Sunday 18 February 2018

Stage: The awkward actor who made his presence felt

Pan Pan Theatre
Pan Pan Theatre

Maggie Armstrong

'I'm not very good at acting ­actually. I'm really bad." He is treading boards in his own play at the Dublin Theatre Festival. But Dick Walsh, a rangy Kerryman with pools of blue eyes, wouldn't call what he does acting.

Once he was working on TG4's Ceart agus Cóir as a location manager. They were doing a murder scene and he was asked to stand in and play a policeman. He had no lines but it took over 10 takes. He did it so badly that everyone - camera man, director and even the corpse in the room - had got fits of the giggles.

"I'm possibly a bit awkward, not as aware of my body as I should be. My voice is quite thick-tongued, I wouldn't pronounce things properly, there's a Kerry accent."

Newcastlewest is a Pan Pan production billed as a comedy and Dick (33) is an associated writer with Pan Pan. This esteemed title puts him in the pantheon with names including Dermot Healy, Gina Moxley and Bush Moukarzel. But another thing. "I was always a bad writer, I guess," Dick claims. "I'd a bad sense of grammar, wasn't clear, quite pretentious as well." It seems that this lack of received talent has been the making of Dick Walsh the performer. It was through visual arts that he came to write plays. And it was through telling stories to his friends that he came to perform in them.

He comes from Ballybunion by the sea in Kerry. His father sold farming machinery, his mother taught in a primary school. Dick may have been a "pretentious" schoolboy but, he says in that fine thick tongue, "I wouldn't have had confidence in my writing. I got a C in the Leaving Cert." At 17 he went to UCD to study architecture. "I came from a practical family. It wouldn't have been countenanced to study arts, or art."

When Dick qualified as an architect it was 2005 and high summer of the building boom. Housing extensions were making young architects a lot of money but Dick disliked the "mono-thinking going on". He disliked that most building work was geared towards the middle classes: "Architecture is innately bourgeois." He found himself printing off maps for Dublin Docklands Development Authority to pay the bills, making experimental films and theatre on the side.

In Galway he formed Sideshow Productions with Martin Sharry (the most interesting writer to come out of the Aran Islands in a long time). Two disaffected young fellas with wild hair, they performed shows influenced by "post-dramatic theatre" and dense theory such as a little book called The Society of the Spectacle.

"We were very suspicious of acting. Because both of us didn't have that flair, you know, what you see everybody in Dramsoc has, that delight in performing," he says. "But me and Martin both wanted to make theatre, maybe we were interested in the humiliation of it, the exposure." So he couldn't act, and wasn't too hot on forming sentences on paper. But, he says, "I used to be good at, maybe, telling anecdotes. And I've always enjoyed ideas. I thought I'd a way, even though I'm not very articulate or smooth when I speak - I could investigate ideas."

Juggling work and making theatre, he found that people weren't coming to his shows. He wasn't making work people were admiring. He went out on his own. He stopped working, drew the dole and wrote solidly. "That was decadent, but I told myself, I'm going to try to make the best art I can." That was the year he wrote A Dangerman, his one-man show about a social oddball who talks at people and never listens. Pan Pan saw it at the Dublin Fringe in 2012 and he has been working with this sprawling theatre collective since.

Newcastlewest is about a girl called Marja (Annabell Rickerby) who is caring for her father (Des Nealon). Although Newcastlewest is the name of a town near where Dick grew up, and Dick plays "a local man done good", he says the play is set in a fictional place, outside history even. He found inspiration for it in Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace - "a tiny sub-plot 200 pages in".

If you decide to go, don't expect any pretending onstage. "You don't have to act, you can just be on the stage, a presence."

Newcastlewest by Dick Walsh runs at Smock Alley Theatre until October 4 as part of the Dublin Theatre Festival.

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