Irish Musical Theatre – A New Development That Has Always Been With Us

A few weeks ago, I did a brief interview with Eithne Shortall of The Sunday Times about the Irish musical. In her feature, she writes about Once and The Commitments, and wonders if these two productions suggest that we’ll see more  Irish musicals during the years ahead.

I think she’s right. I can see evidence of this growth at NUI Galway, where incoming Drama students are passionate about musical theatre, making GUMS (the university musical society) one of the university’s most vibrant student groups. And many students come to study theatre not because they have appeared in work by Synge or O’Casey or Friel, but because they were in a school production of South Pacific or Grease or West Side Story. We’re introducing classes in musical theatre from next year in an attempt both to meet that interest and to stimulate more of this kind of work.

Of course, the Irish musical has been around for a while. We saw it work brilliantly almost a decade ago (can it really be that long?) when Rough Magic premiered Bell Helicopter and Arthur Riordan’s Improbable Frequency, a musical about Ireland during the Second World War – which included such hilarious songs as “Be Careful Not to Patronise the Irish”. And we saw it on the main stage of the Abbey only last year with Wayne Jordan’s production of Alice in Funderland by Raymond Scannell and Phillip McMahon. Each of those productions was greeted with a lot of commentary, both formal and informal, suggesting that perhaps – at last – we in Ireland might be on the verge of developing a tradition of musical theatre.

I wonder, though, if it’s quite that simple. Music and musicality have always been important if not essential for Irish plays. One of the best examples of the importance of music can be found in O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock – which features a long scene in which the characters sing songs and play music on a gramophone.  It’s not a coincidence that Captain Boyle, who spends the play’s first act trying to deceive his wife, will in this scene choose to sing ‘Oh Me Darlin’ Juno, I Will Be True to Thee’ —a song intended to emphasize his honesty, which therefore reveals his duplicitous and hypocritical nature.  Another example is Mrs Madigan’s choice of the song ‘If I were a Blackbird’ to sing in the play’s second act:

   If I were a blackbird I’d whistle and sing;

I’d follow the ship that my true love was in;

An’ on the top riggin’, I’d there build me a nest,

An’ at night I would sleep on me Whillie’s white breast!

This seems quite an innocent choice, but given that her audience includes Captain Boyle—a former sailor who is supposed to have inherited a large amount of money—her choice of a love song with a maritime setting reveals a great deal about her motives.

Arguably, the play’s turning point occurs in that same scene, when we hear Juno and Mary singing ‘Home to Our Mountains’ from Verdi’s Il Travotore.  O’Casey does not transcribe the words of this piece; he does not change them to reflect the accent or social status of the singers, but states that they must sing the song well.  By showing that the two characters can express themselves perfectly well in this artform, O’Casey hints that they are capable of transcending their circumstances—and indeed makes the case that they must do so.

And then the scene concludes with the song “If You’re Irish, Come Into the Parlour” playing on the gramophone while a funeral dirge is underway – a brilliant contrast of kitsch Irishness with the solemnity of the funeral ritual.

Juno is not a musical – but its use of music is far more than incidental or contextual: it reveals character, develops the themes, shapes the audience’s responses, and offers us new ways of seeing such issues as nationalism, religion, gender, and the relationship between Irish and international culture. And it seems to me that a lot of Irish plays use music in a similar way: they are not quite musical theatre, but they are much more than “music in theatre”.

Tom Murphy has a very similar scene to O’Casey’s in his under-rated 1998 play The Wake, which again sees a family gathering for a sing-song.  And there’s  a brilliant scene in his The Gigli Concert in which the Irishman acts out the story of Gigli’s youth while Toseli’s Serenade plays in the background. In Garry Hynes’s last production of the play (which I reviewed on irish Theatre Magazine), Denis Conway matched the movements to the music so carefully that it was almost as if he was dancing at times.  And the use of song in Conversations on a Homecoming offers rare moments of beauty in a play that is otherwise quite fearlessly ugly.

In the blog, I’ve also written a few times about the use of music in contemporary plays. This pattern worries me slightly, since it reminds me of something I occasionally see in the work of inexperienced directors and writers – which is that when you can’t work out how to convey an important mood or emotion to the audience through acting, staging, or writing, you let a piece of music do the work for you (and too often it’s the same music: Sigur Ros, Radiohead, Massive Attack).

Yet when done well, music can transform a play. As I’ve recently discussed, Frank McGuinness uses a song from the Mikado beautifully in The Hanging Gardens. Similarly, Conor McPherson’s use of music is almost always successful: I’m thinking of the use of Neil Young as a kind of ironic counterpoint to the action in Shining City or of John Martyn’s Sweet Little Mystery to bring us blinking back into the sunlight in The Seafarer.  And then there’s Enda Walsh, whose use of Doris Day in Misterman and more kitsch Irish ballads in Walworth Farce add to the sinister and unsettling quality of both plays. And who can forget the contrast between the intensely verbal sisters in New Electric Ballroom and Mikel Murfi’s amazingly sung “Wondrous Place” in the same play?

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Enda Walsh, incidentally, is the only Irish dramatist I know of who has won a Grammy – since his song “Abandoned in Bandon” appears on the soundtrack to Once – the Musical.

And there are many other examples we could think of. Billy Roche’s The Cavalcaders is arguably as much a musical as The Commitments is (in both cases, song is used as part of the action – songs are only sung when they would be sung in the ‘real world’). Something similar could be said of Christina Reid’s The Belle of the Belfast City. And think of how important music is for Brian Friel – Cole Porter and traditional music in Lughnasa, Chopin in Aristocrats, Thomas Moore in The Home Place, and so on. Likewise, Elaine Murphy’s use of music in Shush seems influenced by Lughnasa – a play which, I think, must also have had an impact on Marie Jones’s restaging of the Blind Fiddler back in 2003.

I’m also conscious of how deeply invested in music so many Irish dramatists are. For example, Stewart Parker was, among many other things, a brilliant rock journalist – and it shows in his drama.

We can also see the importance of music in some of the recent adaptations that have appeared at the Abbey. As I suggested in that discussion with Eithne Shorthall, Frank McGuinness’s The Dead – which again made use of the songs of Thomas Moore – was almost like a hybrid: not quite a musical but not quite a play either. And it seems that the Abbey’s forthcoming production of The Risen People – opening next week – will be making extensive use of music too.

Quite often, establishing an Irish musical tradition is seen as being like beating the All Blacks: something we really should have done a long time ago, but will, we hope, get round to doing sometime in the near future. But could it be that the reason we don’t have a tradition of musical theatre here is because, in some ways, it’s always been so firmly embedded in our theatrical culture anyway?

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Mark O’Rowe and Tom Vaughan-Lawlor on Howie the Rookie

Last Tuesday night, I was delighted to be able to chair a post-show discussion about Howie the Rookie with its author and director Mark O’Rowe and with its star (and he really is a star) Tom Vaughan-Lawlor.

O’Rowe spoke at length about his composition of Howie, which first appeared in 1999. He’d been commissioned to write a play for the Abbey, he explained – but, as an inexperienced writer, he found himself writing what he thought of as an “Abbey theatre play”. In consequence, the play was not very good and was rejected.

This caused a sense of crisis which moved towards resolution when O’Rowe read Samuel Beckett’s Molloy. The novel features two lengthy monologues by a pair of distinct but inter-related men – which inspired O’Rowe to write a play that features two lengthy monologues by a pair of distinct but inter-related men. He also spoke about how liberating he found Beckett’s prose, which doesn’t really have a plot or conclusion. His own play is tightly plotted and reaches a strong ending, of course, but the sense of freedom he found in Beckett helped him to find his way into the play.

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Howie the Rookie was a huge hit when it premiered in London in 1999. It featured Aidan Kelly as Howie and Karl Shiels as the Rookie, and was a success both in Ireland and internationally. Kelly and Shiels’s performances are recalled affectionately by everyone who saw them – and they reprised them in the Peacock in 2006 in a production directed by Jimmy Fay.

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Howie the Rookie, Peacock Theatre, 2006

After a few minutes of discussing the play together, we were joined on stage by Vaughan-Lawlor – so I asked him how it felt when he was told that he’d be taking on not just one of these famous roles but both of them.

Vaughan-Lawlor spoke of the immediate feeling of both fear and excitement, and later mentioned that he’d spent most of the final three months of 2012 learning the roles, so that he could arrive at rehearsals ready to work on the details. I asked him if he needed to do anything to shift from one role to the other: was there some sort of thinking that he needed to do during the interval to move from Howie to the Rookie, I wondered. He chuckled apologetically: “to be honest, I don’t do anything,” he said. “I just change my t-shirt”.

Later the conversation turned to the question of whether Howie and the Rookie are separate characters, with Vaughan-Lawlor implying that he sees them both as different facets of one personality.

For O’Rowe the revival was also an opportunity to revisit the script. He stated that he hadn’t changed much of the play’s language. Rhythmically it sounds closer to O’Rowe’s 2007 verse-play Terminus that to the original Howie, but that similarity probably owes more to the direction than any rewrites. He did state, however, that he’s made some very small changes to the presentation of characters such as the Avalanche and White Pudding boy: he wanted to make clearer that the negative views expressed about them were based on the characters’ perceptions rather than any reality. And indeed in performance both come across more sympathetically than was the case in previous productions of the play.

We touched on a few other topics, with both men speaking warmly about how the producer Anne Clarke had put the show together – and about how, despite having now performed the play in Dublin, Cork and Galway, they are still making small changes to the performance.

We soon opened the discussion out to the audience, and there were some great questions: about the language, about whether the play could be understood abroad (it already has been, replied O’Rowe), and so on.

I had seen in one of the back rows that someone had a hand up, but couldn’t clearly see the person’s face. I became a bit worried when I called on the person to make their comment and realised that the speaker was a boy, aged maybe 10 or 12. “I have a question for Mark and Tom,” he said – and the audience laughed with good-natured surprise. “That’s Mark’s son,” explained Tom – and the audience gave a big “awww”. “Did you enjoy writing Howie the Rookie, Mark?” said the boy, clearly enjoying himself. “Well… well, yeah, I suppose I did,” said Mark. “I think you must have worked very hard on it” replied the son (“awww” said the audience again). He then asked Tom if he’d enjoyed performing in the play.

Tom later explained that he and Mark had prepared a version of Howie for Mark’s kids – but with all of the material unsuitable for children taken out. “It was about twenty minutes’ long” said Tom.

The conversation returned to family when I asked the two speakers what their plans are for the near future. Tom finished recording the fourth season of Love/Hate just before he went into a four-week rehearsal for Howie, so he said he was looking forward to getting back to his family: he spoke movingly about how his wife, who is also an actor, makes so many things possible for him. Mark revealed that he’ll have an original new play opening next year – which is a very exciting prospect.

Howie now heads to Edinburgh, and you’d have to assume it will do very well there.

***

When I did that post-show talk I was in the unusual position of not having seen the production (though I do know Howie very well and had chatted with Mark O’Rowe about it during the Synge Summer School). I finally got to see it on Saturday afternoon in the new Taibhdhearc.

It’s been said by many people already, but Tom Vaughan-Lawlor’s performance is exceptional. When he said at the post-show that all he does during the interval is change his t-shirt, I thought he was being modest (which of course he was). But what really surprised me is that he was also telling the truth. He makes no attempt to suggest that the two characters are radically different from each other. In each part of the play, the voice is the same, the body language is the same – and if the performance of Howie seems more energetic in some ways, there are also some surprising similarities between the two roles.

In each performance, for example, there is a moment when Vaughan-Lawlor has to enact a dive – and in each section there is also a very long pause which shows that the character has suddenly realised something important about himself. These moments of affinity between the two characters fit the play’s themes (in which apparently everyday objects like the appearance of a green Hiace van take on a symbolic connotation) – but they also create powerful thematic and emotional links between the two characters.

This is not to suggest that we genuinely do think that the two men are the same as each other. What’s impressive here is that we know that they are different, simply because Vaughan-Lawlor tells us they are different people. This becomes a fascinating example of how acting works, of how we can be persuaded that this person called Tom Vaughan-Lawlor is both Howie and the Rookie, just as is he is Nidge from Love/Hate, Arturo Ui, Christy Mahon, Joseph Surface, Vasily Solyony, and many others. Like so many great actors, he is always both himself and the character he is playing.

The performances of Kelly and Shiels in the original Howie were memorable for many reasons. Kelly has a special ability to blend toughness with vulnerability – and this made his Howie  sympathetic, even as we might have been bothered by his selfishness, his casual attitude to violence, his misogyny, and so on. And Shiels captured a sleazy charisma in the Rookie that immediately made clear why women like him so much, and why men have so little respect for him. Anyone who can deliver his opening lines about breaking “hearts and hymens” without losing the audience’s sympathy needs a bit of charm. Shiels has plenty of that.

Vaughan-Lawlor’s performances of the two characters are very different. With any monologue play we need to know why we are in a theatre, hearing the story being acted out. In Faith Healer, we learn that at least two of the three characters are dead – so their monologue becomes a way for them to try to make sense of the tragedies that ended their lives. In McPherson’s Port Authority, we are told that the play is “set in the theatre”, so the reason the stories are being told to us is simply because we have come to the theatre to hear them.

In this performance of Howie, there is (as in Faith Healer) the fact of mortality – because (and this is a spoiler for those who haven’t seen the play) one of the characters is trying to work through the causes not just of his own death but also of the death of a beloved family member – while the other is trying to understand his own role in that tragedy. The story is being told obsessively because it’s a metaphor for what happens when people try to come to terms with tragedy: we replay a story  in our minds because we are desperately trying to find some way of understanding what happened and, perhaps, trying to find some tiny detail that might have led to a different outcome. In setting the stakes this high, Howie puts itself in the same thematic (and formal) space as Faith Healer – and has a similar impact, even though of course the two plays are very different from each other as well.

Vaughan-Lawlor’s performance is stunningly energetic (he spoke in the post-show about how, in the early rehearsals, he’d found himself completely exhausted half-way through the first monologue and wondered how he was going to keep going). He doesn’t just tell the story: he creates the world of the play, filling the space of the stage with jumps and shimmies and crouches and sudden changes of pace. There are times when it almost feels as if he’s dancing, with his words and his gestures matching each other with a rhythmic precision that seems almost like rap.

But the energy makes sense of the question of why the story is being told in the theatre. We sense in the rapidity of movement a desperation to understand something, and perhaps even an impulse to atone for something. The characters are telling the stories because they are memories that neither man can let go of. Vaughan-Lawlor on several occasions gestures directly to the audience: a raised-eyebrow, a half-wink, a smile in our direction – all are used to suggest that these characters are speaking to us, and that they assume we are on their side, that we understand their values and their actions.

And of course eventually we do.

This production of Howie feels very rich, very emotional, and Vaughan-Lawlor’s performance is both technically and emotionally impressive: to use a reviewers’ cliché (but I mean it literally), he delivers a performance that is unforgettable.

***

Vaughan-Lawlor is so impressive because of his ability to match his vocal and physical performances with an underlying comprehension of the emotional force and importance of the story. Everything he does makes sense not just in itself but also in terms of the play overall. In the post-show talk, Vaughan-Lawlor said that he felt like he’d only done the play about ten times (in fact, it’s closer to 60 at this stage). But to me it felt like he’d done it a great many more times than that: the performance has the kind of integrity, depth and coherence that you’d expect to see in a show that’s been running for a number of months.

That performance – especially the link between voice and body – reminded me of another terrific performance in the Galway Arts Festival, which is that by Olwen Fouere in Riverrun. And indeed those were the two performances that everyone was speaking about in Galway during the latter half of the week.

A phrase that was constantly being used about them was that they were “virtuoso performances”. I’m a bit suspicious of that term, partly because it’s another one of those awful reviewers’ clichés (“bravo!”), and partly because I’ve heard some great research papers by Aoife Monks on the subject of Irish virtuosity. But insofar as people meant the term as a compliment I would agree with it. And indeed, I think it’s also accurate in the sense that part of the pleasure of going to either performance lies in sitting back and just enjoying the acting: you don’t even necessarily have to pay attention to the play itself. With both Fouere and Vaughan-Lawlor, some of the enjoyment comes from repeatedly having one thought: I can’t believe how well they are able to do what they are doing.

That’s been a theme through what has been a great Galway Arts Festival: we kept seeing not just great work, but very skilful performances. In addition to Riverrun and Howie my favourite moment in the Festival was the gig by Grizzly Bear:  it was a pleasure to be able to listen to music being played by a group who are such skilled musicians and such excellent singers – I was listening to it, realising repeatedly that I was never going to have another experience quite like this again.

I know a lot of our Festivals try to build an identity in various ways – the Dublin Theatre Festival, for instance, is running  under the banner “come out and play” this year. But in this year’s Arts Festival, the unifying theme was artistic excellence: there was something  reassuring and genuinely inspiring about seeing so many artists who are  literally among the best in the world in their chosen fields.

And, yes, I’m including Vaughan-Lawlor in that category – because what his performance in Howie makes clear is that he’s not just one of the best actors in Ireland, but is genuinely world-class.

***

My discussion of the post-show talk, given at the start of this blog post, is based on my recollection of events. I didn’t take notes, and there is no transcript of the discussion. So the statements above are subject to later correction if they are proven to be incorrect, though of course I hope they are accurate.

The photo above of Tom Vaughan-Lawlor is taken from the production’s official website, and was taken by Patrick Redmond. The full gallery is here: http://howietherookie.com/gallery/

Roddy Doyle, British Novelist?

A few days ago, I posted about the Donmar Warehouse’s PR campaign for The Weir, which describes Conor McPherson as one of “our” greatest living playwrights.

I was suggesting in that post that the “our” might just have been a mistake but observed that Irish writers, especially the successful ones, are often referred to as British, and that this can often feel like appropriation.

A few people contacted me either directly or via Twitter, mostly expressing frustration and citing examples of similar errors. But a few others suggested that perhaps the “our” meant “belonging to world drama”: that McPherson is “ours” in the way that Sophocles and Ibsen belong to the world… That is entirely possible, though I would note that no British theatre would ever refer to David Mamet or Bruce Norris as one of “our” (i.e. “their”) greatest living playwrights.

But really we’re just talking here about how plays are marketed, so to a certain extent it’s not worth getting too upset about a bit of inaccurate hyperbole.

That PR line contrasts with a profile of Roddy Doyle that appears over on the Guardian website. It was published yesterday. Here is the first paragraph:

Roddy Doyle is one of Britain’s greatest writers. He is also my favourite teacher. His books arrived when I needed them most and, like the best of educations, changed my perceptions and the course of my life.

The rest of the article goes on to pay tribute to Doyle at length, referring in some detail to many of his novels and also displaying awareness of his former career as a teacher.

The full article can be read here, and its author is Kerry Hudson. And I should thank Emily Mark Fitzgerald for pointing it out to me via Twitter.

Needless to say, the comments soon started flooding in to the Guardian website, mostly from people pointing out the error. As one user stated it is very difficult to take an article seriously when it has so egregious an error in its opening line.

Hudson posted an apology almost immediately:

I completely understand why people are unhappy and I can only apologise. I did initially draft the copy to (incorrectly) read ‘greatest British writer’ but then realised my error requested this to be changed in advance of the piece being filed with the Guardian. For whatever reason that didn’t happen.

She goes on to say that she hopes people will ignore the error and try to follow the spirit of the article in its entirety: “I was just trying to acknowledge and say thank you to someone who had a massive impact on my writing and life,” she said.

Most of the people commenting accepted that explanation/apology – and I have to say it’s refreshing to find someone who is willing to admit a mistake in the way that Hudson does. For anyone who writes anything, this kind of howler is both a perpetual fear and a perpetual risk: there are things that you know, have always known, and will always know – but for some reason will forget for the entire period that you spend writing something. So I think anyone is capable of making this kind of mistake. That is what editors are for, or used to be for.

And for some reason those kinds of massive blunders almost always appear in an opening paragraph.

Well, one commentator, using the name Pat Jackman, then raised a very pertinent question:

I mean, what is the context in which an obviously intelligent, obviously educated, presumably thirty-something journalist describes an obviously Irish author who writes specifically about the working class experience within the Irish Republic’s capital city come to actually make a statement like “Doyle is one of Britain’s greatest writers”?

And – again, admirably – Hudson actually took the time to respond to this:

In response to the question of why I ever wrote that line in the first place I think (I wrote the article a wee while ago…) I was thinking about the reach of his books – I found mine in a tiny council estate library in Great Yarmouth – but as I’ve said this was never the wording that was meant to be published. By no means was I ever trying to ‘claim’ him.

This explanation trails off slightly, but is still interesting: it’s likely that what she means is that Doyle’s work feels like an important part of the fabric of her cultural life, not as something exotic or foreign but rather as something that is recognizable and immediate.

This is probably how many Irish people would feel about Coronation Street or Manchester United, or perhaps the novels of Ian McEwan or the music of Radiohead and so on. They wouldn’t describe those things as “Irish” but they would probably use the word “our” about them in some contexts (and I’m not just referring to the way in which Irish people will say “we” when talking about their favourite English or Scottish football team) – or they would in any case feel a sense of ownership, possession, fidelity, and so on. When you really love something, it can feel like it belongs to you, and I think that’s what she was trying to express.

It’s also possible that some of this may be caused by the status of some Irish novelists within the London literary scene. It’s been observed before that sometimes Irish fiction is presented by UK-based publishers not as a national literature but as a genre. “Irish” novels may be very different from each other on the surface: Banville is very different from Enright, who is different from Toibin, who is different from Sebastian Barry, who is different from Joseph O’Connor. But novels marketed as “Irish” do seem to have similar traits: lyricism, mordant (if not morbid) humour, a focus on the past that fuses nostalgia with acts of historical retrieval. And quite recently we’ve seen a few that are set in the past and which deal with the liberation of some unusually self-possessed young woman (Ghost Light, Brooklyn, On Canaan’s Side).

And it’s also notable that the novelists I mention above play a significant role in the discussion of fiction and ideas in Britain: Enright and Toibin’s essays for publications like The London Review of Books are widely read, as are John Banville’s reviews in London and New York.

And it’s also often been observed before that these writers constantly write blurbs for each other’s novels, thus heightening the sense that they are all inter-related by more than just their place of birth.

Again I think much of this is caused not just by marketing but by the ways in which marketing in turn influences the placement and commissioning of reviews – which in turn has an impact on other reputation-building exercises such as public readings, invitations to festivals, appearances on TV, and so on.

So I can understand what Hudson felt when she led off an article about one of her favourite writers by saying that there is no-one quite like him in all the land. I feel something similar about Zadie Smith and David Greig and many other writers and musicians. I know they’re not Irish, but the worlds they create feel like they belong to me.

Commentators over on The Guardian website are characterising Hudson’s error as arising from ignorance. But perhaps rather than seeing these mistakes as evidence of the divisions between our countries (so many of the Irish complaints are tinged with annoyance at not being noticed by a bigger neighbour), we could instead see them as an example of the ways in which the two countries are intertwined in important ways, especially when it comes to our literature(s). This intertwining is not necessarily an entirely bad thing – or an entirely good thing – but it certainly needs to be better understood.

Likewise I think there needs to be an acceptance that when Irish writers have been so warmly and so thoroughly welcomed into British theatre and fiction (albeit when they write in ways that conform to some extent with expectations of what an Irish writer ought to do), this will inevitably blur some boundaries too. We in Ireland celebrate the Booker victories and Tony Awards of people whose careers are to a great extent driven by forces in London: there is a risk in doing so that we are trying to have it both ways.

And at least Hudson has admitted the mistake and tried to correct it.

Conor McPherson’s _Night Alive_ at the Donmar Warehouse

I was blogging yesterday about the transfer of Conor McPherson’s The Weir to the West End – but wanted today to write briefly about The Night Alive, which I saw last week.

At the Synge Summer School last month, many of the writers spoke about the difficulty of transitioning from one phase in their career to another. Writers like Marina Carr are criticised when they keep doing the same thing (in her case, writing plays set in the midlands), yet are then criticised when they try to do things differently. One writer cited the example of Conor McPherson’s The Veil as an illustration of this inconsistency, saying that it’s not that the play was in any way bad – it’s just that it didn’t seem like a ‘typical’ McPherson play, so audiences (or perhaps the theatre itself) didn’t really know what to make of it.

I found myself thinking about this a lot while watching The Night Alive at the Donmar Warehouse last week. It seems to me that it is a play that shows McPherson trying to move away from things he’s done before, but without abandoning them altogether. I’m reluctant to call it a ‘transitional play’, since doing so might imply that I think its only value is that it’s a step from one securely positioned play to another.

But there are some interesting developments to note.

A word of warning – there aren’t exactly ‘spoilers’ below, but anyone planning on seeing the play may prefer not to read this post.

The Ghosts are Metaphorical

When the Weir was first staged in Ireland, many people loved its old-fashioned ghost stories. But they also, I think, responded to the ways in which ghosts in the play operated as a metaphor for other things: loneliness, memory, nostalgia, the movement from a rural Ireland of simple darkness to a more urbanised Ireland of complex brightness. And the reason so many people – well, so many academics – were willing to take the ghost stories seriously is because the play operates on so many different levels (or, to quote Martin McDonagh, it ‘has layers’).

Over time, people began to wonder if the ghosts in McPherson’s plays were actually metaphors – or if, instead, he was just trying to scare us, playing on our sensations rather than our intellects. Probably the strongest example of this reaction came when Fintan O’Toole reviewed Shining City at the Gate, and complained about its ending. Here’s what he wrote:

It says a lot about Shining City that, like some corny slice of Jeffrery Archeresque rubbish, it has an ending that reviewers can’t reveal. An eloquent contemplation of the sheer sadness of real lives is boiled down to one short and stupid word: “Boo!” McEhlatton’s subtle acting (a scene in which he silently wraps a teddy bear for his daughter is vastly more haunting than any ghost or ghoul)… [is] betrayed by a gesture that reeks of panic and a loss of faith in the material.

O’Toole concluded the review by suggesting that Shining City features “some of his best and most of his worst work” (I’d note, however, that if my Google Alerts are to be believed, the play is regularly produced around the US).

That’s one of O’Toole’s harshest reviews – it’s most unusual to find him using words like ‘rubbish’, ‘stupid’, and so on. But he was right, I think, to make the point that McPherson’s writing is often “haunting” even when there are no ghosts around – and that point comes through very clearly in The Night Alive.

The play is about a middle aged man called Tommy, played by Ciaran Hinds, who takes in a prostitute who was beaten up by her boyfriend. Over the 100 minutes or so of the play, there are no ghosts (in the traditional sense). Yet there is a moment featuring Brian Gleeson that is genuinely frightening and unnerving, and the play’s conclusion is  surprisingly similar to the end of Shining City, in that both end with the unexpected appearance of a woman. And at the end of The Night Alive, the audience should find themselves wondering if what they are seeing is reality, dream, or something else. So as in Shining City, the lines between the real and the supernatural are being blurred, but here to much more subtle effect.

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This confirms that for McPherson, ghosts and the ghostly are a way for him to present onstage the loneliness, guilt and shame that his characters embody so eloquently. I’m not sure if we’ll see another ‘ghost play’ for McPherson, but I do think his writing is going to continue challenging our views on life and death, the spiritual, the real, and so on.

And this leads to the second interesting feature, which is:

A new approach to philosophy (involving religion?)

The published edition of the script begins with an epigraph from one of the gospels, describing the adoration of the Magi. Or, as we’d put in Ireland, the arrival of the ‘three wise men’ to pay tribute to Christ. In the play itself, one of the characters describes a dream in which he’s visited by one of the magi, who describes a strange vision to him. So there is some interesting religious imagery at work in the play.

There’s also a series of comments about the relationship between time and perception – expressed most clearly in a discussion about how time slows down as you approach a black hole (a fact that is invoked in the play as evidence for the existence of God).

McPherson was a Philosophy student at UCD and while I believe he wrote his MA thesis on Mill, he seems to be drawing a lot on philosophies of perception, or perhaps phenomenology, in his recent work. There was quite a bit of this in The Veil, which explored how the individual’s perception of reality can shift according to various factors. Similarly there is a sense here in which time can slow down or speed up depending on where a person is or what he/she is thinking.

The references to the magi have a lot of resonances in the play – these are men who follow a star to worship a being that is both human and divine, and I think McPherson is trying to show us how men like Tommy can transcend their circumstances by idealising others, finding epiphanies in the everyday.

I’m not sure where McPherson is going with these ideas but it feels like he’s working through a series of questions about space and time.  And indeed those questions have been there since The Weir, a play that tricks us into believing that 90 minutes in the theatre is actually a night’s drinking in a pub.

Dramatically, those questions also have the impact of raising the stakes for Hinds’s character, since we understand that his idealisation of the woman in the play offers him a way to reverse or slow down time… And that in turn leads to the next point –

“Same Old Show”? – Women in McPherson

In that O’Toole review of Shining City McPherson is also criticised for his charactersiation of the only female character in that play, whose dialogue was described as ‘clunky’ and whose role was a ‘hopeless task’ for Kathy Kiera Clarke  (according to O’Toole). That review came out at about the same time as Karen Fricker published an article called “Same Old Show”, which complained about the idealisation and objectification (and hence the marginalisation) of women in plays by McPherson and O’Rowe.

Those who have criticised McPherson for his presentation of women characters won’t find much to revise their views in The Night Alive. As Fintan Walsh puts it in his review for Irish Theatre Magazine:

[McPherson’s] writing doesn’t exactly degrade her [Aimee, the play’s only female character], but it doesn’t give her anything interesting to say or do either. She never develops beyond being the stimulus for men to reflect on men, and their experience of the world. Though in a beautiful performance a compelling [Caoilfhionn] Dunne manages to suggest rich layers of light and shade in the role, it’s underwritten. While there are similarities with the part of Valerie in The Weir – another female who arrives into a male universe out of the blue – this character isn’t even given the opportunity to speak at length.

I’m not sure if I fully agree that Aimee’s part is underwritten. She certainly seems to say less than the men, but Dunne does add a lot of depth to the role by using silence and shifting from defensive to open postures and so on. But it’s true to say that she is the stimulus for men to reflect upon themselves whereas we never get any sense of what her own reflections about herself might be. But that’s simply because this is a portrait primarily of Tommy – and everyone in the play is there largely to help us understand him.

But what struck me most about the characterisation of Tommy is that he seemed exactly like a Billy Roche character. Roche and McPherson collaborated on Eclipse together, and McPherson has directed one of Roche’s plays – so it’s not much of a surprise that Tommy comes off a bit like the male lead in Roche’s The Cavalcaders or Owen in On Such as We.

As Roche does so often, McPherson is  showing what happens when a male figure idealises a woman, using her to justify and rationalise his own existence.  But I don’t think he’s saying that this is a good thing. Aimee becomes the territory that the men in the play fight over – as happens in The Weir too – and I think McPherson is providing a very accurate representation of how (some) men perceive women in presenting matters in this way. So again this is a theme that’s developing interestingly – and contrasts with The Birds, in which two women compete over one man. In short, I think there’s a lot more to be said about gender in McPherson.

 Another link with Billy Roche…

…is the play’s use of music: Conor McPherson remains the Irish playwright whose i-pod I’d most like to steal  borrow. Music has been important in his recent plays – I’m thinking here of how Neil Young features in Shining City or John Martyn at the end of The Seafarer. What’s notable though is that those songs aren’t essential to the action – you could easily end The Seafarer with something other than “Sweet Little Mystery” and although it mightn’t work as well, it won’t ruin the play.

Here though a Marvin Gaye song (“What’s Going On”) is essential to the action, and there is a dance scene in which a lot of the things that haven’t been said up to that point in the play become obvious. I was slightly critical of Elaine Murphy a few weeks ago for including a dance scene in Shush, on the basis that we’ve seen a few too many of them in Irish drama over the last 23 years (since Lughnasa and Digging for Fire). I was slightly surprised to see McPherson doing this here too for the same reason: it’s not like him to try something that’s been so well done by so many others.

Yet there is something interesting going on with his use of music here, which includes a lot of Talk Talk, and which concludes with Father John Misty’s “Funtimes in Bablyon” (with thanks to Fintan Walsh for identifying the song for me). And indeed the scene with Marvin Gaye works very well indeed.

In the past, I have sometimes been critical of  productions (especially in student or fringe settings) for using contemporary music, firstly because I think that a well known song can take us out of a play rather than intensifying our awareness of it, and secondly because I think music is sometimes used because a director or actor doesn’t know how to convey an emotion or idea by, well, directing or acting.

There are times when I think McPherson is at risk of this problem here  – if you leave the theatre thinking about Father John Misty rather than McPherson, that could be a problem.

But thinking about his work overall, I’m very excited by what he’s trying to do with the integration of music into his action. I don’t see him joining the growing group of people who are staging Irish musicals at present, but he’s showing an awareness of the dramatic power of music – and the musicality of drama – that is starting to remind me of Tom Murphy.

McPherson the Director

As ever, McPherson is at his best as director in the work he does with the actors. The performances are very impressive – especially from McElhaton, who gives a beautifully sympathetic portrayal of a man who (to paraphrase the Marvin Gaye song) doesn’t know “what’s going on” most of the time, but who is doing his best to make sense of the world around him anyway. McElhatton manages to portray an affecting blend of perplexity and good-naturedness that I found myself thinking about for a long time after the performance finished. Everyone else was great too, but that’s the one that stuck in my mind.

I was also interested in the development of what we could almost call the McPherson ensemble. Hinds has been in The Seafarer, The Birds and Eclipse; Jim Norton has been in Port Authority, The Weir, The Seafarer and Eclipse and The Veil; Dunne has been in The Veil; McElhatton has been in Shining City and The Seafarer. This isn’t quite in the same territory as Druid’s use of ensemble, but I’m enjoying seeing these actors work through these roles over a long period – 15 years in the case of Norton.

As for the staging – the Donmar space is very intimate, and this production was played almost fully in the round (with seats in front of and to the left and right of the stage) – so we had a sense of almost being in Tommy’s bedsit during the action. And a lot of the entrances and exits happened when the actors walked between the rows of seats. I enjoyed the sense of deep immersion that resulted from the staging, but wondered how the play would work on a standard pros arch stage. I suspect that what we’d lose in intimacy we might gain in tension: we never really feel that Tommy’s space has been invaded or transformed and while it’s not necessary that we do, I’d be curious to see what the impact of a more self-contained set might be

Where Next?

As I write above, The Night Alive feels like McPherson is heading in some very interesting new directions. But I would want to emphasise that in itself it’s also a very good play, and it’s been given a great production with a first-rate Irish cast by the Donmar. I’d hoped we might see it at the Gate in this year’s Dublin Theatre Festival (as has happened a lot in the past) but for the moment we’ll have to wait for news of an Irish production (just as we are still waiting for an Irish production of The Veil). It would be good to see one.

Conor McPherson, British Dramatist?

I was a bit taken aback by the latest press release from the Donmar Warehouse, sent out by email last week and still posted on their website.

The message sends the very good news that the Donmar’s recent production of Conor McPherson’s The Weir will transfer into the West End early next year, running for 12 weeks from January.

Friends who’ve seen the production have said it’s terrific, and looking at the cast it’s easy to see why: Brian Cox, Ardal O’Hanlon, Risteard Cooper, Peter McDonald, Dervla Kirwan – not just a collection of great actors but great casting for each of those roles (you can easily enough see who will play each role, and it seems inspired in each case). It’s directed by the Donmar’s Artistic Director Josie Rourke, who announced her most recent season by declaring her intention to be a “a champion of British and Irish theater” – something she has done brilliantly by re-staging The Weir and by premiering McPherson’s new play The Night Alive (which I hope to write about later this week).

That’s all good, but the line that caught my attention was this one:

When it first premiered in 1997, The Weir won the Evening Standard, Critics’ Circle and Olivier Awards for Best New Play, and established Conor McPherson as one of our greatest living playwrights.

The word that seems curious there is “our”. Being Irish, I am inherently obliged to find any hint of British appropriation of Irish success profoundly irritating, so I performed a little bit of shocked spluttering before thinking about this a bit more clearly.

There are a few explanations for an English theatre using a possessive pronoun to describe an Irish dramatist, especially one like McPherson.

One is that it could just be a mistake. This kind of thing happens occasionally. I recently spent about six months trying to get a fee out of a prominent British institution. We went back and forth for months re-checking bank account details and wondering what was going on, until I asked if the person in accounts knew that Dublin (where my bank is) is not actually in the United Kingdom. The response came back that this was the problem: the person hadn’t known that an international bank transfer would be required to send money from the UK to Ireland.

And similarly I’ve occasionally been asked by other academics (at conferences etc) how often I get “back to the mainland” (by which they meant “over to England”).

That kind of thing is fairly harmless: we tend to get upset about it in Ireland but I’m sure similar kinds of mistakes happen when Irish people interact with British people about similar things.

Another possible explanation for the “our” is that it’s just a small bit of appropriation, rather like the kind of thing that used to happen a lot in the 1980s, when Seamus Heaney was included in a book of British poetry, when U2 were voted best British band, and so on.

But perhaps the simplest explanation is this one: the statement isn’t really all that inaccurate, especially if the “our” means “of British theatre”.

As Peter McDonald reminds us in the programme note for The Night Alive, McPherson’s breakthrough happened when his Lime Tree Bower was brought to London by the Bush. In a flash he went from being someone who was not being produced in the major Irish theatres – and whose self-produced plays were getting indifferent to hostile reviews in Dublin – to having plays on in London and New York. And almost every one of his plays have premiered in London since that time: Dublin Carol, Port Authority, Shining City, The Seafarer and now The Night Alive all premiered there.

Many of them were produced in Dublin soon afterwards, mostly by Michael Colgan at the Gate (and in the case of The Seafarer at the Abbey). And most of those London-based productions transferred over to New York, often to Broadway. And while those successes were a result of the work of an Irish writer/director usually working with Irish actors, they were also a result of the work of British-based producers, designers, publishers and so on.

Contrast that with what’s happened for McPherson in Dublin when his The Birds premiered at the Gate: it got middling to indifferent reviews, and any hope of a West End transfer seems quickly to have disappeared. It’s interesting that McPherson uses the introduction to the third volume of his collected plays, recently published by Nick Hern, to thank Joe Dowling for staging the play at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis – and in doing so making sure it has an ongoing life in the US.

The Bush has a right to think of McPherson as “our” (i.e. “their”) playwright, just as they have a stake in the success of Mark O’Rowe, Billy Roche, and other Irish writers. Likewise McPherson seems a quintessential Royal Court playwright, at least during the tenure of Ian Rickson. The sucess of The Seafarer in New York needs to be seen in the context of similar transfers from the NT into New York over the last decade. And since the Donmar are producing two of his plays this year, they can be forgiven for having a sense of ownership over him too. There aren’t many Irish theatres that could stake a similar claim.

But more seriously, it’s only fair to say that McPherson has a career in theatre because of the way in which the British theatre has supported him.

I’ve seen a few other examples of this lately. We at NUI Galway gave an honorary degree to Enda Walsh last month, and I was delighted to see that the British Ambassador to Ireland attended the ceremony. Walsh spoke warmly and effusively about the support the British Council has given him during his career. And this is something I hear many Irish writers say: that British Council supports a lot of Irish work not because they think it’s British (they don’t) but because they see it as a means of promoting the appreciation and study of the English language, among other reasons. And many Irish writers have benefited from this. Indeed, during the last 12 years I have attended a lot of international conferences on Irish writing where there were readings supported by the British Council – often, but not always, of writers from Northern Ireland. And this was at a time when it was virtually impossible to get funding from any comparable Irish agency: the Celtic Tiger meant that the promotion of Irish culture abroad seemed relatively unimportant. So the British Council would send our writers abroad but our own government didn’t.

Pictured is Leonard Moran, Professor Rita Colwell and Enda Walsh

ENDA WALSH HONORARY DEGREE AT NUI GALWAY

I’m also struck by the fact that there are a great many British people working in the Irish theatre whom we describe as “ours” (when the British do it, it’s appropriation, when we do it it’s a generous adoption – just as our emigrants are “the Irish diaspora” whereas immigrants are “the new Irish”). Many of the key figures in the development of our national theatre, from Hugh Hunt to Patrick Mason, were born in Britain; the same is true of the Gate’s Edwards and MacLiammoir. We’ve benefited enormously from the presence of people of other nationalities also, such as American women like Deirdre O’Connell (who set up the Stanislavski studio and Focus theatre) and Corn Exchange’s Annie Ryan. And the links between Northern Irish and Scottish theatre are particularly strong and interesting.

The Donmar’s production of The Weir in the West End is great news in many ways. It will give a boost to the reputation of McPherson, who hasn’t had an unqualified hit since The Seafarer. It highlights the excellence of Irish acting. And the likelihood is that the success of The Weir will encourage producers and audiences to take a chance on new Irish work. Given that the play will follow on the success of The Cripple of Inishmaan with Daniel Radcliffe, and will be on at the same time as Once – the Musical and a new musical version of Roddy Doyle’s The Commitments (which opens in September and will presumably still be running four months later), this will give Irish theatre, music and performance a much higher profile than it’s had in years.

This is important in many ways. As an academic I’ve noticed a falling-off in the last five years in the number of people coming to Ireland to study Irish drama, especially at postgraduate level (and this is happening throughout Ireland). Druid’s tours of North America have certainly helped to arrest the decline (I get more queries from abroad from people wanting to do PhDs on Enda Walsh than almost any other writer). I think the promotion in London of Irish drama will help to turn things around also – and this in turn will have an impact on the kind of teaching we do in drama – which will in turn affect the future development of Irish practitioners and audiences.

So I’m trying very hard not to be too annoyed by the ‘our’ in the Donmar’s press release.

Still, I kind of wish they’d change it.