Spotlight: playwright CONOR McPHERSON

Conor McPherson

Conor McPherson

Playwright Conor McPherson – ‘a writer who can make inarticulacy sound poetic’ (Evening Standard) – returns to the theatre this month with the premiere of his new play The Veil at the National Theatre. We’ve published the playtext along with a striking new edition of his earliest works, McPherson Plays: One, which includes a new foreword by the author. In this extract from the foreword, McPherson looks at why in the nineties the monologue form became so dominant in Irish theatre.

The nineties in Irish theatre will probably always be associated with the monologue. Almost every successful new play that emerged from Ireland at the time had an element of direct storytelling. It was as though the crazy explosion of money and stress was happening too close to us, too fast for us, making it impossible for the mood of the nation to be objectively dramatised in a traditional sense. It could only be expressed in the most subjective way possible because when everything you know is changing, the subjective experience is the only experience.

Production photograph of The Veil, by Conor McPherson, National Theatre, September 2011

Hannah Lambroke (Emily Taafe) and Grandie (Ursula Jones) in The Veil at the National Theatre. Photo by Helen Warner

I would suggest that the hunger for this kind of highly personal work was unprecedented because the whole phenomenon of living in Ireland at the time was unprecedented. It has been argued elsewhere that a secular need flooded the space left by the disgraced Catholic Church and a contemporary dearth of true political leadership. We still had souls, but we just couldn’t trust anyone with them any more. Thus monologue theatre flourished because it was a mirror which took you inside your own eye. The work had to become more private and the humour more painful in order to reflect the mood of an audience who didn’t feel like they were living in a sustainable reality on any level. Big old ‘state of the nation’ plays simply couldn’t have reflected that feeling, I don’t think. The dramatic problem was far subtler than before so the successful plays of the time took a subtler approach.

The Seafarer production at National Theatre, 2006

Jim Norton (Richard), Michael McElhatton (Nicky), Ron Cook (Mr. Lockhart), Conleth Hill (Ivan) in The Seafarer at the National Theatre, 2006. Photo Catherine Ashmore.

As young writers, we knew of Beckett’s great monologue plays and Brian Friel’s iconic Faith Healer, but these were examples of a form rather than the norm. When one considers the tumultuous time in which this form re-emerged and became almost ubiquitous it doesn’t feel like mere coincidence, and I would contend that to dismiss such a sea change in Irish drama is to ignore how well it charted the peculiar history of the Irish mind for its time. And all the more so when one considers how organic and unconscious this movement was. It just happened. The more Ireland’s economic fortunes appeared to catapult us into a twenty-first-century orbit, the more our theatre seemed determined to return us to an almost ancient mode of storytelling.

The Veil: playscript

The Veil (£9.99)

For myself, I haven’t written a monologue play for well over a decade now. This year I am forty and consider myself extraordinarily fortunate to have worked as a playwright for the last twenty years. The hard-won perspective of the intervening time shows me that I thought I was free and independent back then, but now I know I was struggling with history just like everybody else. I used to find it so difficult to even think about my own past work. I always felt the need to look away into the future. But as I enter middle age I look back with a more forgiving regard. I read the very first line of the first play in this volume, which says: ‘I think my overall fucked-upness is my impatience.’ It was true then, and it’s true now, and probably not just for me. And maybe that impatience drew me to the monologue form. Because it could take you right where you wanted to be so fast and keep you there because it just felt real.

Conor McPherson, 2011

Jacket: McPherson Plays 1 (collection)

Mcpherson Plays: One (£12.99)

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Conor McPherson’s latest work – The Veil – is currently running at the National Theatre until 2nd November – click here for more information and to purchase tickets. His earlier play, Dublin Carol, will run at the Trafalgar Studios in London’s West End 8-31 December 2011 (a Donmar Warehouse production), click here for more information and to purchase tickets. 

The NHB publication of The Veil and the new edition of McPherson Plays: One (with a new author Foreword) are available now to purchase. To order your copy with free UK P&P click here and add ‘Blog Offer’ in the comments field at checkout (to ensure your discount is applied when the order is processed).


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Richard Eyre’s TALKING THEATRE: with Fiona Shaw

Fiona Shaw

Fiona Shaw, 1958–

In Part Three of our week-long Talking Theatre Special – Richard Eyre interviews actor Fiona Shaw.

Born in Cork, Fiona Shaw is celebrated for playing many classical roles—Medea, Electra, Hedda Gabler, even Richard II. Most good actors are highly intelligent; few are highly articulate. Fiona Shaw’s fluency never leads her into waffle, but as an actor she has often struggled to conceal her intellectual brilliance, like a great beauty concealing her glamour. With a film crew squeezed round the sofa where I was used to sitting watching TV with my family, I felt as if we were playing an ambitious children’s game. Of the future of theatre she said: ‘The theatre is a fantastic whore and could be anything. If a thousand atom bombs drop, somebody will stand up in the ashes and tell a story.’

Why do all the great Irish writers emigrate?
I suppose until this very decade [the 1990s] the whole nation emigrated, I don’t think it’s just writers that emigrated. Engineers emigrated, doctors emigrated. It’s partially the tragedy of the famine that the country just bred its nation for export. But Joyce of course said that it is the sow that eats its own farrow.

Is all Irish culture underscored by British colonial rule?
I think that temperament is history, and so in that way the Irish temperament has been fundamentally affected by being the baby sister or brother to this big island. The effect of London on Dublin has been enormous. It’s the jumping-off ground, isn’t it? It’s the Ellis Island of Irish culture. Beyond Dublin what made Ireland separate from England is that the Irish had no bourgeoisie. You had an aristocracy and a remarkably kept-down peasantry—in that way, very like Russia: the parallels between Russia and Ireland are enormous. We didn’t produce a Chekhov, but we produced an O’Casey. The other big effect of England on Ireland were the penal laws which forbade Irish people to speak Irish and which caused a sort of surrealism in the country, where people couldn’t own a horse worth more than five pounds, couldn’t own land or hand land over. So the average age of marrying for men in Ireland was fifty. And people attended mass on rocks and in caves and were taught in hedge schools. So the fusion of landscape with the metaphysical, or the fusion of landscape with learning, was not like any other country in the world. Irish English is, on one level, a language forced onto a country that was trying not to speak it, and it then became a sort of tool of revenge: the Irish have attacked the English with their own language. And on the other side you had this rural lost language of people speaking a sort of archaic English forced on them by early settlers, and people struggling with translations from the Gaelic and of course being laughed at by the English for speaking a peculiar English. In Gaelic you say: ‘Toin traich megonair,’ which is ‘I am after my dinner.’ That’s still used as the construction for that kind of sentence.

With the exception of Joyce, Irish writers—Congreve, Farquhar, Wilde, Beckett and so on—choose to write for the theatre. Why?
The theatre is immediate: it needs people. It’s not like a French literary tradition, which would be about intellectual thought. England is a very odd hybrid because I’d say the centre of the English theatre since the seventeenth century, maybe from Shakespeare, is antithesis, isn’t it? The notion that you can declare an argument: ‘To be or not to be’, and at the end of that you could’ve concluded something about the world. The Irish theatre is based on hyperbole and contradiction.

If it’s possible to talk about any national character with Ireland without resorting to stereotype, is there something about the Irish—I mean the Irish-Irish—that is more given to storytelling and to wearing your heart on your sleeve than the English?
Caesar wrote about going to Hibernia, and he said that they just talked and drank all the time, so I suppose it isn’t connected to recent modern history. Perhaps the relationship to alcohol is connected to the climate. There’s also great desolation in Ireland, people who don’t speak from September to springtime because there’s nobody to talk to. Religion is another big part of it.

But is storytelling something to do with having a verbal culture not a written culture?
The culture in cottages that was finally caught by Synge is interesting. Yeats provoked Synge to go to the Aran Islands. Synge went and observed this strange translation of a Gaelic into English and made a sort of heightened self-conscious poetry out of it. But there was a sort of truth in it as well. People were speaking in a language that was self-referential, because they had so little stimulus. I’m not sure that they’re using the language for reality. They couldn’t use it to negotiate, because there was nothing to negotiate, so they had to use it for the imagination.

Talking Theatre (paperback)

Talking Theatre (paperback, £9.99)

This is an edited extract from Richard Eyre’s interview with Fiona Shaw. The full interview is published in the new paperback edition of Talking Theatre: Interviews with Theatre People.

To order your copy of Talking Theatre at £9.99 with free UK P&P click here and add ‘Blog Offer’ in the comments field at checkout to ensure your discount is applied when the order is processed.

Don’t forget to check back on the NHB blog TOMORROW and FRIDAY for more exclusive extracts from the book! Tomorrow’s post will feature ‘national institution’, playwright and actor Alan Bennett, explaining what it means to ‘follow your nose’ when writing…

Richard Eyre’s TALKING THEATRE: with Peter Brook

Peter Brook

Director Peter Brook, 1925–

In Part Three of our week-long Talking Theatre Special – Richard Eyre interviews experimental theatre and film director Peter Brook.

Peter Brook has stimulated British theatre for fifty years—first, in his twenties, in the West End, then with the Royal Shakespeare Company, and for the last twenty-five years from outside the country. He disclaims any desire to escape from the insularity of British theatre, but his self-exile appears to have inoculated him against the infection of self-doubt, the vagaries of fashion, the attrition of parochial sniping, the weariness of careerism, and the mid-life crisis that affects most theatre directors (not always in midlife), which comes from repetition, from constant barter and compromise. But, he always stresses, nothing is achieved in the theatre that doesn’t come from the practical rather than the theoretical. I interviewed him in January 2000 in Paris at his own theatre, the Bouffes du Nord. He was wearing a tangerine sweater with an indigo shirt, and, sitting in the circle of his theatre against the terracotta walls, he glowed with well-being and undiminished enthusiasm. All his sentences had a shape; he spoke with no hesitations—no ‘ums’, ‘ers’, or ‘wells’—by turns grave, impish and passionate.

Is it our marvellous luck in the English theatre to have had Shakespeare?

Oh, I’m sure. Absolutely sure. Although one sees that the plays are still powerful in other languages and are done all over the world, they can never be as powerful as they are in the English language. And because of this it’s become part of the English nature and the English temperament. All theatres all over the world, all good theatres have their hero figures, their pivotal figures, and we’re lucky in having the best.

What’s his particular genius?

The genius is that everything comes together. He’s not a product of Elizabethan times, but he was totally influenced by all that was around him. It was a time of enormous social change, intellectual change, artistic experiment—a period of such dynamic force that he was open to all the different levels of life. He was open to all that was going on in the streets, he was open to all the conflicting religious and political wars of the time, and spiritually he was deeply involved in the vast questions that were there for all mankind at a time when the dogmas, the Church dogmas, were exploding. When there was a spirit of inquiry. And all his plays, which is what makes them so remarkable, correspond to the ancient Indian definition of good theatre, which is that plays appeal simultaneously to the people who want entertainment, people who want excitement, people who want to understand psychology and social reality better, and people who really wish to open themselves to the metaphysical secrets of the universe. Now, that he can do that, not only within one play and within one scene but within one line, is what makes Shakespeare remarkable and corresponds to something hidden in the English character. Of course, foreign views of England are always stereotyped, but from the inside one knows that the cold English are the most emotional people. The English who scoff at anything that’s in any way supernatural are in fact deeply inquiring poetically and philosophically, and are extraordinarily concerned about true ethics, about the truth, reality, and practicality of social structures. And the fact that Shakespeare contains all those questions makes him very English.

What you’ve said suggests that the English should be particularly drawn to theatre as a medium.

All the richness of the English inner life is something that so embarrasses the English that they can’t give light of day in everyday social behaviour to either philosophy, poetry or metaphysical inquiry. So the theatre is the only area where the hidden Englishness can reveal itself respectably.

Yet for three hundred years the Irish dominated the English theatre.

You could almost say the English as a whole daren’t let their inner richness appear in public, and do everything to hide this behind all sorts of facades, which have been heavily implemented by the whole class structure of England over hundreds of years. The Irish are the opposite. The Irish allow their deep natural poetry and imagination to come out, all the time. If you go into an English pub you may meet some enjoyable companions, but you’re not going to hear any sudden bursts of lyricism in the conversation. It’s hard to avoid them in Ireland. Anyone you meet there has at his disposal and on the tip of his tongue all the richness of his natural imagination. And that goes very naturally into Irish writing. Synge famously says that, to capture the extraordinary colourful dialogue that the theatre needs, you’ve only to lie on the floor in an attic and listen to what’s being said in the room below. That is the reason that what is rather condescendingly called the ‘gift of the gab’ is part of the natural healthy exuberance and ebullience of their essentially tragic experience. I’d compare it to what I’ve seen in South Africa. Within a deeply tragic human experience, a people have maintained their capacity to survive joyfully in tragedy, and to turn even the worst experience into something that can be shared with humour, with joy and with vividness. Those are essential theatrical qualities.

What about the ‘revolution’ of 1956 at the Royal Court?

Oh, that was a real revolution. And the revolution can be called social in the sense that there was a very stratified class system in place. Something was emerging in the name of a lower class that was freeing itself from an intermediate class and refused to have anything to do with the establishment. And also freeing itself from what was rigid in the working-class ideology of the time. So this free-moving class, rising up in the social scale, wished to be heard, and in wishing to be heard it naturally wanted to be heard with a different language, with a different dynamic, in a different way from the established theatre. And as the established theatre hadn’t much going for it, there was every good reason to break all the conventions. When I did Romeo and Juliet, which was before that time, I had a very young actor playing Romeo very well. I wanted somebody very young, and during rehearsal he told me about his life, he talked about his origins: poor, working-class boy, who spoke with a regional or cockney accent. He talked about how hard he had struggled at drama school to learn to speak correctly so that he could go one day to Stratford and play a part like Romeo. And this seemed normal and natural because it was quite clear that he would be thrown out of the first audition if he came in and read Romeo with a regional or cockney accent. The big revolution starting with Albert Finney—an actor affirming his right to play the prince without sacrificing his own individuality, his own colour, his own personality, and saying: ‘The hell with it—if I’ve been born talking like this, I’m going to bloody well go on talking like this.’ And this was a big revolution in England.

So with Look Back in Anger what was shocking was the tone of voice and the accent rather than the form?

I think everything. It’s bewildering today to watch the gradual movement from the day when it was daring to say ‘bloody’, to the fact that today, if you don’t say ‘fuck’ every third line, your play most likely won’t be accepted. It was just about that time that ‘fuck’ was said for the first time on an English stage.

But you were constantly at war with the Lord Chamberlain?

Oh yes. I think that I was part of those who managed to get rid of him. And we got rid of him—after a long series of head-on attacks which got us nowhere—by ridicule. In the end we found different ways of making him not only a complete anachronism but a ridiculous anachronism. One day when I visited the Lord Chamberlain, he received me—because he was going on to a reception at the Palace—in full Palace uniform: we were sitting there discussing a play of Genet’s and whether or not these words would be suitable, and the anachronism was complete. But everything was interconnected: when there’s a gradual change it has its influence everywhere. And then there’re the landmarks: Look Back in Anger just was that shock landmark which dramatised the whole process of change that was going on all through the artistic life of the country and of the theatre.

In Britain, I don’t know if it’s true in France, there’s a gulf between people who feel that the theatre is for them and people who feel excluded from it. Do you have any idea of how we can dissolve that division?

I think that these are local issues. They can’t be solved nationally or by decree; they can only be solved event by event if the people are concerned by that. Here it’s been a question that we feel very strongly about, to which the answers are very simple. From the start we tried as best we could within our budget to keep our prices extremely low. And from the start we had the lowest prices in all Paris. When we did Carmen, you could see Carmen for thirty francs. That’s 3p—an incredibly small sum. And every production we do here, we do one or two free performances for the whole of the quartier, who are invited. We put up little notices: people from around are welcome to come. We’ve worked a lot with African and the North African people, around the theatre there’s an enormous African and North African population. We have done a great deal in the past. We’ve gone and played improvisations in hostels round here, and at the end of these things we’ve said: ‘This is theatre, you’re welcome, come to the theatre.’ And hardly ever have we succeeded in this way, although we’ve made very good relationships on the spot. None of the people we’ve invited come; that’s why it’s very good to raise the problem and one always comes back to it. The theatre worldwide has established this reputation that if you go through these doors you’re expected to behave in a certain way. That’s totally untrue. I think that in Covent Garden they’re now trying to make it appear that you don’t have to put on a black tie. Whether this will help to make it more accessible or not, I’ve no idea. I think the best answer is low seat prices, and recognising that the theatre has to pay for its sins. It’s no use saying: ‘Ah, but the same young people who you’re giving seats to at this very low price will go and buy a pair of shoes for three times the price.’ Because shoes haven’t let anyone down over the centuries and the theatre has.

Talking Theatre (paperback)

Talking Theatre (paperback, £9.99)

This is an edited extract from Richard Eyre’s interview with Peter Brook in 2000. The full interview is published in the new paperback edition of Talking Theatre: Interviews with Theatre People.

To order your copy of Talking Theatre at £9.99 with free UK P&P click here and add ‘Blog Offer’ in the comments field at checkout to ensure your discount is applied when the order is processed.

Don’t forget to visit the NHB blog EVERY DAY this week for more exclusive extracts from the book! Tomorrow’s post will feature actress Fiona Shaw on why all the great Irish writers such as Yeats and Shaw flee the homeland…


Spotlight: MOMENT

Deirdre KinahanDeirdre Kinahan, Irish playwright and Artistic Director of  Tall Tales Theatre company, reveals the inspiration behind her latest acclaimed play currently playing at the Bush Theatre, MOMENT.

I feel I pick up plays from off the street, from the top seat of a bus or from a fragment of newspaper. Plays often present themselves in the furrowed brow, pained complexion or twinkling eye of a passer-by. Plays echo all humanity as I encounter it.

One morning frying eggs I turned on the radio. The voice of a mother echoed out, a mother in extraordinary distress. She told the story of her son. Her son who suffered from depression. Her son who lay in jail. Her son who murdered her daughter.The woman seemed so ordinary, so gentle, so wise. She spoke explicitly about her grief for her daughter and her grief for her son. She spoke for a full hour about the horror of that day, that phone call, that moment that shattered her existence. She spoke with such compassion, with such confusion and with such conflicted emotion that I forgot the eggs and listened. I listened without moving. This woman loved her son. This woman loved her daughter. Yet her son killed her daughter. She spoke for an hour and circled, circled, circled around the heart of her distress, around the murder itself. She could never enter it.

So I thought: how do you deal with that? How do you survive in such acute trauma… how do you survive your love?

I have suffered loss myself. I know the grief of losing a family member and so have some notion of trauma. I know its bizarre state where the world slows down and spins to your tune. I know that it demands extraordinary reserve.

And so I decided to write about trauma. A trauma that shapes you, wounds you and envelops your life. I did some preliminary investigation and then began to reimagine. To reimagine a family and build an afternoon. An afternoon where Mammy goes for a walk, where Niamh and Hilary practise for a talent contest and where Nial commits murder. I reimagine – and I have a play.

Tara Wilkinson, then producer at London’s Bush Theatre came to see the premiere production of MOMENT in Dublin in 2009, and between herself and Artistic Director Josie Rourke, they invited us over. Playing at the Bush means a lot to me, not only because it is an extraordiany theatre but also because it has a long history of supporting and championing Irish writing. The space echoes with story and atmosphere and charm; I felt a palpable energy as soon as I entered that tiny room.

MOMENT jacket

MOMENT by Deirdre Kinahan

I am so pleased that MOMENT has impacted on the Bush audience. Reviews from bloggers, stragglers, twitterers and critics alike have been phenomenal. I feel quite humble. I am served by extraordinary actors, an extraordinary director and enjoy the support of an extraordinary British theatre.

MOMENT plays at the Bush Theatre until 26th March, though tickets are like gold dust. If you can’t get to see it, then buy the playtext here with free P&P (UK customers only). Just quote ‘blog offer’ in the comments field at checkout.