Chapatti at Galway International Arts Festival

It’s been a great first week at the Galway International Arts Festival – and I have lots to say about Enda Walsh’s Ballyturk in particular (though I need to see it again, and then lie down for at least two days afterwards to recover). But for now I wanted to write a short note about Christian O’Reilly’s Chapatti. 

I first saw an O’Reilly play at the Galway Arts Festival in 2002, when Druid produced his Good Father, a two-hander that charts the relationship of a couple who have a one-night stand, and then discover that the woman has become pregnant. I was impressed at that time by the emotional honesty of that play – it was clear about what it wanted to say and it didn’t feel the need to overcomplicate the plot or draw attention to itself. As has been true for all of O’Reilly’s subsequent plays, he has a very clear understanding of how people’s needs determine their interactions – and he just gets out of the way and lets the story be told.

He subsequently had Is This About Sex? produced by Rough Magic at the Dublin Theatre Festival, and his much admired Sanctuary with Blue Teapot appeared at DTF last year also. Less well known is Here We Are Again Still, a play based on interviews with people living in Galway’s Mervue estate. I saw it at the Galway Theatre Festival a few years ago and found it formally interesting (it is fascinating to compare it with other recent works that make use of interviews – by people like Alecky Blythe or even Anu Productions). I also enjoyed the story and liked the characters. And that’s a trait of all of O’Reilly’s plays – he always gives us a good story and people the audience can identify with. Here We Are Again Still was produced here in Galway, directed by Andrew Flynn – and as is often the way of these things, it went largely unnoticed in the rest of the country, especially in Dublin.

For all of these reasons, i was delighted to learn that Chicago’s Northlight Theater were staging his new play Chapatti – first in Chicago and then here in Galway for the Arts Festival. It’s a two-hander with John Mahoney and Penny Slusher, and it’s directed by BJ Jones, who brought The Outgoing Tide and Stella and Lou to Galway in 2012 and 2013 respectively. And it’s very good.

O’Reilly writes in his programme note that he’d originally imagined the story being told as two monologues, one by a man and the other by a woman, both somewhat elderly and both encountering different forms of loneliness. He spent several years tinkering with the play before finally having the two characters begin to speak to each other. So the play, put simplistically, shifts from monologue to dialogue before settling finally on the latter.

And again, I think that’s very interesting formally. The monologue in Irish drama is often used, and probably overused, to signify loneliness and isolation. The reason that Pig and Runt speak to the audience in Disco Pigs is because it’s no longer possible for them to speak to each other. The same is true of the characters in Friel’s Faith Healer or Beckett’s Play, among many others – the form and the content influence each other very strongly.

Here the movement from monologue/direct address of the audience to dialogue/realistic representation of the acting is a formal representation of the burgeoning relationship between the two characters.

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But it also means that there was a risk of the play feeling uneven or disjointed – like two plays tacked together (a theme in this year’s Festival – more on that sometime soon). What impressed me here was that Jones’s direction ensures that there is a coherence to the action overall.

He presents the action on a large, slightly rounded set that represents the living rooms of both characters – the man usually occupies the left side, the woman the right, but while there is a realistic level of detail in the set we also understand that the table centre-stage can sometimes be in the man’s house and sometimes in the woman’s. In other words, the action is both realistic and theatricalised at the same time.  We believe that what we’re seeing is happening in the real world, but we also know that there’s a lot of play happening too.

And that allows the shift from monologue to realism (and back again) work very well throughout the action. Sometimes the characters act out their monologues – jumping this way or that, miming holding something, and generally using their physical presence to convey the story. So the direction of the monologues is very dynamic – much more so than is usually the case in Irish plays (an exception being Mark O’Rowe’s direction of Tom Vaughan-Lawlor in Howie the Rookie last year).

But the realistic sections are then played down, held back, restrained. It’s a very neat balancing act: the quality of the direction is evident largely in the fact that you’re almost never aware that the play has been directed at all.

The play itself is a very simple story about a man and a woman exploring the possibility that they could form a relationship. As such, it is very similar to last year’s Northlight production Stella and Lou. And it also reminded me a lot of Deirdre Kinahan’s Halcyon Days from last year – people who liked Kinahan’s play as it toured Ireland would probably love Chapatti, and for similar reasons. Like Kinahan, O’Reilly knows how to tie his plot  together very skilfully.

I was also very struck last night by the audience’s engagement: there were lots of “oohs” and “ahs”, a bit of wolf-whistling at one stage, and lots of familiar laughter. The audience were rooting for the characters, wishing them well. So like the director, the playwright here is making something very difficult seem effortless.

It’s an interesting experience seeing a Chicago company stage an Irish play. Audience members here are bound to notice a few bum notes: the accents sometimes wander and the costumes don’t quite ring true. Does this matter? I don’t really think so. It doesn’t matter because the play is not really looking to create geographical authenticity: the play is set in Dublin but it could easily be set in Galway, or indeed in Chicago. The company is doing a huge amount to respect the Irish origins of the play, and I think that merits respect.

And it also doesn’t matter because we in Ireland don’t own the Irish play anymore – if it ever belonged to us in the first place. That’s why we find Conor McPherson’s Night Alive being staged in London and New York, though it’s yet to receive a full production here (a reading was staged in Cavan I believe). That’s why John Patrick Shanley produced Outside Mullingar, a play that was set in “Ireland” but which displays little evidence of any knowledge of the Ireland that I happen to live in – and doesn’t seem all that bothered that this is the case.

I don’t want to simplify a complicated situation. And I don’t want to imply that producers have no responsibilities when it comes to being accurate and/or authentic in the staging of Ireland. But I do think it’s great that a mid-career playwright like O’Reilly has been able to find a theatre in the US that have been willing to take him on, giving him a full-blooded, fully worked out production, and bringing forth a play that would almost certainly never have been produced to this level in Ireland.

So it’s interesting as a cultural phenomenon, and it’s a very good play that people can enjoy, and are enjoying. As I was leaving the theatre last night, I heard a middle aged man – in proper, full on pleasantly-surprised mode – saying to his wife that “that’s a play that would make me want to come back to the theatre again”. I think we need more plays like this.

Stella and Lou, and New American Drama at the Galway Arts Festival

On Sunday night I went to see Stella and Lou at the Galway Arts Festival. It’s a new play by Bruce Graham, produced by Chicago’s Northlight Theater, which came to Galway last year with another Graham play called The Outgoing Tide.

Both plays share a similar interest in old age and its attendant dilemmas. In The Outgoing Tide, Frasier’s John Mahony played a man who is suffering from the early stages of dementia. Fearing the loss of his dignity and worried about becoming a burden to his family, Mahony’s character determines that he wants to end his life. The play becomes a debate between him, his son and his wife about whether he should be allowed to do that.

I chaired a post-show talk last year with Mahony, Rondi Reed, BJ Jones (who directed) and Graham. I’ve chaired a lot of  discussions before but none has ever been quite like this: the audience seemed both emotionally charged and ready to talk, and where normally some of that energy might have been caused by the celebrity of Mahony, here it was largely due to the subject matter. A number of people in the audience spoke about how the play had affected them personally, either because they knew someone who had suffered from Alzheimer’s Disease, or perhaps because they too worried about the prospect of the loss of memory. It was strange to find such a fusion of intellectual energy and emotional vulnerability in the room.

Graham himself made a strong impression on me. He is a former stand-up comedian, and it shows: in person during the post-show he was ebullient and charming. But he also had a very serious approach to the difficult subject of euthanasia. Rather than strongly propagandizing for or against it, he instead tried to assert the dignity of the person who chooses to exercise his or her will. We never felt that Mahony’s character was making a right or wrong choice, I think – but we did leave the theatre respecting his right to make it.

Stella and Lou deals with an issue that is less immediate and certainly less contentious – which is the question of what happens to people who find themselves alone in their late 50s or early 60s. The eponymous characters spend much of the play in debate about whether to get together: Stella is frightened of the prospect of being alone (of dying alone, really), and Lou is frightened of the prospect of loving again if doing so brings with it the loss of another person he loves (he is a widower). The play tries to find common ground between these two apparently conflicting fears.

It’s been said many times that our culture prioritises youth over old age. So it was interesting to be in a theatre where the characters on stage matched the age profile of the majority of the people in the audience, who were themselves mostly in their late 50s and early 60s. I kept hearing laughter of recognition in response to the play’s jokes about aging, and a bit of running commentary from the people around me about how the play reminded them of events and people in their own lives.

It had never really occurred to me before that theatre rarely focusses on aging in this way. Yes, there are many plays about dementia, especially in Ireland where it seems like every playwright has written at least one drama on that topic. But I don’t often see characters on stage who resemble so closely the people in the audience. Their accents are different and of course the play’s American setting introduces some cultural differences. But the play’s treatment of aging seemed to hit home.

I was also struck by how good it felt to watch some strong American acting. Two members of the cast have played with Steppenwolf, and it was refreshing to see that style being performed so well. It’s difficult to describe this kind of acting without either fetishising it or making it seem bland, but I’m referring here to a kind of heightened or stylised naturalism, whereby the actors talk in ways that seem absolutely credible, even though in reality no-one ever talks or moves like that. Everything is just slightly heightened, from the rhythm and cadences of delivery to the movement around stage. If you wanted to be unfair you could describe this as acting in ALL CAPS, but there’s plenty of room for subtlety in there too.

The style is also evident in the choice of play, which is an 80 minute resolution of a dramatic problem. The setting is the real world and if there is something a bit too reassuring about the raising of problems only to persuade the audience that they can be wrapped up in less than 90 minutes, the discussion is usually stimulating and engaging.

The introduction of interesting American work has been a specialism of the Galway Arts Festival over the years. Bruce Norris’s Purple Heart is on in London at the moment, but it was seen in Galway some years ago when Steppenwolf brought it here. And one of the most memorable experiences I’ve had at the Arts Festival was a play by Craig Wright called Orange Flower Water back in 2004. Wright was one of the writers on Six Feet Under, and his play explored the ways in which sex and love ought to complement each other but can instead cancel each other out (rather like Six Feet Under, in fact).

Stella and Lou won’t be to everyone’s taste but I appreciated it for its focus on plot, character, discussion, realism and – most of all – first-rate acting.