Fans love Walking With Ghosts. Critics? Unlike those across the pond, American theater critics seem mixed in their reaction, a little confused, slightly critical. I don’t think some of them quite “get” Gabriel Byrne’s play. And, to be honest, I’m not surprised.
Don’t misunderstand me. Most critics, especially those from “the big guns,” important news outlets like The New York Times and Variety, are quite nice in their praise of Gabriel as an actor and a writer. But they don’t seem to “get” the play. Which I think is their way of saying they simply refuse to give themselves up to the story Gabriel is telling. They nitpick about what he leaves out: the hit movies, the glittering stardom, the frantic living of the well-paid and handsome star, the GOSSIP. They can’t engage with the story that he IS telling or, if they can, it’s just not as riveting, not as much fun. And that, to me, is sad, but as I say, not surprising.
Fortunately, fans and theater-goers ignore the critics. A lot. We know what’s what. And Gabriel Byrne is the What when he’s on stage, on Broadway, on fire in a play he reaped from the entrancing and unforgettable book he wrote, based on the strange, complicated, and unique life he has lived.
Irish Central Review
Cahir O’Doherty over at Irish Central offers insight and puts this situation in clear focus in his review of the play, which is also an interview with Gabriel Byrne. The sections in bold are my highlights for you:
Irish audience members will hear and see themselves reflected in Gabriel Byrne’s from-the-depths “Walking With Ghosts” on Broadway.
Gabriel Byrne’s new show on Broadway “Walking With Ghosts” is one of the richest meditations on Irish life I have seen on a stage in years, a story you’ll carry with you long after the lights come up.
What critics here in America might not understand is the why. Why is this most private of men laying the lessons of his life bare on stage in this way, now? What has compelled him to speak up when it would be all too easy to rest on the laurels of a notably successful career?
The answer is much clearer to the Irish themselves. One of the journeys the new Republic is currently making is toward a national reckoning with itself, and in particular with the clerical abuse crisis, one chapter of which gets a searing retelling here . . .
It’s extraordinary to witness this famously private man open up on stage, sharing details so intimate that you suspect it may have taken half a lifetime to address some of them, never mind discussing them onstage . . .
If, as Byrne tells us his father used to say, “you can tell a lot about a man from his shoes,” then you can tell a lot about Byrne himself from the depth of the love he clearly has for the people who populate his memories and this performance.
It’s a love story, I tell him. It’s not really about his fame and fortune, it’s about the things that have really mattered. The things that make a life.
“I never thought of that,” he tells IrishCentral. “But I would be honored by a description like that. Because, you know, there’s nobody on that stage is still alive. Not one person. So that’s why I say to friends of mine, you can come without concern because it’s not about anybody who’s alive.”
“But it’s in a way I’m having a conversation with those people. I mean, when you’re having a dinner party people will often ask you if you could invite anyone who would you have there? And I always think to myself, I wouldn’t be interested in Abraham Lincoln or whatever. I’d love to have my father, my grandfather, and my great grandfather, to just sit there and ask them about their lives, and all the things I never got to ask them when they were alive.”
I think Cahir got it right in his assessment and I appreciate his words very much. Below you will find a review from a big national news outlet and one from a smaller, more local resource devoted to theater in New York. These two reviewers also appreciate Gabriel’s work very much and find the play “lyrical,” “engrossing,” and “a gift not to be missed.”
The ghosts of Gabriel Byrne: Walking With Ghosts, the engrossing new one-man play on Broadway, are not those of Charles Dickens or even Conor McPherson. They are phantoms of Byrne’s memory who are fading with the years, but that doesn’t make them any less haunting. In fact, the opposite is often true. Some are to be embraced; others are to be let go; all are to be dealt with.
Adapted by Byrne from his memoir of the same title, Walking With Ghosts is a bildungsroman, telling Byrne’s story of growing up in and around Dublin and how that formed him as a man and an artist.
In addition to being a gifted actor, Byrne is a gifted writer. His memoir has moved easily (at least to an outsider) from the page to the stage. This two-hour monologue is well-written, well-paced and well-acted. In its best moments, and there are many best moments, one is reminded of the Dylan Thomas classic A Child’s Christmas in Wales. Walking With Ghosts is sometimes funny, sometimes dark, always lyrical and always engrossing.
Theater Pizzazz Review
Byrne, unassuming, placid and dressed (Joan O’Cleary) in a casual blue suit over a blue sweater-vest and a lighter blue button-up shirt, tells his stories—which are smartly divided into short “chapters” delineated by a fading to black at the end of each—casually and directly, as if you’re sitting with him at a bar, sharing stories over pints. What you’d never get from his tone is the severity of the tumultuous events of his life, many of which would permanently traumatize most of us. But Byrne, like many of his fellow storytelling countrymen, doesn’t whine about his fate—rather, these events are all portions of a rich tapestry of what he sees as a blessed and fortunate existence. . .
But one wonders, as Byrne later recounts tales of alcohol abuse and eventual recovery, how much these stories may be intertwined. Walking With Ghosts’ set (Sinéad McKenna) consists of a series of illuminated frames around a black background, backed by an image of shattered glass, onto which his shadow is occasionally projected . . . upside down—surely symbolizing disarray in an otherwise well put-together persona.
The tradition of storytelling in Irish (and even Irish American) culture has given us some of the world’s great yarn spinners. Large family gatherings consisting of boisterous talk, singing and, of course, the telling of tales, encourage and perpetuate what for many eventually becomes an art. The practice certainly has lent a hand in creating some of the greatest raconteurs the world has ever known. And Byrne most certainly continues that tradition. Under the direction of Lonny Price, his charm, wit and moderated passion allow us to richly live his personal history and feel a kinship we might not otherwise have had with this great writer, actor and director. Walking With Ghosts is a gift that shouldn’t be missed.
All production images are courtesy of Emilio Madrid and Sara Krulwich.
Playbill has very kindly provided a list of reviews for Gabriel’s play, so you can check there for more praise and the occasional curmudgeonly snipe. They promise that the list will be updated as more critics weigh in, so head over there to catch up on what the critics are saying.
We’ve already weighed in. We love Gabriel Byrne and we love Walking With Ghosts.
And that’s the What on that. heart