Karl Shiels: An actor who loved theatre with every fibre of his being

A lot of attention has concentrated on Robbie Quinn, the sleazebag of Fair City, as though it were the pinnacle of his career. But Karl Shiels, dead last Monday at the age of just 47, was a lot more than a star of the soap world.

Admittedly, when he was first cast in 2014, he was thrilled: it meant regular money. And he was keeping his fingers crossed that the unpleasant Robbie might catch the public’s attention and get additional storylines. He did.

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But even then Karl had another iron in the fire that fed his generous passion for the world of theatre. He had founded Theatre Upstairs a number of years before. He and two friends put their hearts and their meagre resources on the line when they opened a venue above the Plough Bar opposite the Abbey Theatre. It cost them in more ways than one: the pub closed and so the boys’ investment went down the tubes.

But Karl was determined not to be defeated, and Theatre Upstairs found a new home above Lanigan’s bar on Eden Quay in Dublin, where it thrives to this day, concentrating on new, young work, and sometimes commissioning it. And in 2013, he received the Judges’ Special Award at the Irish Times Theatre Awards for his contribution to Irish theatre’s future. (I was talking to him a week after the awards ceremony, and he said that he didn’t remember much about it: “I know we went crawling and at one stage I kept saying I can only see the sky, where are we?” They were in the rooftop bar of The Dean on Harcourt Street.)

The performance by Karl that I will never forget was in Sebastian Barry’s The Pride of Parnell Street, which played at London’s Tricycle in 2011 with Jim Culleton directing. A two-hander with Mary Murray, it was a love-song to inner Dublin, and Karl’s performance as a man ravaged by drug-induced Aids and a love destroyed was magnificently gentle and subtle.

His looks, of course, usually cast him in more belligerent roles, and he played up to it, the blue eyes flashing intensely from under a furrowed brow, the gear always black, mostly leather, and well-studded; often sleeveless to show off the well-muscled arms, even in January. “Are you not freezing?” I frequently asked, but he only grinned.

He hailed from Chapelizod in Dublin, and had the rich accent to prove it, and he began adult life as an electrician. But that wasn’t the whole story: once, at the height of the emerging horror stories from mother and baby homes, he asked me quizzically, “Did you know I was born in a mother and baby home in Cork?” I didn’t. He went on to tell me that he had sought out his antecedents. “I wanted to know,” he said, as I nodded along. “I mean, I needed to know, like, if I was likely to lose my hair.” Spoke the actor, first and last.

But he was also frequently cast against type, often successfully, although Colm Toibin’s Beauty in a Broken Place at the Peacock wasn’t one of them, when he failed to convince (to put it mildly) as Professor George O’Brien, long-time professor of economics at UCD. Much better was another two-hander, Howie the Rookie, a violent and clever saga of Dublin’s gangland (more innocent gangland than nowadays, though.) Always in your face as an actor, he also knew how to control things, and the performance was terrific.

And I remember a production of O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock which in many ways is better forgotten. But Karl, in the small part of one of the IRA men taking Johnny Boyle to his murder, was chillingly effective.

But even when the acting was going swimmingly, frequently with days spent in RTE and evenings spent onstage in the centre of Dublin (juggling rehearsal time was a nightmare, he admitted) he never neglected Theatre Upstairs. His enthusiasm for the venture was unbounded, as was his belief in the plays there. Almost every email announcing a new one would begin with “I’m really excited about this one, Emer”. And if my critique proved to be less than excited, like the professional he was, he always took it on the chin.

Indeed, he was almost exuberantly grateful for critical support, despite it being only his due. I have a delicate little wrought Christmas tree bauble, a thank-you gift from Karl after the first year of Theatre Upstairs. “I want to give you a little present,” he said. My reaction was “absolutely not” because I pointed out it was my job, and anyway, gifts were absolutely forbidden. “Well, I’ll make it small,” he said, and added with a grin “can’t afford much, anyway”.

Karl hadn’t looked well for a while, but I put it down to the severe ankle injury which left him limping and in pain for a long time. But on Wednesday of last week, we met in the lift at Bewley’s theatre, and I was shocked.

He was doubled over, dragging himself along, his face mottled. How he had carried on through the rehearsal period for Bullfight on Third Avenue, which he directed and which opened that day, I’ll never know.

But I certainly never thought that five days later, I would hear that he had died. Or that it would be my last meeting with a man who cared for the theatre with every fibre of his being.

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