Interview: Enda Walsh - playwright
ENDA Walsh waves to me across a Galway street. Only last night I spoke to the playwright as the final preview of his play Penelope was about to start in the town's tiny yet mighty Druid Theatre.
Then, he was all of a flutter because his idol Tom Murphy, author of The Gigli Concert, was in the audience. Today, he is holding a sachet of headache powder a friend has just handed him.
The well-wisher had spotted him out on the town after the show, having a rare old time with Murphy ("He was on hilarious form"), and was certain he'd need something for his head this morning.
So what did Murphy think of the play, I ask, as we take a seat in Druid's boardroom and Walsh empties the sachet into a glass of water.
"He said, 'You are a romantic,'" he laughs, mimicking the older writer's careful emphasis and showing no signs of a hangover.
"Romantic" is as good a description as any for Penelope, although anyone familiar with Walsh's global hits, such as Disco Pigs, The Walworth Farce and The New Electric Ballroom, will know a word so conventional could never do justice to his eccentric worldview.
The play is the result of a commission from a German theatre to respond to Homer's Odyssey. There is no shortage of dramatic stories of derring-do in that 2,800-year-old epic, but it is typical of Walsh's preoccupations that he was not drawn to the superhuman Odysseus, venturing home from his island captivity, nor his fearless son Telemachus, voyaging to his father's rescue. Instead, he was captivated by the degenerate bunch of suitors who hang around Odysseus' wife Penelope in the vain hope of her hand in marriage should the hero fail to return.
"I'm fascinated by those figures in the book," says Walsh. "You look at that book and you look at the travels, the geography, the adventure and the extraordinary scale of it and then you go back to these men waiting and there's nothing. Their life has gone."
It is these figures, self-absorbed, competitive and impotent, we find squabbling in an empty swimming pool in Mikel Murfi's brilliantly acted production. Like the housebound family in The Walworth Farce and the elderly women enmeshed in their own past in The New Electric Ballroom, these men are compelled to live a repetitive and futile life by the force of their own warped logic. Standing under the gaze of a CCTV camera, they are like contestants in a surreal episode of Big Brother.
"The opening of this show is a series of five conversations that don't go anywhere," says Walsh, 43, who also wrote Hunger, Steve McQueen's BAFTA-nominated film about Bobby Sands. "They're arguing over whether it's taste or heat that you feel from eating a sausage. It's like they're at the end of their vocab and something else needs to be created out of that."
The one thing that galvanises them is the imminent return of Odysseus. Suddenly they realise their wooing of Penelope, which has become a meaningless ritual, must come to an end. Only if they break their old habits will they have a chance of seducing her. Otherwise they're all dead. "They create very odd worlds for themselves," he says. "They're worlds created out of nothing. It seemed really important to me that the men should try and find themselves and start anew. I imagine that's what would happen if I couldn't leave somewhere, if I couldn't get to live Odysseus' wonderful life."
It is a dilemma that reflects his own existential crises, the perpetual battle between the meaninglessness of life and the need to take it seriously. "All my plays are powered by my terrible anxieties," he says. "Wanting to do good stuff but finding it really difficult. It's about how I can quickly turn the volume on life and completely distance myself or make it really sour and horrible. It's about my usual fears about life and worth - who cares about a writer anyway? Does the world need another play? Yet, that's the only expression that I have. It means everything, but it's teetering on meaning absolutely nothing. And that's the dilemma for the characters who are about to not exist any more."
Their solution - and it is the one Tom Murphy was thinking of when he said Walsh was a romantic - is to edge themselves, foolishly, farcically and fumblingly, towards a genuine expression of love. Having started out as narcissists, with an idealised view of Penelope, they approach a state of enlightenment.
"There's a line about loving the love itself," says Walsh. "The men have used love to trick her and to win her, so that notion seemed ludicrously romantic. In their minds, they make it happen. They fill this pool with life and optimism for her and Odysseus, so at least they've achieved something and given her something. I was completely surprised by that; I certainly didn't plan for the play to go where it went. It was a massive shock to me when this Fitz character started talking about loving the love itself."
Hearing Walsh talk about his characters, it is as if he has had no say in their creation. That audiences find their behaviour other-worldly is not surprising. That the playwright is equally bemused is curious. Yet it is how it always happens for him.
"That's why the plays tend to be formless," he says. "They create their own form. I never fully understand it. I still don't understand many things about The New Electric Ballroom even though I directed it. It feels so huge to me.
The plays tend to happen in the second. A lot of the past seems to have gone quickly and there's no sense of where it's going. That excites me, that it will find its own form."
What is fascinating is that writing of such singular vision - a vision that surprises even its author - has found such widespread acclaim. Walsh has come to accept that his work is not for everyone - and the occasional walk-out is par for the course - but Druid's tours of his last two Fringe First-winning plays were major hits at home and abroad. Penelope is already lined up for autumn dates in Helsinki, New York, Dublin and London. So how can he be popular and eccentric at the same time?
"I always think it's 60/40: 60 per cent get it and 40 per cent hate it and that's the way it's always been. When you introduce logics, specific languages and worlds, that's always going to be the case. The only way I can explain it is that I don't know what is happening as I'm writing it and the audience have exactly the same experience. For me, that's when theatre works. I like to make people laugh, I like the excitement of it, I like the show if it - that's a good half of me. The other half of me is really happy to be lost in the work and trying to find my way through it."
Penelope is at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, 5-29 August, as part of the Edinburgh Fringe.
© Mark Fisher 2010
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