Dark energies creep into the writing shed - author Kevin Barry on the black comedy in his latest play
As Kevin Barry prepares for the opening of his new play, he tells Hilary A White how its black comedy shocked even him
‘I’m feeling weird and animalistic and carnivorous,” Kevin Barry growls through a lupine grin. We’re sitting at a quiet window in Dublin’s Central Hotel a few days out from Christmas. Barry, all expressive hands and bed-head hair, is describing coming off a three-month meat boycott.
“We have a load of Greek friends,” he says, “and we were over in Athens for three weeks in September and they insisted on feeding us a load of f**king meat — goats and roosters and pigs and heads of things. We came back with meat sweats and said let’s try it until Christmas. It’s easier than you think. Except for sausages. You pass a sausage and you’re like, ‘Jayzus’.”
It’s something of a relief to find the edges meshing between Barry’s real-life voice and the swampy, untamed rhythms of his writing. Adjust the case to the third person and flesh out the particulars, and Barry’s talk of butchered heads and weird, sweaty sensations could provide the superstructure for another of his devilishly macabre confections.
The 47-year-old has travelled down from his lakeside home in Co Sligo to run some errands and discuss new play Autumn Royal, which tours from the end of the month. Around the time the play opens, he and wife (and Winter Pages co-editor) Olivia Smith will travel to Boston College for a four-month residency (“I’m going to be in America for the inauguration of the Yoke”). It is a good time to be to be escaping Sligo, he nods forebodingly, where he can still find winter’s perennial cloud cover, the “actual-Jesus-Christ-it’s-black-like” darkness and wind-lashed isolation tricky to handle.
“I grew up in suburbs in Limerick and always lived in cities into my mid-thirties,” he says, looking down at the teeming street below. “That darkness and those kind of mystery rustlings in the ditches, all that sensory stuff is very strange. I was freaked out for a couple of years. I kind of love it now, but we break it up with trips to Dublin. That helps an awful lot — once you get out for a couple of nights, you’re fresh enough to go back. But if I’m three weeks there in the winter without break, it’s very claustrophobic. It influences the work then as well — you find darker and darker energies are coming into the story.”
We’ve lost track of the amount of literary prizes that have limpetted on to Barry since 2007, when his first collection of short stories, There Are Little Kingdoms, wowed the Rooney Prize panel. Since then, another short-story release, Dark Lies the Island, and two novels — 2011’s towering City of Bohane and the fevered John Lennon elseworld of 2015’s Beatlebone — have confirmed him as contemporary Irish literature’s “Neo-Flann” and one of the most distinguished international voices working in the English language today. Talk of cabin fever leads us nicely to Autumn Royal, one of three plays he set out to write following Beatlebone.
Plays, especially ones of a comedic bent, are “a headlong dash” to capture the comic energy, unlike prose, which is a long, intense, all-consuming marathon. “It’s also a case, to be honest, of trying to keep it fun for me at the desk, crawling into that f**king shed in January, under the black belly of cloud!” he cackles.
The cursed shed sits outside the converted-garda-barracks home to which Barry retreats seven mornings a week to toil over pages and words. For Beatlebone, he described crawling into an ocean of text on his floor in an attempt to cut hundreds of thousands of words down to a more flab-free shape. But he quashes images I have of monoliths of notes and writing scrawled on the walls during the wee hours.
“The writing shed is hysterically neat, actually,” he laughs. “And they always say a very neat desk is the sign of an unquiet mind. Olivia’s desk is in another area of the house, and it’s just chaos. There’s mounds of shite and rotten apples and 82 cold cups of tea and towering piles of documents. But she has a very neat, clinical, direct, analytical mind.”
Autumn Royal was completed in eight days and followed by some months of nipping and tucking. It concerns two Cork siblings trapped in a confined situation with a family dilemma in an upstairs bedroom.
May and Timothy are another of Barry’s “weird double acts” (“I keep coming up with them,” he hoots). We don’t know what is wrong with the father but he’s bedbound. This eats into the aspirations of the pair while the spectre of an absent mother haunts them from outside on the street. With customary stealth and pitch-black humour, a moral tug-of-war unfolds between an ailing parent needing care and children seeking release.
“I never set out to write a piece that had ‘an issue’,” he insists, “but I stumbled on to one. This is a story that has resonance for so many families who have some version of this story sooner or later. The actors, Shane Casey and Siobhán McSweeney, are both naturally gifted comic actors, but they’re also native Corkonians and it was peculiarly important for this because the language is so specific to where it’s from.”
In order to transmit this severe claustrophobia in the characters’ situation, director Caitriona McLaughlin’s playspace will be tight and confined. In Cork’s Everyman Theatre (where it opens before moving to Dublin’s Project Arts Centre and finally to the Dock in Leitrim) audiences will be on stage behind the pulled curtain. It was while doing book readings that Barry discovered he was “a complete oul ham” and he reckons this has given him “a great sympathy” for writing for actors.
Besides this, he’s always rolled up his sleeves with dialogue, acting out characters’ speech to nail down just the right notes.
Autumn Royal is not his first play — it follows, among others, a stage adaptation of There are Little Kingdoms in 2008 and Burn the Bad Lamp in 2010, while an Abbey commission entitled Night Boat to Tangier is in the post — but this feels like his most thematically substantial to date.
“I guess it’s not quite a case of finding your voice, as they say,” Barry says with an eye on the past. “I think I have many different voices in the plays and the novels. The modes and registers change a lot but I guess what makes it in any way uniform is a note or a tone of very dark comedy, which I guess is quite an Irish thing. ‘Laughter in the dark’ is what Nabokov called it.
“And when I finished the draft of Autumn Royal, I thought it was such a dark thing. It’s about all these huge queasy emotions that these people are going through — ‘will we get rid of the father?’ is essentially what they’re asking — and I was looking at this very dark material and all it’s jokes and I’m going: ‘What is wrong with me?!’ But then you realise comedy is the most natural human mode. It’s how we get through the bleak reality.
“There’s a feeling,” he continues, “more on the other side of the Atlantic, perhaps, that if something is funny, it can’t be serious, which I don’t hold at all. One of the first times in our lives that we come up against a real ethical issue is this situation with an elderly relative who has to be cared for, and we often don’t cover ourselves in glory.
“One of the key lines in the play is, ‘it’s our lives or theirs’. I’m fond of all my double acts but I’m really keen on Timothy and May because their situation is just so desperate. There’s no easy answer, no right way out. It’s also a vaguely political piece. It’s presenting something that’s a major social difficulty that’s going to increase over the coming decades because people are living longer. We shy away from thinking about it in any kind of progressive way.”
Barry once said he believed all writers “circled” their parents before finding the courage to tackle them. His mother Josephine died of a sudden heart-attack when he was 10 and he never explicitly wrote about it until a memoir-like interlude in Beatlebone (“…you cannot predict the ways in which it will pin you down and mark you always…”). Now, with Autumn Royal’s mother apparition, is the “circling” coming to an end?
“I’d say if I look back through my work, there’s missing mothers showing up all over the place,” he chuckles, “and it’s always an amazement to you as a writer that this stuff comes from your own life.
“Certainly, this kind of situation in Autumn Royal we absolutely had in our family. But you still write the whole thing and only at the end you go, ‘oh right, this is about that!’ You stow it at the back of your mind for years until you develop a thick enough skin to write about it.
“You try and disguise home in all sorts of ways. One of the things you realise as you get a bit further into a writing career is you actually have very little control over what’s coming next.
“It’s like air-traffic control!” he erupts in a burst of carnivorous mischief. “With some particularly malevolent controller!”
Autumn Royal opens in the Everyman Theatre, Cork, January 30 — February 4; Project Arts Centre, Dublin, February 7-11 ; The Dock, Leitrim, February 23.