Playwright Conor McPherson and actor Brendan Coyle go back to the late ’90s, when The Weir made McPherson a household name and Coyle earned an Olivier Award as the show’s Irish countryside publican. While in rehearsal, Coyle
caught another McPherson play that was appearing in London—St. Nicholas, a onehander about a self-lacerating theater critic who falls into the company of vampires (McPherson’s plays often incorporate a dose of the supernatural). “The idea of doing a solo piece never, ever appealed to me,” shares Coyle. “For me, it was all about the power of the ensemble, the transfer of energy between the cast on stage and the transfer of that energy to the audience. But when I saw this piece, something really clicked. I just knew I had to do it when the time came.”

That time came last fall, when St. Nicholas opened at London’s Donmar Warehouse under the direction of Simon Evans. With another 21 years behind him, Coyle was now the right age for the role and he’s made the most of it. “It’s proved to be really fascinating and thrilling. And one of the most challenging and one of the most satisfying things I’ve ever done on the stage.” Now, Evans and Coyle bring the strange and unsettling St. Nicholas to the Goodman’s Owen Theatre for a limited run, January 9-27.

Best known in the U.S. for playing Mr. Bates—a valet with a troubled past on the wildly successful television series Downton Abbey—Coyle began his career on the stage, over the years appearing in plays by Sean O’Casey, Arthur Miller, Harold Pinter and Sam Shepherd. This month, he can be seen playing the Earl of Lennox to Saoirse Ronan’s Mary Queen of Scots in the eponymous film, directed by Josie Rourke (Downton fans will have to wait until September to catch him in the bigscreen version of that upstairs-downstairs drama). Right now, he’s all about St. Nicholas.

“The more I perform it, the more we uncover its magic,” enthuses Coyle. “The first act is about a man and his actions and where they lead him. The second is very much about reflecting on those actions. And with the second act, we’re in a very different place. It’s like a dream. There are stories within stories. You never quite know where we are going next. And it’s done with great wit and clarity.”

In a recent written commentary on the piece, McPherson stated, “I can still remember the dream that inspired it. I dreamt I had been bitten by a vampire and someone was giving me two paracetamol tablets for the pain.” Although the playwright had already had some success presenting work at such events at the Dublin Fringe Festival, St. Nicholas seemed to engender in him a whole new appreciation for his craft and the communion that can take place when the lights go down. “I recognize the theatre as a holy place where transcendence is possible,” he wrote. “I’m not trying to say I always achieve it in my work or that I always experience it when I go to the theatre. But writing a piece like St Nicholas, which is kind of about that very thing, was part of the essence of my understanding of theatre.”

Recalling his experience with McPherson on the original production of The Weir, Coyle notes the playwright attended rehearsals, but didn’t cast much of a shadow over the proceedings. “A lot of writers are quite introspective, and they feel their job is done and so they don’t like to explain themselves,” observes Coyle. McPherson himself has said, “Brendan seemed to connect to something in my writing which we never needed to discuss. As such, it was a performance to cherish.” When it came to St. Nicholas, adds Coyle, “Conor was keen for me to perform it, but he wasn’t a part of the rehearsal process. I met him for dinner after we’d performed it at the Dublin Theatre Festival and he was quite mortified. He couldn’t believe what he was presenting to an audience—how bold he was and how rude the character was. He was thinking, ‘this is what I was writing at the height of my powers as young man?’ But he saw how the audience appreciated the play.”

The character Coyle inhabits is an execrable louse, a drunk who disdains his profession and everyone else who practices it. “He’s awful,” says Coyle. “He’s a shit. But he knows it. And that somehow, maybe makes him redeemable.” While there are laughs to be had for those who like their humor black, the show is taut with tension for both performer and audience. “Because I am talking to the audience, I can see who finds it funny and who doesn’t,” relates Coyle. “And I can see people horrified. There have been moments where I was actually uncomfortable, because I could
see their reaction.”

Clearly, like all great playwrights, McPherson doesn’t always make things easy for an audience. But for all the rough weirdness of St. Nicholas, it remains a play into which we can all, hopefully, find our way. “We see a man’s life and then we see him reflecting on the consequences of his actions in this supernatural environment,” says Coyle. “Traditionally, vampires don’t cast a reflection in a mirror. So the play is a kind of meditation on the failure to reflect on your actions. And what that does to the human heart, the human soul.”

This piece was written by Thomas Connors for Playbill.

Buy tickets and learn more about St. Nicholas here.