Saturday 18 November 2017

Conor McPherson set to push boundaries with new BBC thriller series Paula

He's one of our best-known contemporary playwrights but Conor McPherson is set to reach a much wider audience with his latest two projects - a Scandi-noir-inspired thriller series for the BBC and a Bob Dylan musical. Kirsty Blake Knox meets the unassuming Dubliner

Touch of noir: Conor Mc Pherson wrote a draft of Paula four years ago. Photo: Frank Mc Grath
Touch of noir: Conor Mc Pherson wrote a draft of Paula four years ago. Photo: Frank Mc Grath
Denise Gough in Paula

It must be every aspiring musician and misunderstood teenage boy's ultimate 'PG' fantasy. To get a phone call from Bob Dylan's 'people' saying he wants to work with you. Especially if you spent the better part of your college days as one half of a shoe-gazing indie outfit called Squidinky.

But when playwright Conor McPherson got the call asking if he would write the Bob Dylan musical, he felt a wave of something else, foreboding.

"This could be really, really bad - that was the first thought," he explains. "You think: 'I hope I'm not the person who is going to do something terrible with Bob Dylan's music'."

But slowly he came round to the idea.

"It sounded so interesting - you get over it and start writing."

McPherson is one of Ireland's most highly-regarded contemporary playwrights - part of the same gifted generation as Mark O'Rowe, Martin McDonagh and Enda Walsh.

He had left school dreaming of becoming a musician, but discovered his passion for writing plays almost by chance. He joined UCD's DramaSoc while a student, came across the work of David Mamet and Arthur Miller and found the electric current racing through their pages compulsive and inspiring.

"When I started writing, it was an automatic thing, and a compulsion," he says. "Up until then, I wanted to be a musician - I was playing music and reading plays, something clicked and then I was in the grip of it. It wasn't a decision, it was just happening."

He moved to London and success followed, with the 1997 staging of The Weir picking up a slew of rave reviews and awards.

Over the past 20 years, McPherson has gone to produce other critical and commercial hits, including Shining City, The Seafarer and The Night Alive.

His work has enjoyed sell-out runs on Broadway and in the West End, and he has picked up Oliviers, a New York Drama Critic's Circle Award and a Tony.

But arguably it is his two upcoming projects that are going to garner him the most mainstream recognition.

The first is the Bob Dylan musical, Girl from the North Country, which will open this July at London's Old Vic. The second is his new glossy BBC series, Paula, which will premiere on Wednesday.

The three-part thriller centres on a respectable chemistry teacher, played by Olivier Award-winning Irish actress Denise Gough, whose life spirals out of control following a disastrous one-night-stand with James, a devastating and dashing drifter.

Tom Hughes, best known for his turn as Prince Albert in the period drama Victoria, will play ducker-and-diver James.

It sounds like a solid fatal attraction drama - the sort of thing the BBC do so very well. In recent months they have given us two gems; the courtroom drama Apple Tree Yard, and maternity leave nightmare The Replacement.

Paula will follow in their footsteps; with a nice, healthy mix of sex, deception and psychological destruction. In other words, all the good stuff.

Before meeting McPherson, I wonder if he will be as dark and brooding as his work; perhaps he'll enter the room like a hurricane or speak in a Brian Blessed boom.

But when he arrives in the lobby of a Dún Laoghaire hotel, he is the opposite of what I was expecting - mild-mannered and softly spoken.

An unassuming Dubliner with black-rimmed glasses and darting eyes, at times he appears extremely shy - but when he laughs, there's an echo of devilment and fun. The playwright drew on Scandinavian noir hit series such as The Killing and The Bridge when writing Paula.

"I like that idea where everything appears okay and normal on the surface, but underneath it's nuts, total chaos," he says.

This is not McPherson's first foray into television drama: he wrote one episode of Quirke, but stresses that that was John Banville's story. He also wrote and directed the feature films The Actors starring Dylan Moran and Michael Caine, and Saltwater.

But this is his first time creating a TV series from scratch, and he admits it was a bit of a baptism of fire.

'My Dad will be mortified when he sees the sex scene' - Irish actress Denise Gough speaks to 

The concept for Paula began to germinate over four years ago, when BBC executives approached him and asked if he'd be interested in the project.

He wrote a draft, and submitted it.

"Then I didn't really hear anything until three years later, when I got a call saying 'we should do this'.

"I said; 'write the rest of the series?' They said, 'no, film it - where are the scripts?' I had no idea it worked like that."

The shoot was to begin in six months so McPherson began typing frantically.

Like much of his work, the series appears to have an undercurrent of the supernatural.

"A lot of what I write is dark but people are drawn to dark things, they get hooked into it, and there is an energy in that."

Given all this talk of dark, intense dramas, I wonder how he ended up in the world of musical theatre. He's not the sort of guy you can imagine downloading the Starlight Express soundtrack.

"I wouldn't seek a musical out," he admits. "But I am a big fan of music and doing plays."

Girl from the North County is not a jazz hands, bells and whistles musical. Instead, McPherson will use Dylan's songbook as a starting point for a story about a couple running a guesthouse in Dylan's boyhood home of Duluth, Minnesota in the 1930s.

"They have no money, they have no where to go, they are living on credit or scraping by," he says.

By setting the play before Dylan was born and using instruments from that era, he hopes to recast them and ­perhaps unearth another side to the lyrics.

He insists that this will not be a greatest-hits jukebox musical, but will feature tracks from Dylan's less well-known back catalogue - including some of his material from the 1980s.

McPherson is also directing the play and has cast well-known Irish actors in the show. Bronagh Gallagher, Ciarán Hinds and Jim Norton - perhaps best known for playing Father Bishop Brennan in Father Ted - will all take on roles. Having spent hours in front of a computer screen, McPherson says getting the show on its feet and "in 3D" is a joy.

"I much prefer directing to writing," he says. "It's all the nuts and bolts and joining it together. People are banging ideas off each other, and there's an energy there."

He has mainly been dealing with Dylan's manager, and has yet to be meet the great man - and Nobel laureate - in person.

He had asked if the singer would like to sit in on the rehearsal process, but his manager said it was best if "McPherson did his thing".

Sage advice surely - there must be nothing more intimidating then having Bob Dylan sat in the corner of a rehearsal room jotting down notes.

"I don't know if I would be intimidated," McPherson said.

"But if he was like, 'I don't like that', what are you going to say? 'Well that's what we're doing, Bob. What would you know?' Of course not," he laughs.

Given that Dylan chose not to attend his Nobel Award ceremony, I ask if he will be there on opening night. "I actually have no idea," McPherson says. "But I definitely hope so."

Paula will air on RTÉ One on Wednesday at 9.35pm

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