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Michael West: ‘I told him that I love this novel and I’d be really careful with it’

 The playwright tells Katy Hayes how he came to adapt Mike McCormack’s prize-winning ‘Solar Bones’ 


Playwright Michael West

Playwright Michael West

Playwright Michael West

Solar Bones; cultureireland.ie; from 6pm, March 18–21

Taoiseach Micheál Martin is not going to meet the president of the US with his bowl of shamrock this St Patrick’s Day. And Culture Ireland, the state body responsible for promoting Irish arts worldwide, is not providing its usual support to showcase artistic work internationally, a vital cog in getting Irish art in front of worldwide eyes.

Instead, in this era of pandemic rethink and rejig, the body has created a digital multi-artform festival from March 17 to 21 for St Patrick’s Day, called Seoda (Irish for ‘jewels’). It provides a welcome opportunity to view Solar Bones, the fine stage adaptation of Mike McCormack’s award-winning novel starring Stanley Townsend.

Michael West’s adaptation, directed by Lynne Parker of Rough Magic, managed to squeeze in a live run in August 2020 as part of Kilkenny Arts Festival. The show ran for six socially distanced nights and was seen by fewer than 200 people.

West describes the show as “one of the most joyful and most depressing experiences of my artistic life”.

“Stanley was being really brave, he was going over the top, he’d be the first and we’ll all come back soon,” he says. “But it turned out that was it. And it could well be next August before we see a theatre again.”

He describes Townsend as “an incredible trouper” for “coming out and looking at an almost empty room [fewer than 30 people in Watergate Theatre, which normally holds 324] with masked interrogators”.

West describes how the play came about: “I wrote Mike McCormack a love letter. I said I want to let you know I absolutely love this novel and I’ll be really careful with it.”

He worked through four or five drafts, in what he describes as a “judicious slaughtering exercise”. Eventually he cut it down to 85 minutes.

The production was filmed in a three-camera set-up the day after the show closed while it was still “very full in Stanley’s mind”. But they had no idea what they were going to do with the film. It had a limited online outing in November, and this further showcase with Seoda is a welcome boost.

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Townsend’s performance is superb. The play is a moving account of a Mayo man’s life: an engineer by profession, his great boast is that he loved his wife, provided for his family and was ordinary in every sense. “The radical act is just the ordinariness of that life,” says West.

West has a nuanced attitude to the current digital advances with theatre. “It’s better than nothing,” he says but adds later: “The digital aspects of theatre are here to stay, in one form or another. It’s already going to reshape how work is recorded and archived.

“In the same way universities are going to keep some digital elements even when we go back to face-to-face teaching [West lectures in creative writing at Queen’s University Belfast]. It’s going to be a strange dual world.”

Apart from his house being more crowded — his two school and college-going children are now learning online — Covid hasn’t hugely changed his actual writing practice.

“My life is sitting at a desk, looking at a screen, thinking about things that won’t get seen for a year or two anyway and wondering why no one’s calling me. But now the most difficult thing is even that possibility has been curtailed.”

While some work is being commissioned, “the reality is that theatres are not commissioning shows to be produced at the moment so a really important thread is broken there.

“Theatre has been in crisis for two-and-a-half thousand years. It is a constantly evolving compromise with bad decisions, bad planning and bad infrastructure. There are always opportunities in these reset challenges,” he says, “but it’s not like the theatre was so brilliant beforehand that it should be left exactly as it was.”

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