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Gabriel Byrne: Upside Down on Broadway

Is it easier to talk about ourselves or about others? Several actors have written memoirs and presented stage monologues about themselves, but not so many have done both.

Gabriel Byrne, Golden Globe-winning actor, has just brought to Broadway a limited run of “Walking with Ghosts,” after premiering it in his hometown Dublin, then Edinburgh, and London’s West End.

“Walking with Ghosts” is the one-man stage adaptation of Byrne’s 2020 memoir of the same title, published by Grove Press in January 2021. He then wrote the stage version, in which he plays himself, directed by two-time Emmy Award winner Lonny Price. The producers present it as a “lyrical homage to the people and landscapes that shape our destinies.”

At the Music Box Theater in Manhattan, minimal set and lighting design by award-winning designer Sinéad McKenna keeps the focus on the performance, showing Byrne’s shadow upside down, as a metaphorical window into his human imperfections.

“The script, while often mournful, allows him to show a playful side and a gift, neglected in Hollywood, for physical comedy”, wrote The New York Times’ critic Alexis Soloski last month. “Byrne … appears at ease on the stage, bestriding it as easily as another man might stroll his own patio.”

It is a “deeply honest and courageous work” (The Chicago Tribune), “heartfelt and spellbinding” (Variety). Over two hours, the 72-year-old Irish actor, writer and producer – his producing credits include 1993’s In The Name of the Father, which was nominated for four Golden Globes and seven Academy Awards – tells it all, from his Catholic childhood with abusive priests, to his experiences sharing both the stage and a great deal of whisky with the legendary Richard Burton, to 20-something years of sobriety after a struggle with alcoholism – and a lot more in between.

The oldest of six children born to a working-class family in Dublin in 1950, Byrne had nothing in mind to lead him to a career in show business beyond the joy of going to the movies with his grandmother.

Before entering acting, he trained to become a priest. “I spent five years in the seminary and I suppose it was assumed that one had a vocation. I realized subsequently that I didn’t,” he said in an interview in 2007 to The National Secular Society (NSS), a British campaigning organization that promotes secularism and the separation of church and state.

After dropping that plan, he attended University College, Dublin, where he studied archaeology and linguistics, becoming proficient in the Irish language. After graduation, he had many jobs, including cook, and Spanish and history schoolteacher in the same secondary school he had attended as a pupil (Ardscoil Éanna).

He started acting at age 29, and began his career on stage with the Focus Theatre and the Abbey Theatre in Dublin. Back then the parts for Irish actors were mostly limited, he says in his memoir, to drunks and terrorists.

Having played three roles in Broadway before the current one, Byrne has been nominated twice for the Tony award. In 2009 The Guardian named him one of the best actors never to have received an Academy Award nomination.

That might change any moment. Meanwhile, this current show could lead Byrne to his third Tony nomination, and perhaps his first win.

Meanwhile, he is having a great time. “It’s not even so much about my life,” he said in a recent interview with Vogue magazine. “I put my life out there so you can think about yours. That’s really what my intent is. And the great thing about drama is that my parents passed away a while ago but every night I am able to have a conversation with them on stage. I can bring them to life again and have that conversation you wished you had when they were alive. I am going down this road of saying things that I might not be able to say in real life to people… That’s been very healing for me.”