[Here’s a recent SBP news piece I did.]
Enda Walsh, Martin McDonagh and Conor McPherson re-establish themselves as they blaze a trail through the worlds of international theatre and film, writes Nadine O’Regan.
Amazing. Enthralling. Envy-inducing. When Enda Walsh’s play Disco Pigs premiered at the Triskel Arts Centre in Cork in 1996, those were the kind of words critics used to describe how they felt about the latest work from the most mesmerising new voice in Irish theatre. Where Enda Walsh would go from there, though, was anyone’s guess.
Twelve years on, the rest of the world is rapidly warming to the hypnotic tales of Walsh. With glowing reviews in the New York Times (‘‘a master storyteller’’) and his recent move into writing directly for film, Walsh joins a wave of Irish playwrights – including Dublin-born Conor McPherson and London-Irish writer Martin McDonagh – who, with their recent works, are establishing and re-establishing themselves, not just as important Irish voices, but important worldwide ones.
Hunger, the forthcoming film directed by the artist Steve McQueen and co-written by him and Walsh, received the prestigious Camera d’Or award at the closing ceremony of the Cannes Film Festival last weekend. The movie, starring the German-born, Killarney-raised actor Michael Fassbender, chronicles in harrowing and coldly intimate detail the final days of IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands. Critics have called it ‘‘astonishing’’.
‘‘You rarely have the opportunity to make a film like this,” Walsh told The Sunday Business Post, down a crackling London mobile phone line.
‘‘We were left to our own devices. We had the trust of producers who believed in us. I was too busy to see the screenings in London before it went to Cannes, so it was a huge shock to see it with 1,000 people in Cannes.
‘‘You couldn’t have made this film five years ago. It would have been too raw. This is a contemporary story about how we deal with terrorism and how we deal with who we think the enemy are. To be honest, knowing very little about Cannes, but listening to the people, the award wasn’t [a shock]. As soon as I saw the film, I thought ‘this is a one-off’. Steve McQueen delivered on his instincts throughout.”
While the stream of international acclaim directed at Walsh recently has been heady, the Dublin-born, London-dwelling playwright, who is married to an editor at British Vogue, hasn’t been the only playwright receiving plaudits from abroad of late. Thirty-six-year-old Conor McPherson – a previous Tony Award nominee for Shining City (2004) – was recently nominated for Tony Awards for best play and best direction for his Broadway production of his acclaimed play The Seafarer.
London-Irish playwright Martin McDonagh, meanwhile, who first found Tony Award success with his Leenane Trilogy, has navigated his way cleanly into commercial film success with his recent feature length debut In Bruges, starring Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson. The nascent film director and screenwriter didn’t find the film-making experience easy, mind you.
‘‘Going into it, I was terrified,” McDonagh said, cracking a gap-toothed grin, on a recent visit to Dublin to promote the film. ‘‘But we had three weeks of rehearsal before the shooting started, and that really eased my nerves. It was just me and Colin and Brendan in a room drinking coffee and talking about the script.
‘‘By the end of the three weeks, we knew exactly where we were coming from, so, by the time we got to shoot it, everyone had to fall in around us and catch up almost. I think the pressure that I had was just the pressure I put on myself.”
McDonagh, McPherson and Walsh share a reputation for extreme fastidiousness, passion and an exactness of vision about their work. Perhaps as a consequence, although all three playwrights’ work is regularly set in Ireland and focuses on Irish characters, the setting and accents appear to have been no barrier to their international success.
‘‘We are less affected these days by the geographical origin of the work we watch,” said Garry Hynes, who directed the Tony Award-winning production of Martin McDonagh’s The Beauty Queen of Leenane. She will also helm a new production of McPherson’s The Weir at The Gate Theatre, Dublin.
‘‘Conor McPherson, Martin McDonagh and Enda Walsh are major international writers. They’re young. They’re Irish. And the great thing about them is that they don’t give a rat’s ass about national stereotypes or their supposed responsibility to reflect the national stereotype. These writers have moved far beyond these kinds of questions. They create their own unique visions of the world,” said Hynes.
Ultimately, while the playwrights are united by the scale of their ambition and level of artistry, and have each made forays into the film world (McPherson with Saltwater, The Actors and I Went Down), from the perspective of theme and content, much divides them.
Splashes of blood stare out from every canvas in the McDonagh play gallery; the controversial director has become famous for pulse-stopping stories of matricide, madness and torture.
Walsh, meanwhile, is focused on transporting the viewer wholesale into a world that seems half-fantasy, half-reality; a place that in the words of the New York Times makes you feel like ‘‘you’ve walked in on a Hibernian Three Stooges routine, directed by a drunken Dadaist’’.
Of the three, McPherson, a UCD philosophy graduate, is the quietest and most overtly philosophical writer, blessed with a gift for conveying the essential spark of characters, their authenticity, uniqueness and, often, their intrinsic, forbidding blackness.
His characters are generally older than McDonagh’s. ‘‘With younger characters, no matter how bad things get in their lives, they’re still only in their 20s,’’McPherson told this paper.
‘‘But if you’re old, the stakes are higher, because that person is really looking into the abyss.”
McPherson is currently in a rare position for a playwright who isn’t Shakespeare: two of his plays will be performed in major theatres in Dublin in June. While the Jimmy Fay-directed production of The Seafarer – the funny yet horrifying story of a man who returns to Baldoyle to take care of his irascible brother – is currently running at The Abbey Theatre, McPherson’s 1997 play The Weir is about to open at The Gate.
‘‘When you’re doing your play in other countries, you’re in a bigger situation and you feel more anonymous,” McPherson said. ‘‘But when you’re putting your work on in your home town, you’re much more self-conscious. You want it to be great.”
All three playwrights know each other and – to a greater or lesser extent – have followed each other’s work over the years. ‘‘I admire Martin McDonagh and Conor McPherson,” said Enda Walsh.
‘‘Shining City [by McPherson] was the most profound exit from a theatre I’ve had. I understood what loss was. I understood what it was like to live a life and feel like that life was shit.”
‘‘There’s no room for hiding when you’re working with Conor,” said the actor Karl Shields, who starred in a production of McPherson’s This Lime Tree Bower in the late 1990s.
‘‘Kevin Healy was the director, but Conor would come in occasionally to throw his eye over the production. He’s 100 per cent into the detail of the performance.
‘‘It’s the subtlety of McPherson’s characterisations that’s important.”
While McPherson and Walsh occasionally weary of being constantly compared to each other and to McDonagh, not to mention several other major Irish names – including Mark O’Rowe, Marina Carr and Sebastian Barry – it looks as though, for the immediate future, they’ll have to get used to it.
Over the next months, the interest in all three should remain high. Hunger looks likely to go on cinema release in the autumn, while productions of plays by Walsh will feature at the Edinburgh festival, the Galway Arts Festival and the Dublin Theatre Festival.
McPherson has plans to venture back into the world of film-making; the Dun Laoghaire-based playwright has written a film with Billy Roche, which will star Ciaran Hinds.
Even as the playwrights whittle their works into shape, those surrounding them look on with anticipation. ‘‘We’re very lucky to have such incredible playwrights,” said Eileen Walsh, the award-winning actress who starred in the debut 199 6 production of Walsh’s Disco Pigs.
‘‘I would drop everything [for those plays]. If you’re the one who is lucky enough to have those words in your mouth, then you’d have to drop everything – just to get to that place.”