Friday 23 March 2018

Stage: Enda Walsh - from Broadway to Bray

Intense: Katherine Manley, Claudia Boyle and Robin Adams in Walsh opera The Last Hotel
Intense: Katherine Manley, Claudia Boyle and Robin Adams in Walsh opera The Last Hotel
Playwright Enda Walsh.

Maggie Armstrong

'I've only ever made work, since a child, just to sort of escape, f**kin', this." There was nothing wrong with the pub we were sitting in, a harmless gastropub. But with a simple hand gesture, Enda Walsh made it look like the most boring place on earth. "So you can sort of disappear into things. So you can imagine and create different worlds."

The playwright responsible for such otherworlds as Ballyturk, The New Electric Ballroom and The Walworth Farce has a lot to escape this January. Not least his own success.

It was December when we met, and Walsh was out on the weather-beaten esplanade of Bray, Co Wicklow. A crew were filming his opera, The Last Hotel, to be aired by Sky Arts in April. He missed home - his wife Jo Ellison, and daughter Ada - "desperately". He missed his own bed, the "shape" of his house, his dog Alvin, and watching movies. "Me and Jo are so f**king crazy busy. Skype is rubbish actually, it makes you just miss them even more… 80pc of the time you figure out the work and the life balance. It can crush you sometimes."

In 2015 he had five world premiers and made a film, Weightless, in Upstate New York. He also lost his mum, Maeve Walsh.

But international engagements packed out the turn of the New Year. The Last Hotel, the live production, had its American premiere, opening this week. It runs in St Ann's Warehouse in Brooklyn from January 8 to 17.

This feather went in his cap as another show heaved with fans uptown in the New York Theatre Workshop - Lazarus, the musical Walsh co-wrote with David Bowie. This golden-ticket affair ends January 20 and there are no plans to take it to the UK or Ireland. For now, let's hear about the opera.

The Last Hotel is Walsh's first opera and a sure escape from the quotidian for anyone watching - if not a pleasant escape.

In The Last Hotel, co-created with Donnacha Dennehy and his orchestra Crash Ensemble, an Irishwoman (Claudia Boyle) goes to a hotel to meet a couple who she pays to kill her.

Dennehy came to Walsh with the story of Rosemary Toole, a Dublin woman found to have died by assisted suicide in 2002. But Walsh didn't write the libretto with this media story in mind. "I don't think you could do that to Rosemary's family. It would be just very cruel. It's terrible and tragic what happened to her. There's no way we were going to jump in there and do that. Yet the isolation of what happened to her needs to be investigated."

Enda promises none of the opera's fleshy intensity will be lost on screen. It will be even more intense, he says, as it cuts from a live capture onstage to scenes filmed in the eerie, two-star Bray Head Hotel.

"I think it's the best piece I've ever done. There's something in it," he says. A mix of genres, of gothic, suburban, surreal.

''Some people will find it berserk, incoherent. My plays often connect with you first on an emotional level'', says Walsh.

"I've never written from the point of view of an audience. I am an audience. So I figure that if I like it, maybe half the audience might like it, and that's probably good enough.

"I don't do thinking plays. I always try and bypass the head and go for" - he makes a violent cutting sound with his throat - "so as people carry away something really emotional."

Words are terribly literal, he laughs. "You're trying to get underneath the words, and create something that's much larger, trying to reach the audience through their skin, not through their ears or their brain - so that they feel it."

Walsh writes at home in Kilburn in London. He has never left a piece of work unfinished. There are no drafts lying around. Social media, he ignores.

"That would be just massively distracting. There's other things to look at. You know, paintings and poetry."

In the pub, he exerts strict self-discipline. "I'm good at getting up and saying, 'I'm going'."

In 2016 he plans to do little but write: another opera with Dennehy, a full-length play ("under wraps") to premiere in 2017 and two 40-minute plays.

He may write to escape the banality of "f**kin' this", but from Broadway's red carpets to Bray's wind-swept coastline, this North Dubliner looks quite at home.

"I'd much rather be here than there. Yeah. Much, much happier here."

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