'Getting to know the byways of Muldoon's brain was joyous'
Director Sam Yates will make his Irish debut at next month's Galway Arts Festival with Paul Muldoon's poem 'Incantata'. The bright young thing of British theatre tells Joanne Hayden about meeting the revered poet, and the forensic work involved in bringing his epic elegy on grief to the stage
It's Sam Yates' second day in Dublin and so far it's been a field trip of sorts. He's seen Clontarf. He's walked along Baggot Street. In the name of research, he's had a pint in McDaids. But his true destination is not Dublin but Galway; Galway is where the real work will begin and, soon after our meeting, that's where he's bound.
One of the highlights of this year's Galway International Arts Festival is the stage adaptation of Paul Muldoon's poem 'Incantata', and it is directed by Yates. An urgent, epic elegy to a dead lover and friend, the poem is a window into Muldoon's dizzyingly erudite mindscape, filled with references to art, music, literature, philosophy, history, war and frequently to place. Belfast is mentioned, as are other parts of Ireland, the US and elsewhere, but Dublin features the most - hence Yates' tailored whirlwind tour.
The challenge of bringing such kaleidoscopic, intricately rhythmic writing to the stage is considerable. When Yates first read the poem, he thought it was "extraordinary" and was "very attracted to the question" of how it could be re-imagined for theatre.
The actor Stanley Townsend, who Yates directed in a West End production of Glengarry Glen Ross in 2017, is performing the solo piece in the Town Hall Theatre. Though the two men have worked together before, they're connecting on 'Incantata' in a more personal way. The poem is as intimate as it is expansive, the emotions at its core are universal; in effect, it's an act of transcendence.
"It's a poem also about making art," says Yates, at a window table in a city centre hotel. "What can you do with grief? How can you transform it? What does grief look like? These are the questions we're asking."
'Incantata' is addressed to the artist Mary Farl Powers, who died of cancer in 1992 at the age of 44. Powers was born in Minnesota - her father was the writer James Farl Powers - and with her family, she moved back and forth between the US and Ireland before choosing to remain here from 1975. The poem includes Muldoon's memories of their time as a couple in the 1980s, of afterwards when they stayed in touch, and of their final meetings when Powers, who had refused conventional medical treatment, was dying.
While Muldoon's technical dexterity and playfulness are very much in evidence - the rhymes are surprising, the patterns complex - Powers emerges as unromanticised and real: fatalistic, idiosyncratic, witty, strong and committed to her art. Muldoon makes himself vulnerable in the poem: "... you detected in me a tendency to put on too much artificiality, both as man and poet," he writes.
There is humour within the grief and vice versa. Some of the snapshots are particularly vivid: "of the priest of the parish who came enquiring about our 'status', of the hedge-clippers I somehow had to hand, of him running like the clappers up Landseer Street..."
The previous night, Yates and Stanley Townsend had dinner with Muldoon, who answered their many questions and gave them leave to do what they needed with his work.
"He said, 'You probably know more about this poem than I do'. Which is probably not true but I think what he means is that it left him and it's out there and we're now studying it and pulling it to pieces," Yates says. "It happened to him, rather than him plotting it out... I think he was almost in a fever, trying to express everything that one might feel in that situation."
The fact that Muldoon wrote 'Incantata' in three days makes its breadth even more striking. In the first stages of rehearsal, Yates and Townsend went through it forensically, making sure they understood every reference.
"There's a hell of a lot of table work. We spent probably about seven days doing about four pages a day." The process of getting to know the byways of "Paul Muldoon's brain" was "interesting and joyous", he says.
But unlike readers, who can take time to absorb and study a text, audience members expect a more immediate experience. The volume of references is not going to be a problem, Yates says.
"When you look at Shakespeare or Beckett, you don't necessarily comprehend the precise reference but the overall sense is greater than the sum of its parts."
The Beckett link is important. In the poem, Muldoon draws explicitly on Lucky's speech in Waiting for Godot - a seemingly incoherent stream of words, sometimes interpreted as a comment on the arbitrary nature of God and the futility of human striving. When Yates and Townsend asked Muldoon where the speaker in 'Incantata' was, Muldoon said it was "a very specific nowhere".
In Yates' mind, 'Incantata' has "a very Beckett kind of energy. You're somewhere very specific but you're nowhere at the same time and I think language existing in that kind of space is very interesting".
It's a daunting project for Townsend - because of all the lines, because it's a one-man show and because of the magnitude of what he needs to communicate - but Yates has a reputation for being an actor's director.
Born in Stockport, Greater Manchester in 1983, he went to Cambridge where he did more acting than directing.
Afterwards, he understudied in The History Boys in the National and had a few "small television" parts before he started working as an assistant and associate director. He was "okay" as an actor, he says, but he didn't feel free.
"I always felt slightly, 10pc, on guard and you can't be, you have to give yourself completely and I don't think I could do that."
His CV is impressive and his theatre work has been critically acclaimed.
His short film The Hope Rooms, starring Ciarán Hinds and Andrew Scott, won the Filmmaker of the Future Award at the Rhode Island International Festival in 2016 and, confident of his ability to switch between mediums, he plans to direct his first feature next year.
He's drawn to every project for different reasons.
"There's something in each play or each piece that just connects with you at that moment in your life. Sometimes you don't know until five years later what that was," he says.
"Wounded pieces," often interest him - plays by renowned writers that are "broken in some way". With 'Incantata' though, it's about the force of the writing and transposing the poem so that the audience will understand its fundamentals and at the same time feel the rush of the spell, the incantation.
He's used to the text leading the show. Following on from its West End run, his production of Glengarry Glen Ross will be touring the UK next year. The play's writer, David Mamet, who is known for his strict contracts, stipulated there be no music, no sound and no moving sets.
While 'Incantata' will have some visuals, "it will be quite a light touch really", Yates says.
"And as for how it will look, it's coming, but again you don't want anything to overpower the language and the speaker... We're just letting the piece tell us what it needs and what it doesn't need really so it's a genuine process in that respect. It's not the sort of piece you design in advance."
It's the way he likes it - working with the essentials. "I'm more and more interested in the rough magic of theatre," he says, "how just words and a person on a stage can create magic."
'Incantata' runs as part of the Galway International Arts Festival which takes place from July 16-29