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.
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.