Saturday 24 August 2019

Staging Ireland's fall into economic abyss

Crash: Ali White in Fishamble: The New Play Company’s Bailed Out by Colin Murphy
Crash: Ali White in Fishamble: The New Play Company’s Bailed Out by Colin Murphy
Colin Murphy

Maggie Armstrong

Budgets, bondholders, men in cement-grey suits. No political assassinations, no love affairs, not even flirting. You don't immediately think Ireland's financial crisis could make a good play. But Colin Murphy's Guaranteed! proved otherwise and its sequel, Bailed Out!, if not as stunningly topical, has insights, sadness and slapstick.

Good news: following its personality-packed run at the Dublin Theatre Festival, Bailed Out! plays at View, a weekend of arts and politics in Temple Bar. The play is directed by Conall Morrison for Fishamble: The New Play Company.

It deals with those tumultuous years following the bank guarantee of September 30, 2008 - that secretive midnight pact that seems to have cost the state multiple billions.

Colin, a journalist, dug into key primary sources to tell us what happened, as 'documentary theatre' whipped up with artistic license.

As you see in the very grammar of the title, Colin was aware the dry details of a bailout might not sell. "We didn't want it to sound boring. So I thought, we'll put an exclamation mark in, so it looks like it's a joke.


He is laughing now, but five years ago, like many Irish people, he laughed less. When the play's events were unravelling, and Colin was writing a theatre column right in this little space, he and his partner Ruth had baby twins and a three-year-old. They had recently bought a (massively overvalued) house. He remembers being sleepless, and quite frustrated.

"I'm a journalist, but I wasn't covering politics, so I had no actual connection to what was going on. I felt a double frustration, being aware that hugely significant events are going on, not quite having a grip on them. It's alienating, disempowering."

After 2011 he took a job in Leinster House, writing speeches for Stephen Donnelly, the independent TD. He was unnerved by the "dysfunction" in our parliamentary democracy, the endless talk, lack of action. He realised that to understand politics he had to understand economics. And to understand economics, he had to grasp finance.

Working with Stephen's "economist brain" on bank bonds and promissory notes helped. "I picked his brains pretty clean." At the same time, Colin's younger brother Eoghan was elected a TD for Dublin South-East: "A huge buzz."

Colin had written a few political sketches "for fun" before the day in 2012 he presented Fishamble with a dossier of facts and dialogue to be read aloud by actors. Within two years, Guaranteed! had been made into an IFTA-nominated film, The Guarantee. (This auteur won't quit: next year sees two more docu-dramas on the Easter Rising, to be staged inside the GPO during Easter, and on the marriage equality referendum.)

Bailed Out! is based on a sprawling and technically complicated set of events.

"It became obvious there would be a parallel political and personal struggle. The personal struggle would be Brian Lenihan doing all of that while battling with cancer," says Colin.

And what worried him most of all was depicting Lenihan's illness. "This is a real person whose family are making their own way in this very small world that we live in. I was very aware of a duty of care. But at the same time, you can't pull your punches just because somebody is dead. I wanted to hold him to account as much as anybody else in the play."

The figure of an ailing finance minister had comparisons with an ailing government and absent national sovereignty.

"The metaphor is inescapable," says Colin. "This man has a cancer in him, and the body politic has a cancer in it. Both are fighting against impossible loss. The key difference is his cancer is horrible luck, whereas the body politic created its own cancer."

He adds: "If it was just art, you might think it was a metaphor too far. But it's not, it's life. And therefore it's kind of heartbreaking."

Bailed Out! plays at St Michan's Church, Dublin 7, at 3pm on November 21 at View: Temple Bar Arts and Politics Weekend

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