Meet… Robbie O’Neill

Robbie is playing William in ‘To Have To Shoot Irishmen’


What are the challenges of playing a character inspired by a real person?

It can vary I suppose. If its a famous or well-known person, you’re treading the line, as the last thing you want to do is an impression. If it’s someone less well known, but historically significant, its essentially a case of bringing your own personal take of that person and allying it to the facts, historical context and emotional truth of it. I think as long as you maintain an open mind and pay the necessary respect to the people at the foundation of the story, no matter what their outlook, you can navigate it and make it as dramatically honest as it needs to be.

Have you had experience of playing a real life role before for stage or screen?

Yeah, I played a junior detective who was key to a breakthrough in the Rhys Jones murder case in ‘Little Boy Blue’. I’ve also played some historical characters in a few Shakespeare plays.

How much research do you do? When do you have to draw the line and make the character your own?

I think first and foremost, any actor’s responsibility is simply to tell the story as it’s written on the page, through the eyes of whatever character it is they’re playing. So obviously, the tone of the writing and their role in the narrative is always going to play a part in what’s portrayed. Whatever part you play though, whether it’s someone from the 21st or 19th Century, you’ve always got to consider the environment they’re existing in and how and why they arrive at the decisions they make. Whether it’s a fictional or non-fictional character, every character in every scene has a target within the structure of the scene, and indeed the play. So in terms of research, understanding the world you’re stepping into is vital, so that you can realise why you’re trying to hit those targets. Sometimes, you can do this as a company, but it’s not always the case, so I think it’s imperative the actor takes responsibility for being well versed in whatever world they’re passing through, the minute they get into a read through. If I were playing someone who was alive now, I’d probably try to meet them to get keyed into the why and what of everything. If not though, it’s important (for me personally, though I realise it’s not true for everyone) to know the various facets of what makes the person, amongst the historical and geographical context. Accuracy is important, but at the end of the day, it’s a dramatic text, not a documentary, so it’s the actor’s job to make the leaps of both imagination and psychology amongst all this to make it interesting, relevant and believable at the same time. Long story short, I tend to research loads. That probably sounds more pretentious than I mean it to, but it is what it is.

What do you like most about William? Are there any similarities between him and you?

There are no obvious similarities. We’re very different entitities. Saying that though, he seems, at points, to hide his own vulnerability (during a time of war I think this is totally understandable), which I think for a long time I also tried to do, so there’s a similarity there despite our differing contexts. I think there’s a sense of loyalty about William also that is tied into his pretence of duty and regimen, which I quite admire. In all honesty though, I’ve got a probably slightly misplaced romantic notion that If I were alive in 1916, William and I would be on opposing sides of the conflict. I find that in itself interesting because I’ve got to totally shed my own pre-conceptions, to understand his world-view and position. In many ways, he’s powered by his understanding of what the world expects of him, which is very true for a lot of men, even a hundred years later, and when that world abandons him, he has to deal with his own value system amidst the tatters of everything he thought sacrosanct. He’s a very conflicted young lad. On one hand he’s super sensitive to being under orders and yet he’s a naturally very curious person. It’s a wonderful contradiction to have to play with in a character. I also think it’s tragic how he survived what many would regard to be a just war, but lost his life at the Somme, during a conflict many deem to have been a pointless conflict. Is that a spoiler? I’m sorry if that’s a spoiler.

If William had a theme song what would it be and why?

My music taste’s probably a bit west of anywhere William is at! Bit of an indie-head, so probably not appropriate! There’s something really cinematic about him and the other characters in the play though. I’ve been listening to a lot of classical music lately for something else I’ve been working on, so I’ll go with something from that genre; Mascagni’s adaptation of Ave Maria to his Intermezzo from Cavellerria Rusticana. It’s one of the most famous pieces of scored classical music in existence, paired with a prayer. The music has been used, to astonishing effect, in movies such as The Godfather and Raging Bull, and to me, it demonstrates, or punctuates, as a piece of music, the pride before the fall. The reason I’ve chosen this particular piece or version, is for that reason. The music starts idyllic, tranquil, rising to a dramatic dark instability before falling back to a quiet nothingness you can reasonably assume to be death or loss. Add that to it’s coupling with Ave Maria, it adds the Christian aspect of William’s character perfectly. The music and the words are almost at odds with one another. I find William’s idea of only being answerable to a higher power (God, his superiors, his father) compared to Frank, who, it seems, is consciously answerable to no-one but his community, a really compelling theme in the play, and it’s one I’m looking forward to exploring more.

What are you most excited about with ‘To Have To Shoot Irishmen’?

Several things. I really can’t wait to get started. The play ticks so many boxes for me. I started acting because I wanted to make work with a real social and political conscience, and this play does so. It’s got a real heart, and I’m really excited to get started and meet everybody. I’m also excited to get back out on tour. I haven’t toured since before I left Bristol Old Vic, so it’s going to be nice. I live in South-West London now and Omnibus Theatre isn’t far from where I, or my girlfriend, live so that’ll be sound and I look forward to working there, but for me, getting to perform at the Liverpool Everyman is the fulfilment of an ambition. It’s my home town theatre and there were two events that led to me formulating that I could, and would, act. Seeing ‘The Kindness of Strangers’ by Tony Green and seeing Pete Postlethwaite do Lear at the old Everyman. They were two formative experiences that I’m almost certain would mean that had I not encountered them, I wouldn’t be acting, let alone doing this play! ‘The Kindness of Strangers’ was a play set in Liverpool with a huge heart and wonderful performances. It looked at the fabric of the city, how it was built on immigration, how it was altering and how different people were reacting to the change and I just thought, “Wow, If I ever do this, I want to do stuff like that.” I saw ‘King Lear’ about 5 years later. I’d just been made redundant from my full-time job and had long since gave up on the idea of becoming an actor and I thought, “That’s amazing, I want to do that” and it was then or never, so I took the plunge and here I am, 10 years later. So I think getting to perform at The Everyman is going to be a rounding of a circle for me. I can’t wait, and I can’t wait for everyone to see it.

‘To Have To Shoot Irishmen’ touring Oct/Nov 2018

Easter morning, 1916. Gunshots ring out in the Dublin streets.

 While Frank and Hanna prepare for revolution, 18-year-old William vows to serve the British army with honour. But can honour survive the chaos of conflict?

 Inspired by true events, the production weaves movement and folk song in to a stirring tale of militarism and rebellion.

For previous work

A thrillingly theatrical encapsulation of a little-known theatre of war.

★★★★ The Guardian

on Narvik by Lizzie Nunnery (Winner of Best New Play, UK Theatre Awards 2017)

 Powerful and timely.

★★★★ The Stage

on The Sum by Lizzie Nunnery