Friday 24 November 2017

After all the research, my play is set to open – I hope that drama is Guaranteed!

Colin Murphy

It was perhaps the most significant single decision taken in the history of the State. So why, I wondered, had nobody put it on stage?

On the night of September 29, 2008, the government guaranteed the debts of the Irish banks – all €500bn or so of them. That decision will cost us something like €70bn. We'll be paying for it for another 40 years.

Not only was it an event of huge significance, it was also one of obvious drama: a handful of men (all men, of course) locked in a building overnight, forced to make a decision on which the fate of the country rests. Think Twelve Angry Men meets The West Wing.

Why did they do it? What was the atmosphere like? Were they scared? Angry? In agreement, or at each other's throats? I wanted to know. And I wanted to see it on stage.

Last year, I wrote a short sketch about it for Fishamble Theatre Company's 'Tiny Plays for Ireland' project, in which I suggested that the guarantee had been decided on by a coin toss. (It was a joke, of course, but with a serious point: faced with an impossible decision, a coin toss may be a rational response.) It worked, and I suggested to Fishamble we do a full-length version. To my astonishment, they agreed.

I waded through the key sources on the bank guarantee: the reports by Patrick Honohan and others; the books by Simon Carswell and Tom Lyons. I sent in Freedom of Information requests. I met with experts. I wrote to all of those centrally involved. Slowly, I started to build a picture both of what led to the guarantee, and how events happened on the night.

I found no bogeyman and no smoking gun. That's not to say there was none, but I found no proof of it. Instead, I found myself talking mostly to decent people who had worked hard, under great pressure, in circumstances of limited information and resources, to deal with a daunting problem as best they could. The real problem, it seemed, wasn't what they did on the night (though there were problems with that), it was what hadn't been done in the months and years before.

To appropriate a sporting phrase, it became a play of two halves: the first, where the Irish economy and political system goes about its business with extraordinary indifference to the real state of its banks; and the second, where the political leadership tries desperately to find a last-minute solution to a sudden and badly understood banking problem.

When I felt like I might drown in paperwork, I bought some file cards. Each time I came across a detail or event that would make a good scene, I noted it on a card. I remembered the advice of some forgotten playwright: "don't get it right – get it written." I kept scenes short and wrote as quickly as possible. I soon found myself with hundreds of scenes and almost as many characters – all to be played by just five actors.

Ten days ago, we started rehearsals. On Monday, we open. We spent the first three-and-a-half days of rehearsals simply working through the script, working out what it all means. (I wrote it, but I'm not always sure.) Conall Morrisson, the director, has worked in the leading theatres in Ireland and Britain, and with Cameron Macintosh. He takes no prisoners. "That'll have to go," he says, nonchalantly, of various superb scenes, the products of extensive research and careful crafting. (Invariably, it's the ones that took most work that go.)

He is ruthless about pruning the script of economic jargon – jargon I had lovingly massaged into it, as proof of all my hard research.

He makes a virtue of his complete innumeracy. "If the audience can't understand it in real time, what's the point?" he asks. I try to banish "cleverness" from my script – but it's hard. The less the play relies on journalistic research and economic analysis, the more it has to rely on human drama. But that's precisely the thing that I don't know how to do. As we gradually strip back the "superfluous" documentary material, I feel more exposed. It's both nerve-wracking and thrilling.

And yet, I want to keep going at the research. The day before we start rehearsals, I receive the answer to a Freedom of Information request sent six months earlier. Then another possible source gets in touch and wants to meet. I can't resist the urge to keep sniffing about for the smoking gun, even though it's now too late to do anything with it if I find it. (Unless I carry it on stage myself.)

The lawyer gives it the all clear. An economist deems its simplifications acceptable. I try to stop myself checking on the theatres' websites to see how sales are going. I bring the laptop to rehearsals and rewrite scenes to order: shorter and clearer. I try to forget about all the work I'm not doing at the moment.

The play ends just after the guarantee. What happened afterwards, of course, was at least as significant, if not more so, but that's another story. Guaranteed! tells the story of the first part of this prolonged Irish crisis: how the dream fell apart. It is a Cinderella story: Ireland, the poor sister of Europe, finally got to go to the ball. But we ignored the warning chimes of midnight, and found ourselves suddenly in rags again. It's not a happy story. But – I hope – it makes for good drama.

Guaranteed! is at the Riverbank, Newbridge, June 24; Draíocht, Blanchardstown, June 25; the Pavilion, Dún Laoghaire, June 26; Axis, Ballymun, June 27; the Mermaid, Bray, June 28; Garter Lane, Waterford, June 29 and the Civic, Tallaght, July 1-2. See www.fishamble.com.

colinmurphy@independent.ie

Irish Independent

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