Saturday 21 October 2017

Antipasti, the class divide and John B's advice

Tim and Jane played by Emmet Kirwan and Nyree Yergainharsian
Tim and Jane played by Emmet Kirwan and Nyree Yergainharsian

Maggie Armstrong

There is an awkward scene in The Good Father by Christian O'Reilly. Out at an Italian restaurant, Tim decides to order the antipasti. Jane asks, 'As a starter?' Tim hesitates. He doesn't know what antipasti are. He's never eaten them. Maybe you haven't either.

Tim's a working-class boy, a painter and decorator. Jane's a middle-class girl, a solicitor. They're different. But he got her pregnant after a drunken night and they're having a baby together.

It's often said that we don't talk about class in Irish society, and while the C-word isn't used explicitly in The Good Father, the play is founded on its tensions.

Written about 13 years ago, the two-hander gets a lick of modernity from director Mark O'Brien at the Axis, Ballymun, a playhouse but 20 minutes from Dublin city centre.

Does class matter? "I think it can be an impediment to a relationship, certainly to people discovering each other," says Christian before a read-through. He seems nervous and happy with his lot; he has a mixed accent. "Class is a façade that you wear as a consequence of your upbringing. But underneath that is some kind of shared humanity. I was interested in exploring how two people of a different social class could find each other. He's not as educated as she is, but he has an emotional honesty and openness that she lacks. And her carapace is sarcasm, barbed wit. But underneath it all there's huge fear and quite low self-esteem.

"The play comes from my experience of living in Dublin, studying at DCU but playing soccer in Fairview and Santry. Soccer transcends class immediately. Everyone just accepts each other because you've got a shared goal."

Shedding class differences was part of growing up for this playwright. Born in London, his family emigrated to Listowel, Co Kerry when he was eight. "I was bullied a little bit, I had an English accent and I stood out. Playing for Listowel Celtic Under-14s gave me some kind of status as a young fella."

Until he was 17 he wanted to be a professional soccer player. He never had a trial, which he regrets because he knows he would have failed: good practice for a writer. Writing was "a wayward path".

He tried short fiction and screenwriting, attempted novels, "doubting myself". He worked as a researcher for his father (crime novelist Victor O'Reilly) and worked in disability rights (he wrote the moving film Inside I'm Dancing). Then came a Druid Theatre Company prize and the success of The Good Father. When it was first staged in 2002, Irish Theatre Magazine praised it as "an Irish love story with attitude, but with a disarming softness at its core". Christian says: "I remember at the time thinking I'm never going to write a play better than this. This is a good play."

But miserably, The Good Father left him blocked for five years. "It kind of spooked me, because the bad reviews really upset me and got to me, but the really good reviews also threw me. I saw myself as a serious dramatist and took on all the pressure of that. I found myself in a kind of wilderness. I struggled with my next play, because I was trying to be serious and worthy, and to appeal to the critics. I really lost the connection to why I write, and to the advice that John B Keane and my sister had given me."

His artist sister Ciara told him to "put your passions into your work"; John B Keane told him to "write from the heart", when he used to visit him in his pub in Listowel for a pot of tea to discuss writing. The playwright played a mentor role from his barstool where he was often "singing, sitting and listening".

"Once I went to him and I was really struggling. He just said to me, 'Keep at it. Persevere'. Leaving, I said, 'Thank you for your help'. He said, 'Thank you for your youth'.

"Often the struggle is personal and to do with confidence, to find my way in that respect. Confidence comes and it goes and it wavers. There are times when you feel your voice is in full throttle, and nothing can stop you, and there are times when you can feel quite crushed and small and frightened and anxious about writing, and it can fluctuate. It can feed the writing too, because I often write characters who are struggling with their own demons, who are low in self-esteem, hard on themselves."

Now married in Galway with two small children, he can take the cut and thrust of winning and losing. His star rose through Druid Debuts play programme. Now Druid are among those rejecting his plays, and this drives him to write more; he laughs, "I've enough rejections to decorate my house." Classy.

Axis, Ballymun presents The Good Father by Christian O'Reilly, March 10-21 www.axis-ballymun.ie

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