What Makes Stephen Brennan a Great Actor? – Thoughts on Halcyon Days

Last night I went to see Deirdre Kinahan’s Halycon Days at the Town Hall in Galway. It’s playing until Saturday and is well worth going to if you’re in that part of the country.

The audience, as sometimes happens on Tuesdays in theatres, was a bit chatty. This can happen in any theatre, really. You’ll get people who give a running commentary on the action (“Oh Jesus, look what he’s after doing!”). And then you get some who gently mock the dialogue or the characters, as happened last night when in the fourth scene one of the actors moved a cup of tea poured in the first scene – prompting one person behind me to whisper to her companion “your tea has gone cold mister!” And then of course you get people who comment between scenes – “what do you think”, “that was good”, etc.

None of this really bothered me – Halcyon Days is the kind of play that puts people at their ease and involves the audience thoroughly from the start, so to a certain extent people were responding as they would to a good movie on TV.

One of the things that struck me was that after each scene change, I kept hearing different people around me saying the same thing: they were all saying variations of “he’s very good, isn’t he?” to each other. The “he” in question was Stephen Brennan, and it was clear that while many people knew who he was, many others didn’t. But almost everyone was very impressed by him.

I found myself wondering about this. The play is about two people in an old folks’ home, one played by Brennan and the other by Anita Reeves. And I thought both performances were excellent. On a technical level, the two were equally good – and I thought both parts were equally well written. Yet it was Brennan’s performance that the audience kept talking about. It wasn’t that they didn’t like Reeves’ performance – quite the opposite. But there was just something about Brennan that people kept responding to.

This experience emphasised to me that it’s very difficult to define what makes a great actor great. In the Dublin theatre scene at the moment, I find myself consistently being impressed by the performances of Denis Conway, Declan Conlon and Owen Roe, to give just three examples of male performers. But while they have all given ‘great’ performances during the last 10-15 years, they are not all ‘great’ in the same way. In fact, they are very different from each other: Roe and Conway have both played the Irishman in The Gigli Concert, for example – and while I was astonished by both performances, they were also very different from each other. And one of the best performances I’ve seen on a Dublin stage in the last decade was Tom Vaughan-Lawlor’s Arturo Ui at the Abbey a few years ago. And what made it great is that the only person who could have played that part that way was Vaughan-Lawlor himself.

So in thinking about Brennan’s performance last night, I can point to things that seemed admirable. I admired the physical discipline that allowed his character to seem about 20-30 years older than Brennan is himself. He also showed that the character’s apparent infirmity was partly based on fear rather than any genuine physical problem – and he did this by allowing the character sometimes to lose his self-consciousness and move without thinking. And there were just some nice details: for instance, he wore pants that seemed just slightly too big for him, so we had the sense of his character becoming thinner, fading away slightly. Some of this of course is the work of the playwright, director and designers too. Yet the audience kept talking about how good Brennan was.

He has, I think, been great in many performances, but there are three that really stand out for me.

One is his performance of Hamlet, in a mid-1980s Abbey production directed by Michael Bogdanov. I was too young to go at the time but have watched it on video, and was very struck by the dignity that Brennan gave his Hamlet in what was otherwise a (deliberately) chaotic production. At the time of watching the video, I jotted down a note saying that ‘his movements seem deeply felt’. That phrase doesn’t make much sense, I suppose, but what I meant by it was that Brennan didn’t actually need to say anything to communicate Hamlet’s thoughts – they were evident in whether he chose to stand up straight or not, in how he held his head, in the determination and pace of his steps, and so on. And I also liked that he delivered the words in his own accent: that doesn’t happen often enough in Ireland, even now.

Another that I remember very vividly is his part in the second play in Nancy Harris’s No Romance, which appeared at the Peacock a couple of years ago. That production involved three inter-linking but separate plays. The first part was good, but among the people I chatted with at the interval there was a definite sense that we weren’t sure how things would go for the rest of the production: there was promise there but also a few problems. Then Stephen Brennan came out in the second play and within five minutes of his appearance, there was a definite sense that the audience had forgotten their hesitation and were now fully involved in what they were seeing. This was probably because Brennan was so funny, brilliantly capturing the self-loathing and self-deception of a feckless middle-aged man in a funeral parlour. By the time people emerged from the theatre after the third play, there was a definite buzz: a real sense of enthusiasm for the play and for Harris’s future as a writer. And I think a lot of that was due to Stephen Brennan’s performance. That of course was made possible by Nancy Harris’s script (male ineptitude is something she’s especially good at, as evident from her other play Love in a Glass Jar). But I wonder if the play would have been as successful if someone else had played that role.

Finally there was his performance in Conor McPherson’s monologue play Port Authority, which was staged about 10-12 years ago. Brennan played one of three men who delivers a monologue directly to the audience. And in some ways he had the toughest job because his character was the least likeable, and his story the least credible (in the sense that it was so unbelievable it actually rang true).

On the night I saw the play in the Gate, there was a woman in the audience who had a very distinctive laugh. Whenever one of the actors cracked a joke, the audience would laugh – including the woman with the funny laugh – and so then the audience would laugh again at the woman’s laugh. So many of the jokes were generating two bouts of laughter. The other actors didn’t really pay much attention to this (it wouldn’t have suited their characters) but Brennan started to work around the woman’s laugh – timing his jokes around it and at one stage improvising a simple “I know” in response to her. It was as if he was saying that only a character as feckless as he was could have wound up in a theatre being laughed at by someone like her. This wasn’t in any way mean-spirited: there was actually a moment of identification between the woman’s discomfort and Brennan’s character’s perpetual state of self-loathing.

What made that impressive is that Brennan’s actions – far from being a crowd-pleasing breaking of the fourth wall – actually made the play work more fully. McPherson’s stage direction in Port Authority is that the action ‘takes place in a theatre’. That meant that the characters are actually talking to us – so Brennan’s responsiveness was entirely appropriate. And it also made sense in terms of his character – who had enough self-knowledge to know how ridiculous he was to other people (including the audience) but not enough awareness to actually change.

A lot of what I am describing is the craft of acting. And I’m also, I think, writing about the art of acting too, which (to generalise) happens when the actor gives something of himself or herself to a role, at once making it individualised (we believe this is a real person) and universalised (we believe that these feelings or experiences could be ours, at least potentially). I think Brennan does both of those things very well: his Hamlet is not necessarily the best I’ve ever seen, but it is one of the more memorable because it was different from any of the others. No-one but Brennan could have played the role that way. In contrast, most of the other Hamlets I’ve seen tend to blend into each other.

But I’m also trying to describe one of the things that makes a stage actor different from a film actor. Brennan has an extraordinary ability to listen to and thus to guide an audience. (Rosaleen Linehan is also brilliant in this respect.) He knows when to withhold a line and when to give it, when to drop the tone of his voice to fill a space made empty by audience inattention or some distraction in the auditorium, and when to hold back on the expression of a character’s emotions. I think people nowadays tend to see him as a comic actor, and while it is certainly true that he is very funny, he does many other things very well too.

I don’t want to romanticise acting in stating all of this. But I do think we could do with more writing about acting and actors in this country – about how they do what they do, about the decisions they make from one night to the next, about why audiences will feel compelled to whisper to each other during scene changes that someone was good. I’ve been thinking about what is meant by those whispered ‘isn’t he’s goods’. Do they represent surprise? Appreciation? Delight? I don’t know. But I see this happen all the time when Brennan is on stage, and I’m not sure how to describe what he does – how to record it, if it can be recorded.

I’m struck by this issue every time I read a review and see performances described as ‘compelling’, or as a ‘tour de force’. I think these are words that reviewers or academics use when they don’t actually know how to describe what they are seeing. For instance, I’ve called both Reeves and Brennan ‘excellent’ in this post but that word doesn’t really say anything about how they do what they do, how and why it works, and what makes Reeves excellent in ways that Brennan is not – and vice versa

And finally… the play itself is enjoyable, and it’s great to see Deirdre Kinahan doing  well: there’s a definite sense at the moment that her time has come. I’m going to be interviewing her on Friday at the Synge Summer School (together with Mark O’Rowe and Owen McCafferty) and am looking forward to that a lot.

One other observation I had is that a lot of Irish writers have plays that in some way tackle dementia – Bailegangaire, Dancing at Lughnasa, Friel’s Aristocrats, Morna Regan’s Midden, and quite a few others. This underlines for me the way that Irish writers remain very focussed on memory, and how they see memory as metaphor for the construction of a character’s identity.

But that’s another topic.

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David Greig in Limerick, 2006

I’ve been surprised by the response to my post about British Drama and Irish Playwriting yesterday. While not everyone who opened the page will have read the article, the large number of clickthroughs  suggests that there is a fair bit of interest in the topic.

Anyway, thanks to everyone who read the article, shared it, and commented upon it.

The debate reminded me of a public event that I participated in about seven years ago in Limerick. It was a public discussion (supported by the Arts Council) in the Belltable about the drama of David Greig, set up to coincide with Island’s production of Outlying Islands. The panel included Annabelle Comyn, who was directing Pyrenees at the Project at that time. It also featured Karl Wallace (who directed Outlying Islands) and Philip Howard who at that time was Artistic Director of the Traverse (who had premiered many of Greig’s plays). The Belltable was packed with an enthusiastic, varied and engaged audience.

It was one of those great nights where you’re in a room with a bunch of people who love theatre.

The discussion took in Greig’s career up to that point, focussed on when his plays were “Scottish” and when they were “British”, and considered whether the distinction mattered all that much (it did, said Philip Howard). If I remember correctly, Annabelle Comyn spoke eloquently about how Greig needs to be seen as a European writer too, and we talked about the need for more European influences in Irish theatre. And Karl Wallace spoke about the joy of directing one of Greig’s plays for an audience who knew nothing about that writer. We talked about the importance of seeing new British work in Ireland, and there was lots of discussion of what Irish theatres can learn from the Scottish National Theatre, which famously has no building, instead being dedicated to touring.  The overlaps and correspondences between Scottish and Irish theatre were also discussed. It was a really great debate.

Things have changed since then of course. The Belltable is no longer open. Island is gone. Annabelle Comyn’s career has deservedly blossomed, of course, and Karl Wallace is now at Siamsa Tire. And the only other Greig play I’ve seen in Ireland is the brilliant Prudencia Hart (though other productions of his plays have been staged), which toured to Galway last year. So while the picture is not entirely bleak, a lot of the promise and optimism evident that night did not come to fruition. And in particular there was a sense of something really exciting brewing in Limerick – and while there are great people working there, it’s fair to say that there are problems there too.

I’m also struck by the fact that the event went unreported at the time – which seemed a real shame, as I’m sure it would have been of interest to the wider community. And if it was difficult to get coverage for events outside of Dublin back then, it’s significantly more difficult now, of course. But that’s another story.

At the time I reviewed Outlying Islands for The Irish Times – really just a brief notice. I later rewrote and expanded that into a joint review of Pyrenees which appeared in Irish Theatre Magazine. I’m pasting below an edited version, just for interest…

Pyrenees by David Greig

Hatch Theatre Company

Directed by Anabelle Comyn

With Karen Ardiff, Mark Lambert, Ronan Leahy, Gern Ryan

Project Arts Centre

23 August – 9 September 2006

Reviewed 9 September 2006

And

Outlying Islands by David Greig

Island Theatre Company

Directed by Karl Wallace

With Sam Corry, Ailsa Courtney, Gerard Murphy, Colin O’Donoghue

Belltable Arts Centre

12-23 September 2006

Reviewed 14 September

By Patrick Lonergan

Irish theatre, like the Irish economy, is much more interested in exports than imports. This is particularly noticeable in our attitudes towards recent British theatre. We celebrate the achievement of our playwrights in London constantly, and our government invested huge amounts of money in bringing the best of Irish theatre to Edinburgh this year. But although we’ve seen a small number of productions and readings of new British plays during the last five years, most of the traffic between these islands has gone in one direction only.

The near simultaneous production in Ireland of two plays by David Greig, one of Britain’s most exciting young writers, is a welcome response to this situation. Unlike his flashier counterparts, Greig avoids using cheap shock tactics or deliberately provocative themes, instead producing work with depth and substance. He’s also willing to try out different ways of writing, to engage in genuine experimentation. This means that although Outlying Islands and Pyrenees are very different from each other, both share important characteristics: they trust audiences’ intelligence and actors’ skills, exploring contrasting themes that require and reward serious attention.

Anabelle Comyn’s production of Pyrenees offers an excellent introduction to Greig’s works, giving us a formally exciting play that blends everything from Hitchcockian suspense to European expressionism. It starts with a premise that seems derivative of countless Hollywood movies, from Memento to the Harrison Ford vehicle Regarding Henry. A man (Mark Lambert) is found unconscious at the foot of a mountain: he cannot remember his name or anything about his past; but suspects he may be British. In an opening scene that alludes to another play about fragmented identity – Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape – the man is interviewed by Anna, a British embassy official played by Karen Ardiff (who stepped in at short notice for Fiona Bell, who was taken ill before opening night). They seek clues about the man’s identity, considering in turn his accent, his preoccupations, his emotional state. Sexual chemistry builds between them, interrupted occasionally by the proprietor of this duo’s hotel (Ronan Leahy). But all seems to be progressing well between them until, just before the end of the act, a woman called Vivienne (Ger Ryan) arrives, claiming to be the man’s wife.

Our expectation will naturally be that the second act will answer the questions raised in the first. To a certain extent, this proves to be the case; but Greig’s answers raise other important issues. The Man’s amnesia seems partially to arise from a desire to forget who he is, to flee his past – is this possible? Why does the proprietor continue to adopt different identities, at one moment pretending to be a busboy (who will be insulted when no tip is offered to him); at another reverting to his role as the hotel’s manager (who will be insulted when a tip is offered to him)? Is Vivienne telling the truth about the man’s past and, if so, does that truth matter? And is Anna really from the British Embassy? We also learn late in the second act that Pyrenees is a sequel of sorts to another Greig play, The Cosmonaut’s Last Message… (1999), which will be a huge pay-off to those familiar with that earlier work.

The ultimate effect of the play’s second half is to leave the audience even more confused than they were in the first – and this is the play’s greatest strength: it provides answers but little clarity, and therefore invites us to consider whether our questions were worth asking in the first place. The play is much more than a standard meditation on the instability of identity; it instead shows that it’s possible to write a successful drama that still refuses to meet audiences’ expectations about character, plot, and closure. Of course, writers like Beckett made this point a long time ago – but the difference between their work and Greig’s is that Pyrenees retains many of the things that Beckett rejected: characters the audience can fully identify with, a (more or less) naturalistic environment, and a linear plot that’s full of suspense and incident. Pyrenees thus manages to be philosophical, playful, and deeply engrossing simultaneously.

Outlying Islands is an entirely different play. Set in 1939, the action takes place on Gruinard, a tiny Scottish island which has been visited by two British scientists (Sam Corry and Colin O’Donoghue), who have been sent to catalogue and study the island’s birds. While there, they interact with the Gruinard’s sole inhabitants, Kirk (Gerard Murphy) and his niece Ellen (Ailsa Courtney).

The play could be seen in the tradition of island plays, from The Tempest to Friel’s Gentle Island – works that create a space where people can interact free of social constraint and convention. The men’s arrival – and their involvement in the death of Kirk – has the effect of liberating Ellen, who gains in power and stature as the action progresses. She becomes something like the director of a play, leading the two scientists in a strange lament for her uncle that moves from wake scene to Laurel and Hardy. That power is eventually asserted sexually, in a remarkably intimate and sensitive scene that brings the action to its emotional climax.

The play also has a more immediate context. As in Friel’s Translations, in which an apparently innocent map-making expedition is a prelude to military action, Grieg’s play reveals that the scientists’ expedition has been arranged because the island is to be used as a testing ground for biological weapons: the men are cataloguing the island’s birds because the British ministry for war wants to establish exactly how many creatures they can kill with weaponised anthrax. This political theme comes to the foreground towards the play’s conclusion, with interesting consequences for Ellen in particular. Given that Outlying Islands premiered in 2002 – at a time when Hans Blix was running around Iraq in search of biological weapons – the play is an obvious attempt on Greig’s part to use his country’s past to examine its present. But the clash he reveals between his characters’ natural inclinations and their political duties has considerably broader resonance.

In a bold move that could be seen as an important statement about the future of Limerick theatre, director Karl Wallace and designer Diego Pitarch transformed the Belltable for this production, tearing out the stage and seating, and asking the audience to sit on uncomfortable benches dotted around the auditorium. The actors move amongst the audience, adding to the production’s intimacy, and quickly bridging the gap between Limerick in 2006 and Gruinard in 1939. But the production places further demands on the audience by running without an interval. The risk paid off, however: the emotional intensity of the piece was maintained throughout, despite the distraction of the increasingly uncomfortable seating arrangements. It was in fact refreshing to see a theatre company so willing to trust its audience’ intelligence, as well as their powers of endurance.

Annabelle Comyn adopted a considerably different approach to Pyrenees: where Wallace brings his audience directly into the action, she instead presents her production on a raised platform (designed by Paul O’Mahony), with the fourth wall firmly in place. This was entirely appropriate to the play’s tone and themes. Whereas Outlying Islands invites us to explore the difference between personal desire and public duty, Pyrenees instead asks us to examine a situation dispassionately and, insofar as possible, objectively: like most of the play’s characters, our job is to piece together evidence, to reach towards conclusions. Comyn’s direction keeps us at an appropriate distance from the performance, but never risks alienating the audience.

What both plays have in common is the extent to which they provide genuinely challenging roles to actors. Mark Lambert’s performance as the man in Pyrenees is a case in point: he must reveal a personality without having any back story or social and geographical markers to base it on. Lambert’s ability to convince us of his character’s individuality as well as his amnesia impresses throughout. Leahy’s proprietor is at perpetual risk of lapsing into racial stereotype: there is (deliberately) a touch of Fawlty Towers’ Manuel about him. Yet he avoids those risks, his nuanced performance often revealing the audiences’ own prejudices and expectations. Ardiff and Ryan have more difficult roles: Vivienne is the play’s only stable point, its only credible witness, while Anna is a disruptive and ultimately threatening presence. Each actor shows a clear understanding of her character’s function, without ever making her role seem functional.

The performances by Corry and O’Donoghue in Outlying Islands are also strong, with enjoyable supporting work by Murphy. But the highlight of the production is Ailsa Courtney’s work as Ellen. This is Courtney’s first professional production, and it’s evident from very early in the action that Wallace has made quite a discovery. Ellen’s develops dramatically during the play, with substantial differences evident between her inhibited and liberated personae. Courtney presents her character in a manner that coherently and convincingly reveals these different elements.

David Greig’s works might seem a difficult sell to Irish audiences: in Ireland, he’s a largely unknown playwright who deals with challenging themes that aren’t of explicit relevance to local audiences. Both Island and Hatch Theatre deserve credit, not only for producing his works, but for doing so with great conviction. Taken together, Outlying Islands and Pyrenees reveal that, although Greig can be seen as an important Scottish playwright, and as an important British playwright, he is quite simply one of the finest young dramatists currently working anywhere. Let’s hope this isn’t the last we hear from him.

New British Drama and Playwriting in Ireland

Last week I was in London for a few days, doing some research. When I visit that city I always try to make time to visit the Royal Court bookshop. It doesn’t have as wide a selection of new plays as can be found in the amazing shop at the National Theatre – but what it does have is cheap scripts. Almost every new play the Court produces comes with a playscript that is usually priced somewhere between £2 and £5. So it’s possible when you visit to stock up on some great new writing for an affordable price.

That’s exactly what I did last week, coming away with new work by Lucy Kirkwood, Martin Crimp, Polly Stenham, Bruce Norris, and Bola Agbaje. Since then I have been reading and enjoying those plays – some of them very much.

I’ve been struck by a few thoughts while reading through that new work. The first is that so many of the best new British plays are being written  by women – not just people like Agbaje, Stenham and Kirkwood, but also really interesting writers like Laura Wade and Alecky Blythe. As I’ve already stated in this blog, that situation contrasts with Ireland, where women dramatists seem to find it more difficult to have their work put on.

I was also struck by the variety of styles and perspectives employed. Stenham’s No Quarter is about a well to do pair of brothers’ attempts to come to terms with their mother’s death; Kirkwood’s NSFW is about the way in which women’s bodies are used to sell magazines not only to men but also to women. Norris is not even a British writer, yet the Court chose to premiere his play The Low Road earlier this year – and that too contrasts with Ireland where we rarely see new British and American plays.

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These plays were all produced by the Royal Court, and it’s only fair to say that this theatre does not necessarily represent the entire British theatre sector. But we’ve been saying for some time now – really since the mid to late 1990s – that British playwriting is undergoing a renaissance or a new ‘golden age’. And it’s showing no sign of abating. Many British theatres are producing excellent new plays by exciting new voices – and when I see those plays being staged, they are usually in theatres that are close to being full, and usually there are a significant minority of younger audience-members present (people under 40 I mean). That’s particularly true in Scotland, where there are some brilliant new plays being produced.

Now, I know that every tourist risks idealising what he or she sees abroad, especially when those sights seem to contrast with deficiencies at home. And I am aware of the problems faced by the British theatre, especially in terms of funding and the desire of the British government to instrumentalise everything from education to culture.

Nevertheless, I found myself wondering why things aren’t quite the same in Ireland – a country that is supposed to have a reputation for producing great writers.

Of course there have been plenty of good plays in Ireland over the last few years – and last year’s nominees for the Irish Times best play award were all very strong (they were Deirdre Kinahan’s Halcyon Days, Owen McCafferty’s Quietly, Morna Regan’s The House Keeper and The Life and Sort of Death of Eric Argyle  by Ross Dungan). But there doesn’t seem to be quite the same level of excitement about new writing as would have been the case from, say, 1995 to about 2003.

One explanation is that Irish theatre has taken to devising during that period. We’ve had quite a bit of debate about the “play vs. devised piece” distinction over the last year – and I don’t want to add to that debate except to say that I don’t think the distinction is all that necessary or helpful. Michael West’s Freefall was devised with Corn Exchange, but it’s also a brilliantly written play, for example.

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FREEFALL BY CORN EXCHANGE

And as Dylan Tighe has pointed out on a number of occasions, his No Worst There Is None may not be a literary text such as a Friel or a Tom Murphy might write but it was still written by someone who sought to meld its constituent elements into something artistic. Likewise, the most important work of the last decade is by common consensus the site-specific work of Louise Lowe – and although you can’t buy the script for Laundry or The Boys of Foley Street – and although you wouldn’t come close to understanding the performances by reading a script, the action can still be committed to print.

So I don’t worry too much about the amount of devised work in Ireland at the moment, simply because we’re kind of playing “catch-up” with the rest of Europe in introducing these practices anyway.

But I do worry that we are missing out on the exciting work that is being written in the UK and to a lesser extent in the US. We’ve seen some of it, especially at the Galway Arts Festival which has in the last decade brought in new plays by Craig Wright, Bruce Norris, Bruce Graham, Che Walker, and David Greig. The Dublin Theatre Festival has brought in some of the bigger British hits of recent years – Black Watch, The Pitmen Painters, and Enron. And Rough Magic and Prime Cut – not to mention such practitioners as Annabelle Comyn and Tom Creed – did much to introduce us to new writing from abroad. But we’re not really seeing much evidence of such work inspiring comparable developments in Ireland in the way that David Mamet did in the 1980s and early 1990s.

I’m very excited by the devised work that’s being done in Ireland, especially by some of the younger companies. But I’m struck by the fact that there seems to be an imbalance now. For example, this year’s Galway Fringe Festival has a great programme, but from a quick glance at it, I don’t see any evidence of any company producing a play that has already been produced professionally somewhere else. And that hardly ever happens in the Dublin Fringe either.

In short, I’d just like to see a few more plays being produced in Ireland – not just new plays by new Irish writers, but also Irish productions of some of the great new work that’s appearing abroad. I really feel that Irish audiences and young theatre-makers would be inspired by this work: inspired to write new plays, inspired to visit the theatre more often. But they need to have access to it first.

The arguments we’ve been hearing over the last few years about devised work are actually muddying the waters, I think. We can continue to have great devised work and should appreciate and value it. But we should also do more to encourage the development of new plays, and to encourage the appreciation of what’s happening abroad. The devised work vs. new play argument is not an either/or – we can have both/and.

Claire Kilroy’s The Devil I Know, Faust and post-Celtic Tiger literature

I recently finished reading Claire Kilroy’s very enjoyable novel The Devil I Know. It’s a satire about the collapse of the Celtic Tiger, narrated by a man called Tristram and written as a testimony to a tribunal taking place shortly before Easter 2016.

One of the things that makes the book so enjoyable is that there’s a strong Faustian element to the story. Tristram finds himself back in Ireland after many years away, and reluctantly joins forces with a cute hoor property developer, in order to construct luxury apartments and a hotel in Howth – sometime shortly before the bust in 2008. He does so under the instructions of his AA sponsor and boss, the mysterious Monsieur Deauville, who only ever contacts him  by phone. Tristram soon realises that his boss may not have entirely benign motivations (and realises also that he may be mispronouncing the first syllable in his boss’s surname – “deh, not doh”). The crash comes, and – of course – everything goes to hell.

The inclusion of a satanic character – who is mostly off-stage during the novel but who exerts plenty of influence anyway – owes something to Flann O’Brien, I think. But for some time I’ve been very interested in answering a question that this book gives rise to: why is it that so many Irish writers who set out to tackle the Celtic Tiger do so by writing about people who sell their souls to the devil? Two of the best examples of this trend are Mark O’Rowe’s Terminus and Conor McPherson’s The Seafarer, two plays that were actually written before the boom came to an end (I’ve written an academic journal article about both and it is online here). And internationally I’ve read countless articles that describe the credit-fuelled bubble that burst in 2008 as having occurred because people “sold their souls to the devil” – metaphorically, of course.

It’s interesting that the metaphor has such currency these days. I’m writing a book about this at the moment, so don’t want to go into too much detail (if I start I won’t stop) – but the Faust story has two elements that seem relevant nowadays. The first is that the Faust story conveys the idea of how wrong it is to apply a material value to something that should never be sold: this can be our ‘soul’ or it can also be things that we should value for their intrinsic worth such as love, national character,  loyalty to a cause, family relationships, or something similarly abstract but essential. For example, in Ireland, many people say that we ‘sold our soul’ by losing touch with many of the things that made us distinctively Irish, such as hospitality, humility, and generosity to others (I’m not saying that I agree with this – just noting that this point has often been made).

And the second is the idea that when you strike a deal with the devil, you will always regret it once the reckoning falls due. Much of the writing about the banking crisis focusses on this aspect of the Faust story.

I see a lot of different explorations of both of those ideas in popular culture at the moment – from things like Public Enemy’s brilliant album title How Do you Sell Soul to A Soulless People Who Sold Their Soul to the growing number of TV characters who have (in some way) sold their soul, of whom the best example is, I think, Walter White from Breaking Bad.

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Anyway, I’ll have more to say about that in about two years when I get this book I’m writing finished….

But Kilroy’s novel is very good. When I started reading it, it reminded me a lot of John Banville, since it’s a first person narrative, delivered by an erudite and slightly snobbish Irishman who has fallen on hard times. So it seemed slightly influenced by The Book of Evidence (still his best novel, I think), and I wasn’t surprised to realise that Banville has written a blurb for the front cover of the book.

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However Kilroy’s novel soon takes up territory that is distinctive and fresh. The characterisation of property developers and politicians is well handled: the already overused phrases about the Celtic Tiger (“we all partied”, “the fundamentals are sound going forward”) do appear, but they’re placed in such a grotesque framework that the shots don’t feel cheap. Kilroy’s greatest achievement here is to write a book that features ghosts, the devil, resurrections from death, and similarly fantastical events – yet it is the real occurrences from the last days of the Celtic Tiger that seem unbelievable. So the most exciting thing about this novel is that the moments that place most strain on your suspension of disbelief are the ones that Kilroy isn’t actually making up. I can’t think of a better way of satirising the Celtic Tiger period than by showing how  it reads like a rather predictable horror story.

I do have to confess to having a slightly negative predisposition towards the many books, tv programmes, comedy routines, newspaper columns, and plays that are now satirising the Celtic Tiger. Many of them are in their own way very good – but I think the effect of such work can often be to confirm what we already know while creating the impression that the author is bravely attacking the status quo.

In fact though, in Ireland, the new status quo is that the old status quo was very bad. It’s not true that “we all partied”, but from watching or reading a lot of that work, I think that we in Ireland are now in danger of perpetuating the myth that the entire Celtic Tiger bubble was caused by Someone Else: property developers, bankers, politicians, public servants, Angela Merkel – take your pick: but It Wasn’t Me.

That’s not to say that the post-Celtic Tiger material that’s being written is bad – far from it. Some of it’s very good: I really loved Anne Enright’s The Forgotten Waltz, for example (and don’t consider it guilty of any of the criticism I mention above). And even during the boom, there were excellent novels that sought to come to terms with the consequences of the Celtic Tiger: Keith Ridgeway’s The Parts and Paul Murray’s Skippy Dies stand out, but there were others – and there were also films like The Tiger’s Tail and plays like Declan Hughes’s Shiver. All of those works set out to the challenge the orthodoxies of the boom when it was underway, and thus attempted the difficult job of confronting audiences, demanding that we ask questions about our lives and our society… But I think there’s a risk that some of the work now being produced to attack the Celtic Tiger is just confirming the dominant narrative that’s been built since 2008 – and the lack of dissent from dominant narratives was one of the problems that caused the excesses of the Celtic Tiger in the first place.

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All of this is just to say that there may be people who will dismiss The Devil I Know because they may worry that it is another one of those ‘closing the stable door after the horse has bolted’ critiques of the Celtic Tiger. I have to admit, I wavered before buying it myself for that reason. But it’s not that kind of work at all. Its central character is a recovering alcoholic – and if the addiction to alcohol is used as a metaphor for the Celtic Tiger’s addiction to the accumulation of wealth and status symbols, the reverse is also true. I mean, that is, that this is a novel about addiction first and foremost. The Celtic Tiger is the setting and context for the story, but the novel transcends the local or, more specifically, the parochial setting to create a story that could travel widely and survive into the future.

I think this is important. One of the best books I’ve ever read about what debt does to people is Charles Dickens’s Little Dorrit – while Sean O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock can be seen as having in some ways predicted what would happen to Ireland if the country ever became rich. In other words, the most relevant works of literature are those that tell us something about human nature – rather than recreating the events of one particular epoch in one particular country.

This is not to say that The Devil I Know is in every respect perfect.  There is a very under-developed female character, whose purpose in the novel seems uncertain (another link with some of Banville’s work, perhaps). But what I most admired were the varieties of style and sensations employed. The book is very funny, for example – but it’s also quite creepy. There’s one scene in which Tristram and the property developer drive in the middle of the night to an isolated rural farm – and the novel at that point is actually quite scary: not the kind of thing you’d want to read in a dark house alone on a windy night… So it is (to use one of its own repeated words) often uncanny and unsettling.

One last thing to say about it… It runs to about 360 pages, but because the novel is written in the form of a cross-examination by a barrister, there are quite a lot of ‘chapters’ that are no longer than a single sentence. In other words, it’s much shorter than it looks – it could easily be read in a single sitting (I read it over three days) and actually merits re-reading too.

So – worth a look.

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From the Sopranos to the Americans

Like many others this morning, I’m sad to learn of the death of James Gandolfini, and shocked that he was only 51. As his recent performance in Zero Dark Thirty showed, he seemed on the verge of shaking off his associations with Tony Soprano – and of doing something that could match or even surpass his achievement in playing that role. And I understand that he became a father again last year. It’s terrible to see someone so young passing away.

I am sure that there will now be many articles reminding us that The Sopranos re-defined television – that, without that show, there would have been no Six Feet Under, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, or The Wire.

The Sopranos itself could probably not have happened without Twin Peaks, of course – but David Lynch’s show had always seemed anomalous, with its innovations misunderstood as mere Lynch-ian quirkiness. In contrast, The Sopranos managed to be trailblazing while operating within familiar TV conventions. Gandolfini’s performance was a key element in that achievement: we couldn’t help watching Tony Soprano – in fact, we couldn’t help liking him either (most of the time). Perhaps the show’s primary influence, then, is in spawning a series of TV shows about likeable anti-heroes, from Michael C Hall’s Dexter Morgan to Bryan Cransford’s Walter White in Breaking Bad to Don Draper in Mad Men – and so on.

I’d been thinking during the last few days anyway that the influence of The Sopranos is also detectable in more recent (and more accessible) shows. I’ve been watching The Americans on RTE 2 for the last few weeks: it finished its 13 episode run in the US last month but we  in Ireland are only up to episode 4. So it’s a bit early to reach a definitive judgement.

But so far I am struck by a couple of similarities with The Sopranos. One of the enjoyable features of the HBO series was that much of the action took place in suburbia: we got to enjoy watching how Tony’s neighbours felt about having a gangster in their midst – and his status as a kind of outsider often shone a satirical light on the materialism and vapidity of the people around him. Something similar is going on in The Americans, in which Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys play deeply embedded KGB spies who live in an American suburb in the early 1980s. Because the couple are both part of that world and outside of it (like Tony), the show is able to cast a mildly critical eye on such issues as consumerism and American attitudes to parenting.

And of course the duo at the centre of the show are (yet again) charismatic anti-heroes. This is particularly notable in the characterisation of Elizabeth (played by Russell), who in the first four episodes has already murdered two American men, both of whom were developed just enough for us to find her actions shocking.

Yet we care about what happens to her and her husband Philip: when they risk being caught, it’s assumed we’ll hope they escape; when they express anxieties about their kids or their marriage or their future, it’s assumed that we will be nodding along in identification. And part of the reason we are rooting for Philip and Elizabeth is that their main antagonist – an FBI agent played by Noah Emmerich – is himself morally ambiguous, and certainly not as likeable as the two Russians. So it’s a show that doesn’t feel the need to make things simple for its audience – again, something that we probably would not have had if not for The Sopranos.

I’m not sure how long the show will be able to sustain that kind of moral ambiguity, however. In The Sopranos, we always had Dr Malfi to act as a surrogate and safety valve for the audience: when she was appalled by Tony, so were we; when she liked him, so did we – and when in the final season she’d had enough and refused to see him any longer, we were ready to say goodbye too. There’s no-one quite like that (yet) in The Americans: someone who can give us permission to like the two protagonists, but also allow us to feel that our values are not being fundamentally threatened. So that could be very interesting, or it could quickly start to strain credulity.

Another issue is that the show doesn’t just remind me of The Sopranos, but of many other shows. It presents people who look like ordinary Americans but who for ideological reasons are dedicated to the destablisation of the USA. As such, it links up nicely with Homeland – and if it’s interesting to see how post-9/11 paranoia is not much different from Cold War paranoia, we have still seen some of these dilemmas before.

And, with its 1980s setting, it also shows some hints of the influence Mad Men – since both shows aim to use the past to explore matters about the present that might be too painful if tackled directly. And like Mad Men, it has some fun with our knowledge of how things turned out. I’m thinking here of simple things like Don’s line in the first episode of Season One in Mad Men – “It’s not like there’s some magic machine that makes identical copies of things” (apparently the photocopier had actually been invented in the late 1950s). In a similar fashion, some of the fun in watching The Americans lies in our knowledge that almost every dilemma the couple face would be much more straightforward if they’d just had mobile phones.

There’s one other resemblance that I’ve noticed already – and it’s not a very flattering one. But with its treatment of an early 1980s married couple who spend each episode solving a problem – often employing a stunning repertoire of funny disguises before concluding each episode by cuddling up together – I can’t help thinking of Hart to Hart, that show about a pair of millionaire amateur detectives. Of course there’s no real resemblance here, but there are elements of The Americans that could get pretty silly pretty quickly.

But where it’s most interesting, after four episodes anyway, is in its treatment of its female characters – not just Elizabeth, but also the couple’s KGB handler Claudia (played by Margo Martindale).

As stated above, Elizabeth is shown killing people where (so far) Philip has not; she’s also required to use her body to get information, sometimes with deeply unpleasant consequences for her. You can understand why she’s more committed to her cause than Philip is: she has to do much more of the dirty work than he, and thus has less room to entertain serious doubts. It’s also notable that (again unlike Philip) she has had a relationship outside of the marriage, with an African-American man whom she recruited as an agent.

The character of Claudia is also very interesting, played as an apparently harmless grandmother-figure who is in fact the most ruthless character in the series (so far).

I’ve been struck by the thought that this treatment of gender (and race) would never have found its way onto a TV screen in the 1980s. Think again of the opening lines of Hart to Hart: “This is my boss, Jonathan Hart – a self-made millionaire. He’s quite a guy. This is Mrs. H. She’s gorgeous. She’s one lady who knows how to take care of herself.” In that show, the man makes himself but the woman takes care of herself: he’s to be admired for what he does and she for how she looks.

In that respect, at least, we’ve come a long way since 1981.