Prolific actor and director

Born: September 15, 1971;

Died: July 15, 2019

Karl Shiels, who has died suddenly aged 47, was a force of nature both on and off stage. This was as evident when the Dublin born actor exploded onto the Edinburgh stage two decades ago in Mark O’Rowe’s break-out play, Howie The Rookie, as it was for the last five years in Irish TV soap, Fair City, in which he played troubled wheeler-dealer Robbie Quinn.

Inbetween, Shiels brought site-specific Dublin hit, Ladies and Gents, to the now demolished public toilets next to St James’ Centre in Edinburgh with his own Semper Fi company, co-founded with David Pearse and Shashi Rami. The same year, he appeared in Out of Joint’s production of Stella Feehily’s play, Duck, at the Traverse Theatre. For over a decade Shiels nurtured new writers in a room above a Dublin pub reinvented as Theatre Upstairs, and dazzled at the Abbey Theatre, the Peacock and numerous smaller spaces.

There were guest slots in both film and TV, with appearances in Batman Begins and Veronica Guerin, as well as in hit show, Peaky Blinders. In all of these, Shiels had an intense presence that demanded attention, even as he lay bare some of the vulnerability behind the brooding tough guys he often played.

Born in Chapelizod, Dublin, Shiels was originally an electrician working for his father’s firm, and when he told his father that he wanted to be an actor, his father pointed out his son had been acting since he was two years old. Shiels enrolled at the Gaiety School of Acting, and hit Ireland’s theatre scene in the early 1990s. By 1995 he was already getting his hands dirty directing a show for the first Dublin Fringe in a derelict outdoor space. Recognising Shiels’ maverick mix of edge, charm and charisma, Dublin Fringe co-founder and director Jimmy Fay cast him in Electroshock, a Theatre of Cruelty season presented by Fay’s Bedrock company.

Shiels went on to work with Bedrock in a production of Steven Berkoff’s Greek, with Fay directing him in At-Swim-Two-Birds at the Peacock. It was in 1999 that Howie the Rookie introduced Shiels to a wider audience. He played Rookie Lee, a Dublin gangster squaring up to his arch nemesis Howie Lee with highly-charged lyrical verve that gave things a mythological edge. Directed by Mike Bradwell and originally seen at the Bush in London, the production took Shiels to New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles, as well as Edinburgh and Dublin. At each opening night, Shiels would get O’Rowe to sign the play-script.

The same year, Shiels won the best actor award at Dublin Theatre Festival in the lead role of self-destructive would-be comic Gethin Price in Trevor Griffiths’ incendiary play, Comedians. Shiels worked extensively at the Abbey, appearing in in The Comedy of Errors and Henry IV Part I, playing Tybalt in Romeo and Juliet, and as Macduff in Macbeth. He also appeared in in Tom Murphy’s play, The House. Elsewhere, Shiels appeared in The Shadow of a Gunman at the Lyric, Belfast and Salome at the Gate.

In 2002, the then fledgling Semper Fi occupied the public lavatories on St Stephen’s Green in Dublin with the Paul Walker scripted Ladies and Gents prior to an award-winning Edinburgh run the following year. Other shows directed by Shiels for the company included Conversation with a Cupboard Man and Black Bessie, while another play by Walker, Adrenalin, saw the audience taken in a blacked-out bus to a dockland warehouse for a gangster-set show that drew record audiences at the Dublin Fringe.

Shiels also directed or companies including Fishamble and Tall Tales. In 2004, he received a best actor nomination at the Irish Film and Television Academy awards for his performance in the film, Capital Letters, in which he appeared opposite Ruth Negga.

In 2006, Shiels returned to Howie the Rookie in a revival at the Abbey directed by Fay, who later worked with him on Brecht’s The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui. In 2007, Shiels directed a Dublin production of Gregory Burke’s Gagarin Way, and in 2010, he visited Edinburgh again in the Galway-based Druid theatre company’s production of Enda Walsh’s play, Penelope, for which he was nominated as best actor by The Stage.

In the same year, Shiels, Walker and Andrew Comyn co-founded Theatre Upstairs, becoming artistic director of a grassroots company dedicated to showing work by independent self-producing artists in a safe space, usually on a shoestring. With the company moving from its original base above The Plough, opposite The Abbey, to Lanigan’s Bar, Shiels’ productions of new plays included Leper + Chip by Lee Coffey, Hollow Ground by Katie McCann and Petals by Gillian Greer, as well as a rehearsed reading of his own play, Fogarty. In 2013, Shiels was awarded a special prize at the Irish Times Theatre Awards for his work with Theatre Upstairs.

In 2009, Shiels appeared in O’Rowe’s play, Terminus, and in 2011, in Sebastian Barry’s The Pride of Parnell Street, when he was again nominated for a best actor award. In January this year, Shiels directed the Irish premier of two Philip Ridley plays, Tonight with Donny Stixx and Dark Vanilla Jungle in a double bill on the Abbey’s Peacock stage in co-production with Theatre Upstairs.

Never seeming to let up, Shiels was filming for Fair City just days before his passing. The week before, he opened what turned out to be his last theatre show as a director. Bullfight on Third Avenue is a new play by Eddie Naughton about a meeting between Ernest Hemingway and F Scott Fitzgerald in a New York bar. At time of writing, Shiels’ production is still running at Bewley’s Café Theatre in Dublin. It is a testament to the fire and steel that drove Shiels in everything he did.

Shiels is survived by his partner Laura Honan, his twin daughters Iseabel and Saoirse and their mother Dearbhla Regan, his father Harry, stepmother Irene, brother Jason, sisters Lisa and Lianne and stepbrother Justin.

Neil Cooper