Monday 22 January 2018

The gloves are on -- Billy Roche's nostalgic boxing drama returns

What's the best line you ever wrote? I once asked Billy Roche (who has a new play opening in Dublin next week). "Yeh," he said. That was it. The line was in his first play, A Handful of Stars, which became the first part of his famed Wexford Trilogy.

The line comes when a local policeman arrives in the town snooker hall, and surveys the ne-er do wells hanging out there.

"He looks around the snooker hall, which he despises, and says 'Yeh'," said Roche.

"With that 'Yeh', the actor captured a whole world of meaning.

"Ambiguity is everything. Nebulousness; shadowy; 'the suggested' rather than 'the said' . . . The meaning is there, in the emptiness of things."

The sense of emptiness is so prevalent in Roche's plays that they sometimes seem as lonely as a dark forest.

That may be why directors often seem hungry to fill them with laughter and song. The comedy and music is there, of course. But Roche's plays are deceptive. Because they are typically set in what we think of as a simpler time (small-town Ireland in the 1960s and 1970s), directors and audiences tend to look to them for reassurance. And they're anything but reassuring.

Brian Friel faced the same problem with Translations, in 1980. He was worried that people were seeing it as a portrait of a rural Gaelic idyll, whereas in fact the Baile Beag of the play, and its people, was blighted and desperately poor.

Roche has no intention of making his audience wallow in despair, and uses music, in particular, in his plays very deliberately: "Sometimes, when I drop an audience down so far, my job is to lift you back up."

He was a folk singer before he was a playwright, seeking stardom in rooms above bars in Reading. Stardom never came, but he learned to write a gorgeous tune.

His plays, thus, hover in a netherworld between nostalgia and neurosis.

They seem always set in a recent, but already lost, past; and their people hark back to their own pasts, telling stories of bygone times to reassure themselves against the petty cruelties of the present. They are always telling stories, and the plays are set in places where people have time to talk -- a barber shop, a bookie's, a travelling roadshow.

Lay Me Down Softly is both an old play and a new one. It played at the Peacock in 2008. Curiously, though my review at the time was critical, it has a hold on my memory. Roche's plays can work their magic slowly, sometimes; it seeps out even after you've left the theatre.

Set in the boxing ring of a travelling roadshow, where locals can challenge the resident champ, Lay Me Down Softly seemed underdeveloped at the time.

But Roche has rewritten it since (he labours over his work for years, entirely unbothered by the pressures of commerce or celebrity that dictate he should work more efficiently, and less carefully).

And he and his longtime collaborator, the Wexford actor Gary Lydon, who stars in Lay Me Down, have set up a new Wexford-based company, Mosshouse, to produce and tour it. (Find Mosshouse on Facebook.)

It arrives at Dublin's Project Arts Centre on Tuesday, opens on Thursday, and runs till April 2. There are hopes to tour it further afield later in the year.

Roche struggled for years before he found his voice as an artist. How does one do that, I asked.

"It's finding the mystery in what you know intimately," he said.

Great drama must always have a strangeness at its heart, because the human mind, and heart, are strange things. Roche's plays are deceptively intimate, but there is a mystery and a strangeness at their heart.

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