Obituary: Karl Shiels – ‘a master of site-specific theatre and a dynamic champion of new writing’
Few figures made so charismatic or immediate an impact on recent Irish theatre as the actor and director Karl Shiels, who has died at the age of 47.
He was in his 20s, having qualified as an electrician and working for his father’s company in his native Dublin, when he enrolled at the city’s Gaiety School of Acting.
He enjoyed early support in the second half of the 1990s from director Jimmy Fay, then at the forefront of Dublin’s burgeoning fringe theatre scene. It was as would-be stand-up Gethin Price in Fay’s 1999 revival of Trevor Griffiths’ Comedians for Bickerstaffe that Shiels won an Evening Herald best actor award.
The same year saw him forming his own company, Semper Fi, and making an impact on London audiences as a Dublin gangster in Mark O’Rowe’s grim and gritty Howie the Rookie, directed by Mike Bradwell, at the Bush Theatre.
With Semper Fi, he won an Edinburgh Fringe First award in 2003 for his production, performed in public toilets, of Paul Walker’s Ladies and Gents. Shiels was a master of site-specific theatre, his daring staging of Walker’s Adrenalin in 2005 requiring audiences to be blindfolded and transported to an anonymous warehouse, attracting the Dublin Theatre Festival’s largest-ever fringe audience.
The following year he reunited with Fay for a revival of Howie the Rookie, and again, in 2008, for Brecht’s The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, both at the Abbey Theatre.
In 2009, he was nominated for an Irish Times theatre award for Conall Quinn’s The Death of Harry Leon and again, in 2011, as Quinn in Enda Walsh’s Penelope for Druid Theatre Company. Its Edinburgh Fringe run the previous year had also earned him a best actor nomination from The Stage and was seen at the Hampstead Theatre in 2011.
As conman turned writer Puff in Rough Magic’s 2013 revival of Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s The Critic, The Stage thought him “manically brilliant… a delight to behold” – a verdict that could well have been said of many of his distinctively memorable performances.
As a director with Semper Fi and, from 2010, the Dublin-based Theatre Upstairs, Shiels was a dynamic champion of new writing and new approaches to staging, his work at the latter venue recognised by an Irish Times special award in 2013.
On British television, he was seen in The Tudors (2009), Foyle’s War and Peaky Blinders (2013), and was a household name to Irish viewers as dodgy trader Robbie Quinn in RTE’s long-running soap Fair City from 2014.
Karl Shiels was born on September 15, 1971, and died on July 15.
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