'I've never really suffered for my art. Maybe I'd be a better writer if I did'
Playwright Enda Walsh talks to Maggie Armstrong about some of his career highs and lows, and explains why he's about to stage this third opera in as many years
Enda Walsh has just had his first play staged. He's "just a boy" and it's happening in the Project Arts Centre as part of a festival of Dublin Youth Theatre. But it isn't a play. It's a poem.
Or so he was told by a prominent member of the theatre community who stood up from the audience and publicly rubbished Walsh's effort. "A terrible thing to happen, when you're 18," Walsh says, though without a hint of actual pique. The man had a point, he says. The play was called Tales from Havilah and the actors stood on podiums to read their lines. It was post-apocalyptic, it was different, and it was "terribly pretentious".
After the staging, in the late 1980s, Walsh's father Sean came running to him with a review in In Dublin magazine which hailed the work as a "new type of writing". Not only that, the director of the Dublin Theatre Festival gave Walsh £2,000 to write a play. He went off and wrote one inspired by a woman he used to see walking the roads, which turned out to be a "mishmash between Ulysses and Gone with the Wind". DTF politely declined to produce it. Perhaps it will be the lost Enda Walsh play companies will be unearthing off-Broadway in 100 years' time?
He doesn't think so - he has lost the physical copy of the play, and "there were 65 characters in it. It was completely unproducible".
It appears from our conversation so far that the spectre of failure doesn't trouble Walsh, though he says he is aware his work divides audiences. There are those who feel his writing has just found a hotline to their soul, and those who don't get it. After that play fell through, chastened, he decided he didn't want to write plays and went to college to study film. It was only when he moved to Cork at 23 that he began to find his voice with the fledgling company Corcadorca, and Disco Pigs became the play of the moment. It also launched Cillian Murphy, his best friend who has since collaborated with him on Misterman, Ballyturk, Grief is a Thing with Feathers and more.
Walsh had been dabbling in strange plays and short stories throughout his youth. He was inspired by his schoolteacher in Kilbarrack, a certain Roddy Doyle, by Dublin Youth Theatre, by his mother Maeve, who acted in the Abbey and Gate before she had her six children, and by his charismatic father, a furniture-shop owner.
So how does a boy go from writing a play that is a poem to writing the full-length sensation that became Disco Pigs, then going on to write such blistering works as The Walworth Farce and The New Electric Ballroom, and runaway successes like the musical Once, and Lazarus for David Bowie? There are also the films, including Hunger and the recent Weightless.
"I could write words but I couldn't write plays. But I could write a sentence, and then I could write loads of sentences," says the 50-year-old by way of an answer. It helped that Walsh was a bit of a disco pig himself. The 1990s club scene, instead of distracting him from his purpose, cleared the path to what he wanted to do.
"Being in an environment where there are so many signals and rhythms, it fires the imagination. The feverish, hallucinogenic imagery that's in Bedbound wouldn't have happened if it hadn't been for going out for years and taking drugs and all of that. And getting sort of lost."
When Disco Pigs toured to Edinburgh's Traverse Theatre, Jo Ellison was working in the box office. They've been together for 21 years now.
On the Saturday afternoon we meet, Walsh is jet-lagged following a four-week holiday with Jo and their daughter Ada in San Francisco. The London-Irishman and toast of the theatre world is tanned, with tortoiseshell glasses that give him a chic, academic look. He stepped off the plane and into the rehearsal room for The Second Violinist, ahead of its run at London's Barbican.
After that he will go into rehearsals for his opera, a version of Bluebeard's Castle, made with Irish National Opera and the RTÉ Concert Orchestra, which Walsh is directing for Dublin Theatre Festival. Mezzo-soprano Paula Murrihy and bass Joshua Bloom, as well as a cast of children, will re-enact the wedding night of Judith and Bluebeard. It's Walsh's third opera, following the success of the gruellingly beautiful The Last Hotel and the dank and hilarious The Second Violinist. Both were made with composer Donnacha Dennehy. Now Walsh is out on his own in operaland, with his hands on a classic.
Composed by Béla Bartók and based on a folktale, Bluebeard's Castle was first produced in 1918. Operas are "addictive to do", says Walsh. "It's going into a room and finding these athletes singing at you."
It will be sung in Hungarian, with surtitles in English which he's written himself. "I worked with sort of eight translations to get a feel for it," he says, making rewriting libretto sound like eating a piece of cake.
So what happens in Bluebeard's Castle, and how is it relevant to now? The story, famously told by Charles Perrault, tells of the horror show the young wife Judith encounters in Bluebeard's castle. She is surrounded by doors in the opulent space, and each time she opens one, she finds a new atrocity inside.
Designer Jamie Vartan has created a marble square, with a beautiful couch and a gorgeous drinks trolley, set in a landscape of devastation. They took as a starting point Syrian president Bashar al-Assad and his glamorous wife Asma, taking inspiration from the couple's palace.
Walsh is interested in where love sits in the life of a human responsible for destruction and decay. "A person like that, you figure they don't have empathy. But in the middle of the night or in the morning, is there anything? Any acknowledgement of wrongdoing, any guilt? You really feel they are testing their love. Whether he can park the truth - the fact that the man is a psychopath and a monster. Can she deal with this horror he's created and surrounded her with? How do they make themselves not see it?"
So many artists talk about their struggle, but the work just seems to pour from Walsh, in a language that is fully formed. He doesn't really suffer for his art, he admits.
"Maybe I'd be a better writer if I did, but I never really sort of struggle with it. I get lost in it. That's where I'm at my happiest, where I'm not in control."
Writer's block is not a phenomenon he is familiar with. "I do just write. I make these 'Rooms' every year [art installations with a recorded monologue, which have been showing at the Galway International Arts Festival]. They're really lovely things to write, it's like taking a vitamin."
He looks around the quiet bar where we're sitting. "I know that I could sort of sit down and write a 15-minute story now. I would be done by the afternoon. It still feels like there are many types of people to write about." Oh, and: "I've been really disciplined like, forever."
Walsh has been writing for over 20 years now, his plays translated into as many languages. Have there been any flops? "I've only had a few shocking failures." He mentions The Twits. It was no fault of the director or the production team but, he "hated it".
"I was humiliated by it. Because there are people there paying their good money and I'm watching it, thinking I'm so sorry, I just took my eye off the ball. It had this tone of humour that you're thinking, this isn't really funny. This is really horrible, everyone on stage is just grotesque."
So failure does, occasionally influence his thinking. "Sometimes, a tiny seed of doubt can turn into just this fucking mountain of neurosis and you're sitting there and you know in your stomach that actually you haven't done good work. And you wonder why didn't I fix it, why did I continue with this charade? It takes a long time to recover. As confident as I am, you carry your failures around with you for much, much longer than your successes."
But there seems there will be no stopping the maturing Walsh any time soon.
"I'm trying to sort of figure out the fundamentals of shit, like why we keep on going, and how do you get up in the morning, and how do you escape your tragedies. That sort of thing I'm really sort of inquisitive about, what the work's going to turn into. I hop out of the bed in the morning and I'm dying for the day to begin, to see what's going to happen."
Bluebeard's Castle runs at the Gaiety Theatre, October 12 - 14, as part of Dublin Theatre Festival