Travelling Light: Leeds Grand Theatre

Antony Sher as Jacob Bindel and Damien Moloney as Motl Mendl.  Photo: Johan Persson
Antony Sher as Jacob Bindel and Damien Moloney as Motl Mendl. Photo: Johan Persson
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Damien Moloney’s first professional acting role saw him star as a crazed teenager who brings an incestuous affair with his sister to a bloody end by butchering her.

That was less than a year ago at West Yorkshire Playhouse, yet in the 11 months since he tackled the part of Giovanni in ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore, he’s had a meteoric rise as an actor.

Still only 27, not only has he landed a lead in cult BBC Three drama Being Human, he’s also appearing in Travelling Light, which is about to start a UK tour bringing him to Leeds Grand Theatre later this month.

In the play, Moloney stars opposite that luminary of theatre, Sir Antony Sher, and is currently doing so on the stage of the National Theatre in London. But it was his performance in Leeds which directly which resulted in him being headhunted for Travelling Light.

“I had to totally pinch myself when I got the lead in ‘Tis Pity,” he admits. “It was my first professional acting role and there I was in this amazing play, in a huge theatre, with a fantastic staging by the director, Jonathan Munby. It was more than a little intimidating.

“The role itself is like a cross between Hamlet and Romeo, so you can imagine how nervous I was. And it was a version which was very intense and violent too – we didn’t fleet around the topics. You could go see a play about love based in a drawing room with nice people drinking tea, but it was great to be in something so intense, so visceral.”

Standing in the centre of the 700-capacity Quarry theatre, performing the closing scene with blood running down his arm from his sister’s heart impaled on a knife, must qualify as being thrown in at the theatrical deep end.

Luckily it was a bold move that paid off. Just a few days before the end of the run at the Playhouse a casting director from the National stopped by to watch ‘Tis Pity and immediately called the Irish actor down to audition for Travelling Light alongside Sher.

“Talk about having to pinch myself when I was in Leeds, on my first day of rehearsals I saw him there and I was like: ‘Oh my God, there he is!’” says Moloney. “But you have to try and get over that because he’s giving so much in terms of performance that you have to be able to give something back. That also takes your mind off what he is and who is, because, at the end of the day, he is one of the most amazing actors the UK has ever produced.

“But at the same time he’s so amazingly generous and quiet and shy in real life. And yet he’s produced this enormous ebullient character on stage.”

In Travelling Light Sher appears as wealthy local timber merchant Jacob, a villager in Lithuania who convinces a young filmmaker, Motl Mendl, to chronicle the life of the Jewish community he grew up in, Unfortunately it’s also one the budding journalist desperately wants to escape. The tale is viewed through the eyes of the adult Mendl suggesting this was, in fact, the origins of the early Hollywood studio culture.

Although Travelling Light may have come directly from performing ‘Tis Pity in Leeds, the two productions couldn’t be more different.

“Its certainly not ‘Tis Pity,” laughs Moloney. “Travelling Light doesn’t punch you in the face with shock and gore. In fact it’s the most gentle, charming tale of what could have happened. But there is also so much in there in terms of relationships and what it’s trying to say about things like immigration, about one man’s struggle to escape his rural upbringing, about the love story at the centre or being bullied by powerful people. So as gentle as it is there’s actually quite a lot contained inside that story.”

But Moloney has return to some of the gore of his stage debut with his big TV debut. Last year he landed a lead role in BBC Three’s supernatural drama, Being Human, whose central characters are a vampire, werewolf and a ghost.

He was spotted during a showcase at his drama school (he only pursued acting full time after graduating with a business and politics degree from Dublin) and discovered he’d got the plum job on his last day of performing at West Yorkshire Playhouse.

As excited as he feels, there’s further pressure since he is partly filling a void left behind my the departure of its high-profile male stars, Russell Tovey and Aidan Turner. The latter played a vampire and Moloney’s character, Hal, is similarly undead.

“I just hope the new fans like it because the new series is a big departure from the original,” says Moloney. “And the pressure was there from the start because it is a show that had been nominated for awards – and it’s won them.

“When I did the audition I actually didn’t realise how big the part was. I’d never done any TV work before, but after the second day it felt like I’d been there for months.

“Then there were all these fun scenes to do. The make-up woman comes up with a gallon of blood and fangs and the director says: ‘Now go bite into that woman’s neck’ or ‘Go terrorise some kids or something’ I get to really let loose. But Hal really is an interesting character too because he’s trying to cope with his desire for blood, so he develops these odd tendencies in under to bring himself under control.”

In the meantime Moloney will have to switch back from bloodthirsty vampire to nice Jewish filmmaker, but he hopes he’ll be switching back and forth for the rest of 2012.

“We finish Travelling Light in the summer and then, hopefully, they’ll commission another series of Being Human for the last six months of the year. That...” he says, clearly still in a whirl from his heady ascent. “...would be the ultimate plan.”

March 20 to 24, Leeds Grand Theatre, New Briggate, Leeds, 7.30pm, mats 2.30pm, £13 to £30. Tel: 0844 8482700.

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