Hamlet, Handbags and Egg Sandwiches
In the first of a series, Antonia Mochan talks to one of our Archangels, Brian Hartnett, about what the Warehouse means to him and why he decided to donate to Play Your Part.
Brian Hartnett is something of a fixture on the Brussels theatre scene, with an impressive range of roles on his performance CV. But until a night in a Brussels Irish pub many years ago, going on stage had never crossed his mind. “ I went to a rugby-playing school” he tells me. “I’d never been on stage, never even thought about it.” Then that evening two young women came round looking for young men to play soldiers in Hamlet. He admits that, as a single 25-year-old, he might have got involved for “non-theatrical reasons”. But over the course of the rehearsals, he realised that he was taking it much more seriously than his friends and really enjoying the whole experience. Then he got offered the chance to utter a few lines when a cast member got sick. To this day he still remembers them - he’d been bitten by the acting bug.
Since then he has performed in a number of shows, both mainstages and at the Warehouse. When I ask him about a role that sticks in his mind, he doesn’t hesitate. “Brian Friels’ Philadelphia Here I Come. The play is about a young man and his father, before the man is emigrating. Two actors play the young man, one as an alter ego, which was my role. I walked around the stage, unseen by the other actors. It was a very touching, emotional play”. At the other end of the spectrum (“great fun”) was playing Lady Bracknell in a gender-reversed production of The Importance of Being Earnest.
Talking about that production at the Bozar leads Brian to reflect on the importance of the support of his family. “My wife or one of my kids was there every night. When I think about being involved in theatre, I think of taking a curtain call, knowing that my wife and kids are there”. The intimate nature of the Warehouse Studio Theatre means that you can often see from the stage who you know in the audience. “It’s always good as an actor to know there are three or four people that are definitely going to applaud you!”.
That family connection with the Warehouse goes deeper. “My daughter - she’s 29 now and about to get married - has wonderful memories of coming along to rehearsals with me, being looked after by all these people. She was taken up to the props cupboard and costume store - that’s amazing for a child, a fantastic wonderland. It means so much to me to know that my passion gave such joy to my family.”
What was his first connection with the Warehouse? “I clearly remember going along for the first time. I had been invited to a meeting at the Warehouse and I didn’t know many people in the groups back then. I remember walking in through the workshop, passing people working on sets, walking up those stairs, going through a room of people rehearsing, into the back room where the meeting was. The whole place was a hive of activity and I fell in love. I thought it was the most wonderful thing.”
Another strong memory is a little more unusual - and Proustian. “Egg sandwiches,” he states. “Eileen Sutton has been Producer for many of the shows I’ve been in and I always look forward to her egg sandwiches.”
It’s clear that Brian has a strong emotional attachment to the Warehouse space. When I ask him why, he says, “I’m a lawyer, doing competition law, working on Avenue Louise. The Warehouse in Schaerbeek feels like another world, a very rewarding world. When I pass through that arch, I’m energised. You’re rehearsing, there are people making sets, sorting props, digging out costumes. And then you go across the courtyard to the performance area. What you do on the other side of the arch doesn’t matter. Status, job, hierarchy, none of that matters. It’s a good restraint on your ego to know that you’re just one part of a whole team effort needed to make the magic happen.”
There’s no hesitation when I ask why he donated to the Play Your Part campaign. “To say thank you. To show my appreciation for everything that the Warehouse has meant to me, the hours I have spent there. The pleasure and enjoyment it has given me. It’s such an important part of my life here in Brussels. I don’t know that I would have stayed here so long without it. I simply can’t envisage it having to close.”
Photo by Irish Theatre Group