There is a story about this seaside town, says Adrian Dunbar, as we lunch on oysters and crabcakes in Bundoran, on the southern edge of County Donegal. Outside Madden’s Bridge Bar, the sky is the colour of porridge. Inside, the Guinness is bible black. And in the distance, the peaks that rise up over the Wild Atlantic Way are shrouded in cloud.
It’s the story of an ancestral homecoming, says the 59-year-old actor, now best known for his long-running role as Superintendent Ted Hastings in the BBC police drama Line of Duty. In the early 1960s, Dunbar relates, a young man was brought back to Ireland from Los Angeles by his parents. “As they came down through Bundoran, he was sitting in the car thinking, ‘Oh my God, I’m going to be so bored.’ But as he came across the bridge where we’re sitting, he saw the waves and just sat up in the car, shocked that nobody was surfing. He went and got himself a piece of board, fashioned a surfboard out of it, and actually managed to get up on a wave.”
Nowadays, thanks to that pioneer, Donegal’s economy is buoyed by a thriving surfing scene. “Yeats called this the land of heart’s desire,” says Dunbar who with his wife – the actor and casting director Anna Nygh – has a home up in the nearby mountains. Perhaps Yeats wasn’t writing about this corner of Ireland on such a blustery day.
It is on these beaches later this month that Dunbar will direct the staging another homecoming. Over five nights on five different beaches, the actor and Greek scholar Niall Cusack will serve as what Dunbar calls a rhapsode, narrating from Homer’s Odyssey the tale of one man’s 10-year journey home from the Trojan wars to the family home in Ithaca, where he takes out the importunate trash of suitors to his wife. “It’ll be theatre governed by the tides,” says Dunbar. “We’ll light fires and have Greek food – and wine, of course.”
Dunbar’s Odyssey is part of the Arts Over Borders festival devoted to the great playwright Brian Friel, who died at his home on the northern tip of County Donegal in 2015, but spent much of his childhood across the border in Derry. This year, the festival will explore Friel’s relationship with Homer. The Irish dramatist was said to have read The Odyssey or The Iliad each year. Cusack will be reading from Stephen Mitchell’s translations, which Friel favoured. “He liked its metre, how it trotted along. It’s got a good equine bounce.”
Meanwhile, in Guildhall Square in Derry, there will be a giant wooden horse, evoking both the siege of Troy, and the 1689 siege of Derry by Jacobite forces. The belly of the horse, though, won’t conceal Greek or even Jacobite soldiers – there will be storytelling under it for children.
Dunbar says Donegal provided Friel with an escape from troubled, divided Derry. “So the idea of putting together this touchstone of his youth, The Odyssey, with the beaches of Donegal was too good an idea to let go.” Dunbar likes to suppose that on those beaches Friel would imagine Odysseus and his followers lost among the islands across the waves to the west.
When Friel lived in Derry, adds Dunbar, it was “a very depressed city, dislocated from everywhere. A lot of the characters in Brian’s plays are dealing with intense pressure, particularly social pressure – and Derry would have felt that in the 1950s and 60s, when the state and everything was working against the individual, especially in the western half of the city.” By the western half, Dunbar means Derry’s principally Catholic part. It was there in 1968 that Catholic rioters fought the police in what became known at the Battle of the Bogside, often regarded as the catalyst of the Troubles.
For Dunbar, there is another reason to transfer the odyssey from Homer’s wine-dark Aegean to Ireland’s wild Atlantic coast. It gives him an excuse to revisit childhood haunts. Born across the border in Enniskillen, and raised there during the Troubles, he too experienced coastal Donegal as a place of escape. “This is where we would holiday when I was a kid,” he says nodding at Bundoran beach. “It’s very special for me.”
Unlike Odysseus, Dunbar returns to his homeland all the time, and has long been associated with its artistic festivals, particularly those honouring two literary giants, Oscar Wilde and Samuel Beckett, both boarders at Enniskillen’s Portora Royal School. He’s fascinated by stories of what Wilde and Beckett were like during their formative years in his home town.
At Portora, Wilde was known as the Grey Crow “because he was a pretty introverted large boy who hadn’t really found a place for himself”. Beckett, by contrast, sounds improbably like a proto-sports jock, playing cricket, rugby and swimming. “He was a virile, aggressive character and very intense. On a couple of occasions, he reduced a teacher to tears.”
Dunbar has lived in London since 1980, when he crossed the water to study acting. At Guildhall School of Drama, his flatmate was another aspiring actor on the course, Neil Morrissey, who also appears in Line of Duty. Dunbar recalls being envious of Morrissey, who went off to appear in the TV sitcom Men Behaving Badly, while Dunbar couldn’t seem to get his career off the ground.
“We were always reminded by our teachers that careers take off at different times. They held up Arthur Lowe as a great example of an actor who works for years and then suddenly he gets a part and everybody knows him.” The part was, of course, Captain Mainwaring in Dad’s Army. “I’ve been sweating away for 30 years – then I became Hastings. I’m kind of having my Arthur Lowe moment.”
For four series now, Dunbar has played Hastings, the show’s unimpeachable conscience. But there is a problem. At the end of the most recent season, writer Jed Mercurio astonished viewers with the appalling possibility that Hastings was a bad’un. He stood accused of making sexist appointments, treating a junior unfairly, and of being the diabolical figure behind a cabal of corrupt cops. “He very well could be,” says Dunbar guardedly when I put this to him. “I have no idea. I await in hope and fear. Ultimately, it’s up to Jed and he hasn’t put a foot wrong yet. I’m like everyone else in the show. All of us just keep our fingers crossed that Jed doesn’t kill us off.”
He hopes Hastings will be around for the next two series at least, which will be filmed next year and the year after. In any case, there’s more to Dunbar than acting and directing. This weekend, the man who occasionally fronts his own band, Adie Dunbar and the Jonahs, will be singing and reading work by Seamus Heaney. The performance takes place at the HomePlace, a new centre devoted to the Nobel laureate in his home town of Bellaghy, County Derry.
The work in question, Heaney’s 2006 collection District and Circle, is an astute choice since it juxtaposes bucolic verses – the opening poem, “The Turnip Snedder”, is about a vintage farming implement – with a sequence of sonnets hinged around the London underground and completed in the wake of the 7/7 bombings in the city in 2005. Dunbar, an Irishman who has lived in English exile for nearly 40 years, has one foot in each world.
He is also a Bafta-nominated screenwriter. Not only did he co-write the 1991 film Hear My Song, he also starred in it, playing a Liverpool nightclub owner trying to track down the great Irish singer Josef Locke. Ever thought of writing another screenplay? “I have and am,” he replies. He and the actor and writer Simone Glover have collaborated on a film script entitled Vicky Draper and the Carmody Caper. All he’ll say is that it’s an Ealing-esque comedy romance – and that he could do with some money to get it made.
While his CV includes such films as My Left Foot and The Crying Game, sadly Star Wars cannot legitimately be given a mention. In The Phantom Menace, he played Bail Prestor Organa, a senator from the planet Alderaan, but the scene wound up on the cutting room floor. On stage he was seen in Conor McPherson’s The Night Alive in 2015, and in Beckett’s All That Fall, directed by his friend Max Stafford-Clark. Earlier this year, he was in Jimmy McGovern’s BBC drama Broken, exchanging police uniform for dog collar to play a priest opposite Sean Bean.
“The variety of my career is amazing and amazingly satisfying,” he says. He’s especially proud of his performance in the Henry VI plays in last year’s BBC adaptation of Shakespeare’s Wars of the Roses histories, although he has one worry. “I’m going to end up being hated by every fifth form English student for ever. I just know I am.”
As we emerge from Madden’s, the porridge has been sucked from the sky. I follow Anna as she drives Dunbar and their dogs in a Jeep up the coast to Tullan Strand, one of the grandly curving beaches where the al fresco Odyssey will be performed. At the strand, we savour how the mists are drawing back to expose Ben Bulben’s peak. Across the water, the mighty cliffs of Slieve League and other mountains rise up. Donegal seems so gorgeous as to put mere Ithaca to shame. As I drive away, leaving the couple to walk the dogs, I think Yeats may have been right. Maybe this is the land of heart’s desire.
- The Odyssey runs 24-28 August as part of the Arts Over Borders festival. Adrian Dunbar performs Seamus Heaney’s District and Circle at the HomePlace, Bellaghy, on 19 August.