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MOVIES : ON LOCATION : Days of ‘The Playboys’ : TV killed Ireland’s traveling theater troupes, but the tradition lives again briefly thanks to an Irish writer and his childhood memories

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Until about 30 years ago, a score of traveling theater troupes toured small Irish towns and villages.

Typically headed up by a flamboyant actor-manager, these troupes would stop in a particular village--like this one hard by the Ulster border--for a week at a time, pitch a tent on the edge of town and perform their repertoire. The actors might have seen a new film in a larger town or city, and would re-enact it for the villagers who lived in areas too remote for moviegoing.

TV killed off the tradition of traveling troupes in rapid time. But this summer, the 70 villagers of Redhills--and the 500 or so people from its immediate hinterlands--have been reliving the past. There’s a ramshackle tent on their village green; the theater’s back in town.

This time around, though, it’s for the benefit of a film called “The Playboys,” starring Albert Finney, Robin Wright and Aidan Quinn, and directed by feature-film newcomer Gillies Mackinnon. The title has nothing to do with Hugh Hefner, nor with the classic Irish drama “The Playboy of the Western World; instead, “The Playboys” is the name by which the story’s traveling theater players are known.

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The core of “The Playboys” is a triangular love affair between Hegarty, a middle-aged village police sergeant (Finney); Tara (Wright), a young woman in the village who has a baby without marrying or disclosing the father’s identity, and romantic opportunist Tom (Quinn), one of the traveling actors whose arrival in the village brings big changes. The story is played out against a background of smuggling, Irish Republican Army bombings and casual brutality toward hapless odd-job men who roam about offering to make household repairs.

“The Playboys” was co-written by Shane Connaughton, one of Ireland’s most prominent writers. His 1981 short film “Dollar Bottom” won an Oscar, and with Jim Sheridan he also co-wrote “My Left Foot,” an Academy Award winner from 1989. Connaughton was born and raised in Redhills, where his father was the local police sergeant. “The Playboys” draws deeply on his own past.

Connaughton has been around to watch the filming of “The Playboys,” and is thus seeing part of his younger days re-created in the exact location it occurred. Understandably, he looks a little dazed by it all.

A crowd of villagers has gathered on Redhills’ triangular village green, which is fringed by plain squat houses, to watch filming. Even during a week of night shooting, they did not disperse until well after 2 a.m., though many of them held babies and small children in their arms. For Connaughton, their intense interest in the moviemaking process recalls the sense of wonder with which these same people used to watch the traveling actors. Some villagers have also been recruited as extras in the movie.

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“It’s a remarkable thing,” muses Connaughton, 50. “Among the older people, every one of them is familiar to me, or meant something to my parents.”

Another thing he finds astonishing is how little Redhills has changed since he left it in his late teens. The village has needed relatively little “dressing” from production designers to evoke the way it was in 1957, the year “The Playboys” takes place.

“Redhills is miles from Dublin, miles from Belfast, and completely cut off,” he says. “It even has its village green, which not many Irish villages have any more.”

Connaughton wrote a well-received collection of short stories about his childhood in this village, called “A Border Station,” entirely from memory in London, where he now lives. “But when I finally did come back here,” he said, “the graveyard was a bit more full, but otherwise it was as though I’d never left. Two pubs, football and cockfighting--that’s still about it.”

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Some of his recollections of adolescence are painful, and in “A Border Station” the boy who narrates the stories sees his father as an angry, closed character. Connaughton’s portrait of Redhills was not always affectionate, and he admits some of the villagers are “ambivalent” about the book.

“An elderly man came up to me on the village green the other day, and said: ‘Are you making a cod (fool) out of your father again? Your father was a nice man.’ He went on to tell me he’d burned my book. Then his wife chimed in and said not to worry, he only burned good books. That was a consolation, I suppose.”

Still, many villagers are openly delighted at Connaughton’s part in “bringing Beverly Hills to Redhills,” as the local media seems fond of putting it. And though Connaughton appears casual about seeing his story come to life on his home turf, other observers on the “Playboys” set report seeing his eyes water as certain scenes have been re-enacted.

On this particular night, Connaughton is enjoying himself hugely, sitting in a canvas chair in front of the villagers, who stand quietly and obediently, roped off from the filming action.

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A group of locals, hired as background, emerge from the tent as Finney and Quinn go into a fight scene.

“Look at them, will you?” says Connaughton, obviously proud. “They’re so professional, they could be extras!”

The Samuel Goldwyn Co. is backing “The Playboys” to the tune of $6 million, and everyone in and around Redhills knows it.

“Are you to do with the film?” they ask casual strangers. “American money, I believe.”

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Indeed. The film has brought something of the outside world to this isolated community--including media hype and sensationalism.

Robin Wright has been the center of much press interest from Irish and British tabloids during her stay here--upon her arrival at Dublin Airport with her 3-month-old daughter, Dylan, she was pursued all the way to the Redhills area by a tabloid news team.

First the British papers decided that Wright, a friend of actress Julia Roberts, was in Ireland to act as an intermediary between Kiefer Sutherland and Roberts, who canceled wedding plans just three days before the event. When it became clear Wright was in Ireland to make a film, the Irish papers switched their attention to Dylan’s father, actor Sean Penn, who is with Wright during filming.

One Irish Sunday tabloid forlornly ran a front-page lead about Penn’s “love nest,” which turned out to be the hotel where he, Wright and many of the cast and crew were staying. The same newspaper, clearly hoping for a headline-making incident, also reported--rather desperately--that Penn and one of its reporters had “come close” to a confrontation in the hotel grounds. This actually amounted to the reporter asking Penn if he wanted to go for a drink. “Nah, I don’t think so,” Penn replied.

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In fact, Penn mostly stayed out of sight with his baby when the press were about. “He’s Mr. Mom,” said Wright. “He’s unbelievable with Dylan--it’s like he was meant to be a daddy.” She added that the couple were now taking turns doing film projects so they could be with their daughter constantly. “It’s a hard thing to work out,” said Wright, who noted that Penn’s current focus on directing rather than acting would involve him for longer periods of time.

Other pressures from outside have reared their heads in Redhills’ sleepy atmosphere. “The Playboys” is being shot on an ultra-tight schedule--seven weeks of six days each. The principal actors and Connaughton were becoming increasingly irritated by this state of affairs, and wanted producer Bill Cartlidge to persuade Goldwyn more time was necessary.

“It’s physically impossible, and they know it,” Wright said. “We’ve been compromising all we can as actors, and we’re hoping they’ll meet us halfway.” Aidan Quinn was distressed at the prospect of some scenes, which established the Redhills setting, being cut. So was Connaughton. “If you take away the distinct flavor of the story, why do it here?” he said, eyes flashing. “Why not set it in L.A. instead?”

Cartlidge has his own problems. “We’ve had to delay this picture for four weeks already, and that has cost money,” he said. “We cast Annette Bening as Tara, and she was going to do it, but she then backed out.”

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The delay meant Cartlidge had to re-book accommodation for cast and crew, which proved tough, as the film’s new shooting schedule ran into the Irish vacation season.

Caught in the middle is director Gillies Mackinnon, a Scotsman recommended by Connaughton, who was his script adviser at London’s National Film School.

“I don’t feel that much trepidation about moving to features,” Mackinnon said. “I’ve just done three films back to back for British television, and this isn’t so different, except the budget’s bigger.” He grimaced. “More time would be nice, of course.”

Except for Quinn and Finney, almost every principal on the film is a replacement. At one stage, a 10-week shoot was envisaged with ex-Monty Python member Terry Jones (“Erik the Viking”) directing. Cartlidge is himself a pinch-hitter; the film’s original producer, Simon Perry, took a job as chief executive of British Screen before shooting began. “Nobody,” sighed Cartlidge, “said this was going to be easy.”

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For Aidan Quinn, who lived in Ireland in his youth, working on “The Playboys” is the fulfillment of a minor ambition.

“I’ve always wanted to play an Irish character,” he said. “Don’t get me wrong, I’m a Yank, I’m not a Yank who only thinks he’s Irish. I think I have an insight about the place that even most Irish-Americans don’t have.”

But being in Ireland, where he still has many relatives, leaves Quinn with “shades of regret. What strikes you when you come back here is the amount of new houses, in absurd styles, Spanish haciendas which have nothing to do with the landscape or the geography or the climate. You could be on Long Island or in California. The people are still the same, thank God.”

It was during a stay in Ireland when he was about 18 that Quinn finally decided to be an actor. “I used to go to lunchtime one-act plays at Trinity College in Dublin. For 40p (40 pence, 70 cents) you could see the play, get a sandwich and soup. I never had the nerve to start acting here, but this is where the idea germinated.” He started acting when he returned to his home, which was then Chicago.

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His character, Tom, is “more romantic than what I’ve been used to playing. Which is good. I’m still best known for my role in ‘Stakeout,’ in which I played a killer. I still get offered a disproportionate number of roles like those. But you don’t have to do them. I’ve been willing and able not to work when I wanted, so I’ve been able to choose the roles I did to create--or at least co-create--my career.”

In the next trailer, Albert Finney talks of the joys of playing a man in uniform. “It’s something I’ve never done before, unless you count one night’s filming as a soldier in ‘The Entertainer,’ my first film, in 1959.”

Dressed as village sergeant Hegarty, Finney has been strolling around the village green of Redhills between scenes, only to find that some inhabitants--especially the older ones--do not recognize him as an actor, but mistake him for a real policeman.

“One old fella, who’d been in the pub all day, came tip-toeing past me while we were shooting, and whispered: ‘Is it all right if I go and talk to me mate over there?’ ” On another occasion, cars coming from two directions had converged and caused a tie-up in the village; Finney, in his sergeant’s stripes, directed traffic and eased the bottleneck. No one thought to challenge his authority.

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“I liked the idea of working here,” he said of playing Hegarty. “I like films about a family or community in a defined area, and you get to know that world. I’ve never played a policeman, I’m at the sort of age where I’m not going to get the girl, so it seemed an attractive possibility, really.”

On the village green, a goat (optimistically named Oscar) munches grass. Children dressed in the more drab fashions of 1957 scurry around the tented set. The whole scene brings a glint to the eye of Milo O’Shea, the doyen of Irish actors, who plays the Playboys’ actor-manager, Freddie Fitzgerald, and actually started his career at 17 in a traveling troupe.

“I answered an ad in a paper,” O’Shea says. “A company wanted an electrician and a leading man. I went for the job as leading man, was amazed that I’d got the part, and was even more amazed when I found I’d have to be the electrician too. Of course, being 17, I said I knew all about electricity.”

One night during his first production, O’Shea was on stage in a tent with his leading lady “when the lights started to go dim. I tried to concentrate and ignore them, but pretty soon we were in pitch blackness and someone called for the electrician--which was me. I didn’t know what to do, but we found out that the supply came from a meter into which you had to feed shillings. We fumbled around backstage, but none of the cast had a shilling--it was all pennies and threepenny bits. Eventually, they shoved me on stage with a candle, and I had to ask the audience--would anyone have a shilling? And if so, would they toss it on stage? When they did, I had to crawl around on my hands and knees looking for it.”

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O’Shea feels “The Playboys” has captured the spirit of its story’s time accurately. And if a way can be found to shoot all scenes as written, everyone will be happy. “It’ll have an international appeal, I think,” Finney says. “There are two American actors among the leads. Of course,” he added dryly, “I suppose that’s because they want it to be understood in Poughkeepsie.”

Mackinnon is pragmatic on this point. “Of course it’s a film with transatlantic appeal, and you have to go with that,” he says. “If you fight it every inch of the way, it’ll show.”

Even Connaughton does not believe compromises have been made. “I originally wrote Tom as an American character, but interestingly they (Goldwyn) thought that seemed forced,” he said. “It’s better now. If we get the time to it properly, this should be fine.”


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