Fifteen Irish songs, 12 characters, a harp and one player

Playwright/musician/artist Richard “Ride” Hanna with his electric harp designed to look like a 19th century Irish harp for his show Melody Moore: The Rhymes and Times of Ireland’s Forgotten Poet. Photo: Tanis Browning-Shelp.

 

Sitting down with Old Ottawa East playwright/musician/artist Richard ‘Ride’ Hanna is a bit like attending the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party along with several of the United Kingdom’s acting elite.

Alan Rickman, Jeremy Irons and Maggie Smith ‘showed up,’ along with Billy Connolly and James Fox. I interviewed Hanna about his solo musical, multi-charactered comedy about Irish poet/singer Thomas Moore, who lived from 1779-1852.

Hanna is putting the finishing touches on the show, which will open in London, Ontario, on June 6, at the 2012 London Fringe Festival. In the show, entitled Melody Moore: The Rhymes and Times of Ireland’s Forgotten Poet, Hanna will play all 12 of the work’s characters himself, but he will do so using the voices of modern-day thespians.

He will play the character Lord Byron (a great friend of Moore’s) using the voice of Billy Connolly. He will play the Schoolteacher using the voice of Alan Rickman. Hanna’s impressions of the actors are so authentic it is uncanny. He cannot help slipping into character from time to time as he talks about his show.

The fun Hanna has doing different voices and accents comes from life experiences and years of training. Born in Malaysia to an Irish father and a New Zealander mother, he moved to New Zealand when he was seven. He left home at 18 to attend the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) in London, England.

“I was walking up old wooden staircases where John Gielgud, Richard Attenborough and John Hurt had walked,” Hanna said.

“At that point, I was very Kiwi so I had to do vocal exercises to adjust my accent. After three months I called my Mom in New Zealand and she said: ‘What’s happened to your voice? You sound like you have a plum in your mouth!’ So I started to practice my New Zealand accent again. I called my Dad soon after and he thought I sounded Australian. When I returned to New Zealand in 2005 I was told, at an audition, to sound less ‘Englishy.’”

Hanna said he was drawn to the contradictions within the Thomas Moore character.

“To me, he was this mysterious, paradoxical man. How could someone who professed to be an Irish patriot decide to go and live with the enemy? He became the darling of British high society – a little dandy of a social climber – and, as a result, an Irish social pariah. To me, this made him so human and appealing.”

Thomas Moore is now known as the Bard of Ireland

“The ancient Celtic bard was the keeper of the culture,” Hanna explained. “He was a scribe who would bring the past alive by honouring fallen heroes. He also wrote satires and songs with social commentary and would travel from village to village bringing the news.”

Moore was a 19th century bard who played the harp and pianoforte. He wrote poetry, satire and more than 100 songs set to Irish tunes.

“The music was another thing that reeled me in,” Hanna said. In his show, he will perform 15 of Moore’s songs including “The Meeting of the Waters,” “The Last Rose of Summer” and “The Minstrel Boy.” Hanna is currently learning to play the tin whistle for the show.

The harp is the symbol of Ireland.

“It is the only musical instrument on a country’s flag,” Hanna pointed out. “I took up learning to play the harp in 1998. Moore’s harp is still on display in Ireland. In my show, I will accompany myself on an electric harp, which I have designed to look like a 19th century Irish harp. It has been painted a deep green decorated with golden shamrocks.”

Hanna made the harp’s gilded lady Erin, who symbolizes Ireland, out of papier-mâché, gilded in the Venetian way.

Moore was an extremely popular songwriter during his lifetime, but he was also controversial.

“For one thing, he was blamed for destroying Lord Byron’s memoirs,” Hanna said.

And his politics often caused a stir. Hanna’s play will go back and forth through Moore’s life introducing other colourful characters such as politician and aristocrat John Hobhouse (whom he will play using the voice of Steven Berkoff), poet William Wordsworth (whom he will play using the voice of James Fox) and high society leader Lady Donegal (whom he will play using the voice of Maggie Smith).

“As an artist, I like to twist things to cause people to wake up into the present,” Hanna said.

This one-man show is bound to be a “Ride” (the playwright’s fitting nickname) as it travels to fringe festivals across the country this summer in Calgary, Edmonton, Vancouver and Nova Scotia.  

 

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