Cork actor and director brings ‘maddest play I ever read’ to the stage

You may have noticed his absence from the panto this year - so what has actor Ciaran Bermingham been up to? COLETTE SHERIDAN talks to him about directing a new play, starring final year students, which opens this week
Cork actor and director brings ‘maddest play I ever read’ to the stage

Cast and crew of 'The Wonderful World of Dissocia' opening at the Cork School of Music on January 18-21, directed by Ciaran Bermingham.

ACTOR, director, writer and part-time lecturer at MTU Cork School of Music (CSM), Ciaran Bermingham forsook playing the dame in the Everyman pantomime this Christmas so he could direct a play.

Up until 2021, Ciaran played the comic panto role for the past seven years and says it was hard to decide to not tread the boards this time around.

Instead he took up the chance to direct a play starring the final year students of the BA in Theatre and Drama Studies at CSM.

Ciaran said he couldn’t have taken on both gigs, as one of them would have suffered. But directing the final year students is an opportunity he felt he couldn’t pass up.

Regina Crowley usually directs the final year production while Ciaran’s job at the college is working with the Musical Theatre Degree students. But Regina is writing a book so she wasn’t available.

Ciaran Bermingham, left in Aladdin. He has played the dame in the Everyman panto for the past seven years.  Picture: Miki Barlok
Ciaran Bermingham, left in Aladdin. He has played the dame in the Everyman panto for the past seven years.  Picture: Miki Barlok

“I was thrilled to be asked,” says Ciaran, who adds that the Everyman and its panto director, Catherine Mahon-Buckley, were very understanding and agreed that he ought to direct the play at CSM.

The play, which is open to the public, will be performed at the Stack Theatre at CSM from tomorrow, January 18, until January 21.

Sophie Motley, artistic director at the Everyman, recommended that Ciaran read The Wonderful World Of Dissocia by Anthony Neilson when he was looking around for a play with a big cast to produce with the students.

“I thought it was the maddest thing I’d ever read in my life. The students thought it was equally mad but with a brilliant story. It’s basically ‘Alice Through The Looking Glass for adults.”

The play challenges the audience to confront the worst of human tendencies and maladies – “but with tenderness”.

Cast and crew of 'The Wonderful World of Dissocia' opening at the Cork school of music on January 18-21, directed by Ciaran Bermingham.
Cast and crew of 'The Wonderful World of Dissocia' opening at the Cork school of music on January 18-21, directed by Ciaran Bermingham.

Lisa Montgomery Jones (played by Niamh Fennessy) feels her life is out of balance, which is affecting her relationships. When she is visited by a mysterious man to report on her watch that has been running slow, she is shocked to find that it’s not the watch which is behind time. The man reveals Lisa has lost an hour causing her to feel out of balance. He advises that the hour can be traced back to a land called ‘Dissocia’. Lisa must travel there to retrieve it.

Her apartment becomes an elevator that transports her to this strange new land. On her travels, she encounters security guards, a singing polar bear, a scapegoat and some ‘time-flies’. They are all desperate to prevent her from finding her hour so they can keep her in Dissocia.

The play, which has a cast of 18, is both whimsical and disturbing. It’s also “brave for treading on taboo territory – mental illness and rape – never fearing to use both humour and brutality to goad the audience to think and empathise.”

Ciaran, whose varied career includes playing Mord in Game of Thrones as well as starring in a host of plays and writing the award-winning short film, Conversations With My Dead Father, is lecturing on the BA course at CSM that he graduated in three years ago.

Asked why he decided to study for the BA, Ciaran says: “I always felt that because I hadn’t ever studied theatre, I was missing out. Was there something I didn’t have in my tool box that I needed?

“Also, I was looking down the road. As I was getting older (he is 56), I wondered if I could keep up the travelling and the touring or would I like a job in a college? And get paid every month instead of having to hustle for something.”

Ciaran playing Mord in Game of Thrones.
Ciaran playing Mord in Game of Thrones.

Working with students excites Ciaran.

“As the elder lemon in the room, I’m excited about the young talent that’s coming up. The production crew includes PhD student, Caitlin Kelly who is doing the sound design, and the original music is composed by MA student, Zack Boland. Aoife Higgins from the MTU Crawford College of Art and Design designed the poster.

“I tried to reach out to as many people as I could within the arts community. Caitlin did the soundscape for my last play, The Jean Genie Lives in an Aquarium, which I wrote myself.”

Ciaran, who left a secure job in Musgraves more than 20 years ago to pursue a career in the world of theatre, has no regrets. He sings the praises of his wife, Michelle, who encouraged her husband to follow his dream. They have two daughters, Alex (27) and Lily (22).

Alex is in London working for West End producer, Sonia Friedman. A junior producer, Alex has worked on The Book of Mormon and is currently working on a theatrical production of To Kill A Mocking Bird. Lily is in her final year studying pharmacology at UCC.

“Lily is the one who saw the light and got sense, going after a real job. She’ll look after me in my old age!” said Ciaran.

But for him, the world of performance and writing interests him intensely.

Conversations With My Dead Father is currently on the transatlantic Aer Lingus flight to the States. There’s Brad Pitt and his film and me with my film, so I’m in good company.”

Lecturing part-time allows Ciaran to have balance in his working life.

“What’s brilliant is that a gigging actor is coming in to help with the lecturing. It’s very important for the students to meet actual actors and see what life as an actor is like.”

Living in Cork means that Ciaran has always had to do some travelling for work.

“I’ve been lucky in my career. I think I’m a good actor but I’ve been lucky with the breaks I got. Doing Game of Thrones opened doors for me that would never have otherwise opened.”

Ciaran says that in Ireland, “we’re brutal for thinking if someone gets work somewhere else, they must be good, so they’ll then hire them. It’s that thing tht further fields are greener. A lot of students go to London to do a degree in theatre studies and drama, and musical theatre. But they don’t have to go to London any more. You have it here in Cork.”

One big home-grown success story that Ciaran was involved with was The Young Offenders. He played the sergeant in both the film and the TV series, and says there’s ‘rumours’ that it may come back, but won’t say anymore.

There was a time in Ciaran’s career when he supplemented it with taxi-driving. He would come off the stage of the Cork Opera House where he was in I, Keano and would go off driving his cab.

“Some people that I’d be dropping home would be talking about how great the show was,” he says.

Ciaran never disclosed that he was in the show.

Driving a taxi gave him material to write a show about the diary of a taxi driver with Cork-born actor and writer, Ray Scannell.

“It’s still there, but thankfully, we’ve both been so busy that we haven’t had time to put it on.”

Ciaran is writing a screenplay for a feature film about family dynamics.

“I’ll concentrate on that in the summer when I’m off college. Hopefully, it will go into production in 2024. There is interest in the script already based on a first draft that I’ve put out there. I’ve sent off an application for funding for it.”

The plan is to do more directing and writing, as well as lecturing.

“I absolutely love lecturing. We owe it to the next generation to get them ready for what’s to come. I went into this industry knowing nothing,” says Ciaran, who says he is still learning, including from his students.

The Wonderful World Of Dissocia runs at the Stack Theatre, MTU Cork School of Music from January 18 to 21. You can book tickets on:

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