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Belfast's Lyric Theatre cast as villain after it emerges new play will feature no local actors

By Ivan Little

Published 30/07/2015

The Lyric Theatre has defended its casting for the play Dancing At Lughnasa
The Lyric Theatre has defended its casting for the play Dancing At Lughnasa

Belfast's Lyric Theatre has come under fire after it was revealed that its cast for a high-profile revival of one of Brian Friel's most popular plays has no locally-based actors in it.

Northern Ireland actors and agents have taken to social media to protest against what they say is a snub to them at a time of cutbacks in the theatre industry.

But the Lyric has defended its decisions over its Dancing At Lughnasa cast, which includes five actors from the Republic, two from England and one from Scotland.

It is understood that one actor from here was offered a role but subsequently had it withdrawn by the Lyric.

Mark Butler, an agent with the Universal Artists agency, which represents dozens of actors, went on Twitter and Facebook to raise questions about the casting.

He said he had received a huge number of private messages of support from actors in the wake of his comments, but added: "A lot of them don't want to go public in case it jeopardises their chances of any future work at the Lyric."

Mr Butler said the actors who had been cast in Lughnasa were all "amazing" but added that he believed some of the roles could and should have gone to northern-based actors.

He also claimed that no casting sessions had been held in Belfast.

He added: "As a taxpayer for a very long time now I want my tax to subsidise businesses that pump money back into our local economy. It is an awful time at the moment for many theatre companies with Arts Council budget cuts."

It's understood the Lyric will spend upwards of £1,000 a week in subsistence payouts for the Lughnasa actors to live in Belfast during rehearsals and the run of the play, which opens next month.

Mr Butler said that one of the independent organisations hardest hit by the recent cuts in funding from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland was the Tinderbox Theatre Company in Belfast. He said that in the past 11 years, 91 out of its 100 acting jobs had gone to locally based men and women.

He added: "Tinderbox is a great example; a company that always strives to hire local talent. This makes business sense as it cuts down on subsistence for visiting artists and the company does recognise and encourage local artists."

Sources close to the Lyric said a number of northern actors were not considered for roles because they were involved with other productions.

In a statement, the theatre said it had a strong track record of casting Northern Irish actors and was proud to have employed people such as Liam Neeson, Ciaran Hinds, Adrian Dunbar and Conleth Hill in their early careers.

The statement said a Lyric production of Can't Forget About You by Dundonald writer David Ireland had just finished a run at the Tron Theatre in Glasgow with an almost exclusively Northern Irish cast.

It went on: "Our priority is to produce world-class theatre, and casting decisions are made first and foremost according to an actor's suitability for a particular role.

"When a local actor is the best person for a role, he or she will be cast, but if they are not suitable or not available, the role will go to someone else."

Actors' union Equity has expressed concern.

Its Glasgow-based organiser for Northern Ireland, Drew McFarlane, said the union had received a number of calls regarding Lughnasa by Mr Friel.

He said: "The fact that no member based within Northern Ireland was cast is a real concern to us given that employment opportunities for members are few and far between." Mr McFarlane said he had written to the Lyric and had spoken about the situation with the executive producer, Jimmy Fay, a former literary director of the Abbey Theatre in Dublin and ex-theatre curator of the Kilkenny Arts Festival.

He said he had been assured "that a combination of factors led to this, not least the availability of some of the local talent and that forthcoming productions would feature many local actors".

"Suffice to say we will monitor the employment of actors to ensure that happens," said Mr McFarlane.

Belfast Telegraph

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