To judge by his sparkling CV, Conor McPherson should have absolutely no reason to fear the spotlight. One of Ireland’s most prominent contemporary playwrights, the 36-year-old has won overwhelming acclaim for his insightful, meditative plays, which focus with a quiet, unblinking eye on the big themes: the crisis of modern masculinity, spirituality, frailty, solitude and – of course – death.
Yet, as he sits patiently in the sun-soaked office of Abbey Theatre director Fiach MacConghail, McPherson, visually an unprepossessing presence with reddish hair and a touch of the dormouse about him – admits that he’s feeling a little nervous.
His latest play, The Seafarer, will have its Irish premiere on May 7 in a production directed by Jimmy Fay and starring Liam Carney, George Costigan and Phelim Drew.
McPherson will be watching the production from behind latticed fingers. ‘‘When you’re doing your play in other countries, there’s a safety mechanism about that,” he explains. ‘‘You’re in a bigger situation and you feel more anonymous. But when you’re putting your work on in your home town, you’re much more self-conscious. You really want it to be great.”
‘Greatness’ has rarely been a problem for McPherson. Although his work writing for films has had its ups and downs – his comedy crime film I Went Down was a smash hit in 1997, but his later works Saltwater and The Actors got more lukewarm receptions – his plays have almost always done well.
This Lime Tree Bower, The Weir and Port Authority all received plaudits from critics.
The Seafarer, meanwhile, was first staged in Britain in the Royal National Theatre in 2006,where it won rapturous reviews and an Olivier Award for Jim Norton for Best Performance in a Supporting Role. When it moved to Broadway, in a production directed by McPherson himself, American critics fell over themselves to praise the playwright and his work.
For many years now, McPherson and his peers Enda Walsh and MartinMcDonagh have been given the tag of ‘celebrity playwright’, natural successors to Beckett and O’Casey. It’s a mantle McPherson wears lightly.
‘‘If you were walking around thinking you were heir to something, I think you’d get lost quite quickly,” he says. ‘‘That’s from the outside, from the critics.
‘‘The great thing about being a playwright is that you don’t get recognised. I think it’s better to look at all your work as Samuel Beckett did – and see them as worthy failures. That’s how I see it.”
McPherson’s humility almost certainly makes him a better, more powerful writer, but it has negative consequences. Although he spends much of his time directing productions of his own plays, he finds it hard to sit through them in the theatre.
‘‘There’s something toxic about it because it’s so personal. For me, playwriting is about the future, because that’s where the beautiful work is. That’s where the dream is. As you approach the dream, you diminish it, because it’s perfect when it’s not real.
‘‘Writing is something that I’ve always understood as very unconscious. I don’t set out with a particular idea or theme that I’m trying to realise. It usually arrives for me, in a sense, coming from my body rather than my mind. It’s like a biological function of living. It’s an attempt to process the regretful things you’re thinking about, or even the funny things you’re thinking about. As soon as it opens, it’s very difficult for me to go back and see it. I can’t explain it.”
Set in Baldoyle, The Seafarer tells the story of Sharky, a man who has returned home to take care of his brother Richard who has gone blind, thanks to an unexpected drunken encounter with a skip.
Over the course of an evening where they sit around playing cards with acquaintances, it emerges that one among their number is the devil, newly arrived to play cards with Sharky for his life. ‘‘The play is loosely based around the idea of the Hellfire Club,” McPherson says. ‘‘It always struck me as an unfinished story. So I decided to try and finish it.”
Prior to the interview, McPherson’s publicist gives me a copy of the play to read. Even on the page, you can feel the spark and humour of the characters: their indomitable fighting spirits, uniqueness and authenticity.
But, like the blackest of rugs laid out flat beneath their feet, you can also sense a deep groundswell of pathos. Richard and Sharky are battling frailty, poverty and each other. Moreover, although McPherson’s lightness of touch often works cleverly to conceal it, the overwhelming subject this play addresses is alcohol. Each of the all-male characters in The Seafarer has alcohol seeping through his pores.
In the New York Times, one reviewer wrote that ‘‘in the Seafarer, alcoholism isn’t primarily a medical condition but an existential one . . . As in earlier plays like The Weir and Shining City, Mr McPherson is considering the impenetrable, scary mystery that is being alive and the blundering ways that poor humans deal with it. The Seafarer portrays the forms of amnesia and anaesthesia that allow people to wake up with themselves.”
This theme is, if not wholly autobiographical – ‘‘My plays are a biography of ideas,” McPherson says – than at least deeply personal to him.
In February 2001,on the opening night of his play Port Authority, McPherson, then aged 29,was rushed to hospital with pancreatitis, an inflammation of the pancreas that can be fatal. He was unconscious for three weeks. ‘‘I thought it was over,” he has said.
McPherson no longer drinks. He has spoken before about being a recovering alcoholic, but still -when you’vemet someone barely half an hour – it’s a difficult subject to bring up. Asked about that time, McPherson becomes noticeably more still, his speech more tense. ‘‘When I stopped drinking, it was bigger than my work. It was my life. So I had to stop.
‘‘I don’t attend AA. When I stopped drinking, I did. [But] I was one of those people who wanted to do it my own way, and I’ve managed to. But if someone is looking for help, AA is brilliant.”
So much – most of it unmitigated guff, it must be said – has been spoken of the connection between drugs and creativity. Did McPherson have any fears that giving up alcohol might affect his writing?
‘‘What comes first?” he says. ‘‘Do you drink because you’re creative and you’re trying to stop the noise? What I would say is that I don’t think drinking will help anyone creatively. You might think it will, because you’re relaxed. But does it help the act of the neurons firing in your brain? People associate [drinking] with transcendence. But what you’re usually left with after drinking is a hangover.
‘‘The drinking was very much a footnote for me. Who you are, your strengths and weaknesses, is completely independent of all that stuff.”
Growing up in north Dublin, the son of an accountant and housewife, McPherson – who now lives with his artist wife in Dun Laoghaire – was a deeply imaginative child. He loved playing music (Neil Young continues to be one of his biggest influences), and he would often go to Leitrim to visit his grandfather who would tell him tales that thrilled him.
‘‘He would tell me stories about fairies,’’says McPherson. ‘‘That was real to me as a child. The whole landscape was alive with fairies. Where he lived was so different for me. It was in the middle of nowhere and so quiet. In the silence, you’d hear a noise and go, ‘Whoa, what was that?’ “
Having been persuaded by his parents that his chances of making it big as a rocker in the 1980s were slim to none, McPherson parcelled up his creativity and kept it safe with him while he entered the field of philosophy. After graduating with an MA in ethics from UCD, he flirted with the notion of a doctorate before, spurred on by soaking up the works of David Mamet and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, he realised that his true calling lay in writing.
He remains very glad he studied philosophy. ‘‘I think philosophy is a great subject, in that it can focus you and crystallise issues,” he says. ‘‘In terms of other issues, you just think, walking down the street, ‘Where am I and who am I?’
We’re spinning at a tremendous speed as part of a galaxy, going around the star, in the middle of this vast, vast cosmos. You have no idea, really, about it and how it works. And you think: ‘I’m here, I’m alive. It all seems important, but of course in a few years I’ll be dead and everybody I know will be dead. The universe will spin on coldly without me.’ You’re caught between the comedy and the tragedy of that.”
Such philosophical notions heavily inform the mindsets of many of McPherson’s characters. Unlike his contemporary Martin McDonagh (to whom he is weary of being compared), he tends to focus his writing on older characters and their concerns rather than the vagaries of youth.
‘‘With younger characters, no matter how bad things get in their lives, they’re still only in their 20s,” he says. ‘‘But if you’re old, the stakes are higher, because that person is really looking into the abyss.”
McPherson himself comes across as much older than his 36 years. A deft, enchanting speaker, his views of himself and his feelings about his writing are resolute, unpretentious and fashioned with care – listening to him, I’m reminded of interviews with John McGahern. You’re always aware you’re in the presence of a strikingly keen intellect.
There are only two moments when McPherson becomes stressed during this interview. The first comes when he speaks about alcohol; the second when he speaks about journalists. Despite the glowing reviews from abroad, McPherson has not escaped the occasional tongue-lashing in Irish publications. ‘‘You know the audience are going to get [your plays] and it’s going to be fine,” he says. ‘‘But you do have to brace yourself for the opinion pieces which are basically talking about what a prick you are. I feel like, ‘Well, what have I done that’s so annoying?’ It’s disappointing.”
McPherson believes the negativity that Irish newspapers frequently level at Irish artists is symptomatic of a wider problem with the country.
‘‘We’re not comfortable with success in this country. It’s post-traumatic stress from our colonial past or whatever. As Irish people, we’re not able to celebrate what’s good about Ireland. Ireland is going to get back to what it knows now – hardship. That’s where we’re more comfortable. We can’t wait for it to start.”
When McPherson was starting out, he couldn’t get plays like This Lime Tree Bower staged in Ireland. Now he is grateful for those early disappointments. ‘‘In a way, it did me a great service. It meant that I had to go away. When I went to London, I found that I was able to make a living and it was acceptable to do that. My career then developed through having relationships with people internationally. Perhaps, if I had started in Dublin, my work might never have been seen outside of Ireland.”
But for now, McPherson isn’t thinking about his international career. At last, The Seafarer has clicked its heels three times and come home to Ireland.
McPherson might fear the journalists’ reaction to his work, but he continues to place his faith in the cauldron of live theatre. Not that this makes him any less nervous about what lies before him.
‘‘At the opening night, I’ll be having a strange out-of-body experience because I’ll be so freaked out by what’s happening. I won’t need to look at the audience. You can feel when it’s going well. You don’t need to look, you don’t want to look.” He laughs.
‘‘You just close your eyes and pray.”
The Seafarer opens at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, on Wednesday May 7.
Born: August 6, 1971
Background: Born and brought up in north Dublin, McPherson, who graduated from UCD with an MA in ethics, found success as a playwright early, with plays including This Lime Tree Bower, The Weir and Port Authority making his name in Ireland and internationally. In a review of his twice Tony award-nominated 2004 play Shining City, the Daily Telegraph called McPherson ‘‘the finest dramatist of his generation’’. McPherson’s most recent play The Seafarer, which has been staged in London and New York and is about to make its Irish premiere at the Abbey, has won McPherson huge acclaim from publications including the New York Times and the Observer.
Film career: McPherson has not achieved the same level of success in his work in film. Although his screenplay for the 1997 comedy crime film I Went Down was extremely well received, follow-ups Saltwater (which he wrote and directed) and The Actors generated mixed reviews.
Playography: Rum and Vodka (1992); The Good Thief (1994); This Lime Tree Bower (1995); St. Nicholas (1999); The Weir (1997); Dublin Carol (2000); Port Authority(200 1); Come on Over (2001); Shining City(2004); The Seafarer (2006).