Marie Jones, Conleth Hill and Sean Campion. None of their names are household yet, but Stones in His Pockets—which starts previews on Broadway on March 23—will change all that. Already the play's stars Hill and Campion are winning raves (and an Olivier for Hill) for their breath taking portrayal of a host of characters from Irish extras Charley and Jack to the American cast and crew of an overdone, romantic film on location in Ireland. It's playwright Marie (pronounced Mahr-ee) Jones, now an Olivier Award winner herself, who gave them the words on which to mold their virtuoso performances. Jones is not unknown in the United States, where both her Women on the Verge of HRT and A Night in November received productions. Those two works, her most recognized after Stones, are only the tip of the iceberg—the writer-performer has some 18 plays to her credit, and that's just for the theatre. It was her acting experience with the American movie industry (her film work includes role of Sarah Conlon in the Daniel Day Lewis movie "In the Name of the Father") that lead to the writing of Stones in His Pockets.
Playbill On-Line: Tell me about Stones, which came about after you'd done some acting in American films. Is the play really a picture of your experience?
Marie Jones: It's not really about my experience on a film set, but more about the observation of what's happening to Ireland and, in the last 15 years, the disintegration of rural life. With the demise of that, we had to bring in tourism. The whole film industry world is part of that tourism. So what you've had in the last 15 years is major movies being made in Ireland. And these films are coming to these small towns because that's where the scenery is beautiful, the wilds and all that. There's virtually nothing there but a pub and a school and suddenly, there are American movie stars! They themselves are in the movie—they become the extras. The whole community becomes totally wrapped up in the movie and then it goes. And when it goes, it doesn't go gradually—one day, there's nothing left. [The play's about] how the film affects people's lives, when it's there, when it goes. The two cultures are so entirely different. You have a small town mentality and you have big major stars coming in from Hollywood. When you're in a movie, there could be a World War on, but that would not matter. The most important thing is getting the movie made. These poor people [in the play] are going, "It's only a film. Why is everyone getting so carried away?" In my play, when an important thing happens to the town, that's when there's a clash and a conflict between the cultures.
Do you feel that working as an actress changes the way you write for the stage? Do you think about acting the part as you're writing it?
MJ: It's kind of difficult to know. When I started writing I was an actress for many years. I suppose it does. I would know what would be possible, but then I would never limit myself. In terms of language I know what's easy to say, but there are brilliant writers who aren't actors. I'll tell you what I'm terrible at is visually saying something. When I gave Ian [McElhinney, Stones' director] the script, he said "This is very unnerving. How am I going to put this on stage?," because I give no stage directions, no nothing. He's got to create all of it. And remember, there's nothing on the stage, but a lot of old shoes and a bit of a backdrop. He has bring that to life, while in my eye, I see [the actors] in all the actual locations; I see them on top of the mountain, I can see the wee church. But that's a film. I write theatrically and think filmically. The poor person who has to put it on the stage has got a nightmare! But Ian's brilliant and the two actors are fantastically creative and very simple in how they draw it. It's very, very effective.
PBOL: This isn't the first production of Stones in His Pockets here in the U.S. San Francisco's Magic Theatre staged the play briefly in June and July of 1999.
MJ: I was asked to do a festival in San Francisco and to do a workshop production. I thought I need to work on Stones. I'd written it, but I knew I needed to work on it. So that's what they did, a workshop production in a small theatre. Since then, I've done a lot of rewrites and reworking and relooking. This play is really organic; it evolves all the time. The last big push was before we went to do it at the Lyric and that's the way it's been ever since. But we change it slightly all the time. "Now Conleth or Sean will say what about this wee bit?" They're small changes, but it keeps it fresh.
PBOL: Why do you think Stones really took off in London, becoming this popular show that everyone—even American celebrities like Tom Hanks, Dustin Hoffman and Kevin Spacey—were dying to get into?
MJ: I think it was kind of different show for people to see. When you go to a play in the West End— and I'm sure it's the same on Broadway—usually there are big production values in terms of sets and costumes because people pay a lot to go to the theatre and that's all part of it. Then they come to this little play and they see two actors, very basic little set, with movement that they create. They've created a new world. A big set limits you, while they just create their own. They just tease you into this little world and then you can open up your mind and see the rest of it for yourself. Also, it's just two actors playing everybody. They do it like a ballet, the way they move from one to another— a ballet in the sense that the movement is very synchronized—but it's very fresh and alive, not like some theatre of the absurd or something. It's the actor using whatever the actor uses. It's back to the basics of acting. That's what I think all the big stars have responded to—and the ordinary punters. It's just a good story and you add all those other factors in. Even though there's a dark side to it, there's an upbeat ending. It's about two guys who are going nowhere and, through the course of the play, they decide to take their destiny into their own hands. Well, that's a good thing. People want them to succeed. Now, that's why I think. You'd do best to ask the audience. [Laughs] PBOL: Speaking of the dark side, the sadness of the play really surprised me when I read it. There's that moment at the end of the first act that just made me think "My God, this is really terrible."
MJ: I know! Here's the laugh: I won the Evening Standard Award for the Best Comedy, the Olivier Award for the Best Comedy—and I didn't write a comedy! I wrote a serious play! People remember laughter more than they do anything else because that's what they want to remember. They come out going, "That was hilarious," but they've gone through the dark side of it too. I watch them in the audience and I feel the silence. It's so awful. And they relate to it, when it's over. But the humor would not have worked without the dark side. It's about the survival of these guys and it's a feel good thing. But without the dark side, the humor would have been cut by 70%.
PBOL: Is there any one work you're especially proud of?
MJ: I suppose A Night in November, because it was very autobiographical, if you like, and very much about my life, even though it was played by a man. It really was the hardest to do and the most rewarding for myself. But I've loved all the rest as well.
PBOL: I have heard there's going to be a Stones in His Pockets film, but you're not doing the film script?
MJ: No, I'm not. I don't even go to the movies. I'm not a movie person. I only act in them or write about them. I don't go watch them, for God's sake!
— By Christine Ehren