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George Shane: A powerful presence on stage dies at 71

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One of the great characters of the Northern Ireland stage, actor George Shane, has died aged 71.

He was associated with the Lyric Theatre for many years and was a much sought-after actor by playwrights including Graham Reid and Stewart Parker.

Born in Belfast, where he attended the Boys' Model School, George began his career with the amateur Clarence Players company, where he first came into contact with Reid.

Their relationship was to develop further at the Lyric. George gave one of his most memorable performances in Reid's Remembrance, a play about a Protestant widower and a Catholic widow who meet at their murdered sons' graves and later fall in love.

George left Northern Ireland to train at the Royal Scottish Academy in Glasgow, where he won the best actor award for his role in Harold Pinter's The Caretaker. He later performed alongside Albert Finney at the Royal Court.

He is remembered as a man totally dedicated to his art. Martin Lynch said he would be one of the first to turn up for rehearsals and would want to get straight to work. He would often question the directors' interpretation of a role, which cost him some work, but his motivation was to be the best he could. It was this dedication that enabled him to immerse himself totally in his roles.

Lynch said that such was the power of George's performance as a RUC Special Branch officer in the play The Interrogation Of Ambrose Fogarty, the Lyric audience was stunned into silence. "The theatre literally shook," he added. "His power was incredible. After that premiere my sisters were incensed at the authenticity he brought to the role. They told him he had no need to be so hard on poor Ambrose."

Acclaimed director Sam McCready also pointed up George's intensity on stage. "When he was playing a German soldier in BENT, he terrified the other actors so much that one whispered to me: 'Sam, you'll have to stop this - he'll kill us before this is over'."

One of George's most famous roles was in the 2013 production of Reid's Love, Billy, the long-awaited sequel to the Billy Plays trilogy. In it George played Norman Martin, the role originally made famous by Jimmy Ellis. Norman was a hardman, and George said he based his interpretation of the role on his own father, William John. George had been in the initial production of the plays playing another hardman character, Tommy Agnew.

When he found stage work more difficult to come by George moved into films, including Resurrection Man, Divorcing Jack, Closing The Ring, Cal and A Prayer For The Dying, and he also appeared in an episode of detective series Bergerac, which was set in the Channel Islands.

He married his wife May in 1979. She was from Strabane and the couple settled there in recent years. George underwent radical stomach surgery in 2008 after being diagnosed with cancer.

He was also a diabetic and required regular dialysis, but that did not stop him enjoying himself.

Last year he accompanied Lynch to the Edinburgh Festival, where they saw five plays in 36 hours and where George was the life and soul of the party.

Lynch recalled: "George had generously responded to a public appeal for funds to take a local play to the festival.

"When we went over with it, he had the time of his life and couldn't wait to meet new directors and actors. He may have been in poor health, but that did not stop him."

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