said of the history curriculum.
O’Regan wanted to connect as much as possible with the experience of the fictional Tommo – who moves from Iddesleigh, in Devon, where he joins up underage, to training on Salisbury Plain, then is transported to Boulogne in France and finally to the fighting in Ypres in Belgium.
In was in Belgium, that O’Regan’s father revealed to him – thinking he already knew it – a very relevant piece of family information: the actor’s great-grandfather, William O’Regan, fought in the trenches and died later in Ireland.
“What?” Shane O’Regan replied. “You could have told me that ages ago.”
He laughed remembering the exchange, and then added: “My great-grandmother’s house would have been paid for by the British army.”
The actor understands the historic sensitivity with regard to national identity, but said attitudes have been changing. After he performed at the Glór Theatre in Ennis, Co. Clare, he was taken across the street to a memorial for fallen World War I troops by the man who had campaigned for it. “That was pretty cool,” the young actor said.
O’Regan likes that people can make connections in this way.
After a recent New York performance, an Englishwoman approached him to say that her grandfather had been killed in a mustard-gas attack during World War I. “There’s a scene with mustard gas in the play,” the actor said.
All of the focus may be on the actor in a one-man show, but O’Regan said, “I’m never really alone, because I’ve this amazing creative team around me.”
Aaron Kennedy, “the best stage manager I’ve ever worked with,” he said, couldn’t make the trip, but New Yorker Carly Levin has stepped in as production manager. “She’s phenomenal,” he added.
The most important person of all, though, may well be the man who wrote the original novel. The young actor’s introduction to Morpurgo’s work was like many others via “War Horse,” or more specifically the Steven Spielberg-directed film version of it.
“He such a universal writer,” O’Regan said of the novelist. “He knows how people tick and he knows how to tell a story.”
Shane O'Regan in "Private Peaceful." PHOTO BY TOM LAWLOR
“Private Peaceful” continues through Oct. 7 at TGB Theatre, 312 West 36th St., 3rd Floor, New York City. For tickets call (866) 811-4111, or purchase them here online.
It is presented by Pemberley Productions (Andrew D. Hamingson, and Tim Smith, producers) and Ireland’s Verdant Productions (Donal Shiels). It is adapted and directed by Simon Reade. National tour dates: Williams Center for the Arts, Easton, Pa., Wednesday, Oct. 10; Harold Prince Theatre, Annenberg Center, Philadelphia, Pa., Thursday, Oct. 11 to Saturday, Oct. 13; Greenhouse Theatre, Chicago, Ill., Wednesday, Oct 17 through, Sunday, Nov 11; Texas Performing Arts, Austin, Texas, Thursday, Nov 15, and Friday, Nov. 16.