Mark Farrelly toured North America at 21 as Hamlet and seemed destined for a great mainstream acting career. Surprising then that he tells me: “ I was a reluctant child performer. My English teacher tried to persuade me into the annual school play. I went into a small part in the Merchant of Venice and got a lot of laughs. There began the great delusion: that acting is a great way of avoiding myself”.This remark in our interview didn’t make its full impact until later in our conversation.
Anyway, Mark read English at Cambridge.”The drama scene was absolutely fantastic- like the Edinburgh Festival all year round. I decided I wasn’t going to be a funny person because being funny is about defeat”. In his final year, student friend James Seabright – nowadays an established theatre producer – invited him to tour North America for a month playing Hamlet, sometimes performing to 1000-seat theatres. ”I thought:this is what I want to do for my life”’ he tells me.
But he soon became horrified how difficult it was to make a living acting. “I was 24 when I left uni and I didn’t want to go through another 3 years’ training, and I was getting gigs so I thought: let’s just do it”. Tours for impresario Bill Kenright and playwright/director Alan Ayckbourn followed and then a lead role opposite Matthew Kelly in the West End in Albee’s Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?
It seemed success was assured but Kelly had to leave for another contract and the show folded. “There were two problems underneath. I attached my sense of self-worth to getting a job. When I didn’t have a job I thought I was worthless”.
This feeling led to a breakdown in his confidence and in his mental health. He went home to Sheffield for 6 months. “ Acting is about revealing a huge amount about yourself: it’s not a place to hide”. Kelly, who had stayed a friend advised him:” he said you have to be vulnerable and exposed far more than you think”.
A whole year went by without work, and a good actor friend hanged himself. “I had a few ideas about solo work and wrote a play about playwright Patrick Hamilton – The Silence Of Snow”. It’s a typically robust and openly honest piece of theatre about a man who was phenomenally successful in his 20’s with plays like Rope and Gaslight but who in late life descended into alcoholism. He also penned a piece about Queer icon Quentin Crisp. On his mental well-being he admits“ I tried therapy, and then tried it again”. He is open that it was a painful and slow process to come to understand himself. “My writing came out of realising I could like myself- and I learned how to be vulnerable on stage. My aim was for work which really connected and touched people”.
Going back to his uni friend James Seabright, he asked for advice on his two plays and Seabright agreed to produce them in Edinburgh and then on tour. Later he was to become his own producer. He has now clocked up more than 130 performances as Quentin Crisp and more than 80 as Hamilton. “ What fascinated me about Crisp was why he dealt with life in the way he did, and how he was persecuted. And when I wrote a play about comedian Frankie Howerd – Howerd’s End – I couldn’t find a producer”, and the play rested for nearly 10 years before being performed recently. On his new play about Queer film-maker Derek Jarman, he tells me: “ I read his diaries and was staggered by his story”.
Going back to Howerd he says: ‘ I couldn’t play him because I can’t do him”, opting instead to play Howerd’s secret lover Denis. “The play is a metaphor for failing to acknowledge the important people in our lives. I was interested in our endings and how we handle them”.
Going back to the Jarman piece he adds:” It’s in the spirit of Jarman rather than just a tribute piece. It’s a very stripped-down production in the style of how Jarman worked”. He admits it’s the hardest thing he’s done, with its ornate, rich mercurial language. Having seen it recently at Above The Stag, Vauxhall I can vouch for its power and directness and the openness with which Farrelly treats the material and the man.
Asked to give his young self advice, he thought for a while and then said:” I wrote a letter to my younger self 8 years ago. I said first of all: It will be all right. Don’t despair. Keep going even if you can’t see the destination, and I said I love you. It’s good to keep checking in with yourself. I listen to the words of my shows every time I say them”.
All 4 shows are currently being performed. To find out Mark’s busy show schedule go to markfarrelly.co.uk