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?

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.