Saturday 17 March 2018

Starman of the stage: rise and rise of Enda Walsh

Between working with David Bowie and reviving Roald Dahl's novels, Irish writer Enda Walsh is busier than ever.

Changes: David Bowie seen here in the 1976 film 'The Man who fell to Earth' is set to collaborate with playwright Enda Walsh on a new musical
Changes: David Bowie seen here in the 1976 film 'The Man who fell to Earth' is set to collaborate with playwright Enda Walsh on a new musical
Enda Walsh
Absolute Beginners
Enda Walsh's work is more extreme and anarchic than anyone else's
Cillian Murphy in Disco Pigs

Tanya Sweeney

For many forty-something men, the prospect of collaborating with David Bowie would likely be a boyhood dream come true. And it's in the exalted position as the Thin White Duke's latest creative partner that Dublin playwright Enda Walsh now finds himself in.

Despite it being widely assumed that Bowie is in a sort of semi-retirement hinterland, it was reported last week that the singer has started work on a new musical.

Inspired by Walter Tevis' 1963 novel The Man Who Fell To Earth (and the 1976 film adaptation of the novel that became Bowie's big screen debut), the new project is entitled Lazarus.

Both Bowie and Walsh will surely find themselves in a safe and seasoned pair of hands with the other: quite apart from Bowie's glittering CV, Walsh brings a wealth of musical experience of his own to the table (after he helmed the hugely successful music version of Once).

His recent successes have breathed life anew into his repertoire of work. After the resounding success of his play Ballyturk both here and in London, his 2006 play The Walworth Farce - which works wonderfully as a companion piece to the former - was revived for the stage late last year.

Walsh's collaboration with Bowie isn't even the most intriguing twist in the playwright's career trajectory.

Lazarus aside, Walsh is fresh from putting his inimitable and subversive mark on The Twits, an adaptation of Roald Dahl's story, which opened this week at London's Royal Court. An opera, due to première at Edinburgh later in the year, is also in the works.

All the while, the inroads into New York's famously cut-throat theatre scene continue apace. Late last year, Landmark Productions brought Cillian Murphy to New York for a rousing version of Walsh's 1999 play Misterman. It was met with a rapturous reception.

Walsh told the Daily Telegraph that it was his daughter Ada (9) that turned him on to The Twits' unique charm.

"So many of his (Dahl's) stories are about revolution, aren't they?" he says. "They're about trying to topple nasty people."

Sounds like he and Dahl could make for fitting bedfellows, then. Walsh, we already know from Ballyturk and The Walworth Farce, does a rather fine line in bringing raucous eccentrics to life. Better again, he has mastered the art of tempering zingy surrealism with a hefty dose of Beckettian gravitas.

"His writing is funny, playful, dark and irreverent," observes Dr Eamonn Jordan, senior lecturer in drama studies at UCD. "The work is more extreme, unsettled and anarchic than anyone else's... his clear intention is to get right under the skin. What has also really impressed me time and time again is his ability to create a part that is perfect that an actor would love to play."

In both Ireland and the UK, the recent outings of Ballyturk and The Walworth Farce appeared to bridge the gap between seasoned theatregoers and a wider audience.

Many came for the chance to see Domhnall, Brian and Brendan Gleeson (The Walworth Farce) and Cillian Murphy, Stephen Rea and Mikel Murfi (Ballyturk) at close range… and stayed for Walsh's sword-sharp writing.

"If you get big name actors on board it's always easier to get into commercial theatre, but Walsh is particularly alert to that audience," notes Jordan. "He is always interested in reaching out to different audiences."

It comes as little surprise with Walsh, that the child significantly explains the man. While Walsh's father worked as a furniture salesman, his mother had been an actress who had performed at the Abbey and Gate before she married. Having Roddy Doyle as an English teacher at Greendale Community School in Kilbarrack became his first stab at creativity.

At the same school, incidentally, Paul Mercier was also a much-loved teacher.

"All our school plays were ­adaptations (Doyle) had written himself," Walsh told the Guardian newspaper. "He made theatre seem like a laugh. Every Friday he would read out the best one," says Walsh, "and you really wanted your story to be picked, so the written word - and the spoken word - quickly became quite a big thing."

As for Mercier's influence: "I'd say he's our Seán O'Casey, and he was also a big influence on me, partly because - well, they both made it look as if it [writing] was quite easy! But then everyone's got a f***ing story."

After a stint in film school, Walsh managed to wrangle a job with a theatre/education company in Cork.

"There were four of us, travelling around in this little bus taking this play about Native American Indians and the Cavalry into schools," he recalled in a 2011 interview. "It was bizarre… it was actually the funniest three months of my life and I'm going to write a book about it one day, but it kind of worked. And I fell completely in love with Cork and I thought, 'f*** it, I'm going to give theatre a go down here'."

Walsh's own early works showed plenty of promise, not least when he staged his play The Ginger Ale Boy in Cork ("I'd spent four years producing appalling work. This was still flawed, but it got me noticed.")

He wasn't joking: working with Cork-based theatre company Corcadora and in collaboration with director Pat Kiernan, Walsh's 1996 play Disco Pigs certainly was singled out as one to watch. Around this time, Walsh revealed recently that he had a moment that has likely shaped his modus operandi.

'Just after Disco Pigs opened in 1996 and was being picked up everywhere, I was walking over Patrick's Bridge in Cork and I stopped dead still and felt absolutely terrified that I was alive and had to keep on living," he told a newspaper last year. "The moment lasted maybe five seconds and I kept on walking. But it's a playwright's job to explore that feeling that, however many good days you may have, you are still ultimately alone and walking around in your own private universe."

Showing at the Edinburgh festival that year, Disco Pigs would go on to win Walsh a slew of awards, among them the 2006 Abbey Writer in Association Award and the 2010 Obie for playwriting. The play also became a 2001 film directed by Kirsten Sheridan, starring Walsh's close friend Cillian Murphy.

Nineteen stage plays, two radio plays and a musical later, the accolades have been coming full tilt. His first notable foray into screenwriting - the script for Steve McQueen's Bobby Sands biopic Hunger - saw his stock climb even further.

"Film is okay as long as you are working with the director right from the beginning," Walsh reflected at the time. "You need to be with the director from day one so that you can steer it together otherwise, as the writer, you have no power, you're just some sub f***ing tea boy. You write it, you bring in the money to finance it and then you're literally kicked out of the door."

Regardless of his ambivalence about the form, it's thought that a couple of film projects are bubbling away in the background for Walsh. A biopic of Dusty Springfield has been reportedly gathering dust on the proverbial shelf, as is an adaptation of Gitta Sereny's book Into That Darkness, about the life of Franz Stangl, the commandant of the Sobidor and Treblinka concentration camps. In 2012, it was also reported that Walsh was working on a 'musical movie' with singer-songwriter Rufus Wainwright, though it's a project seemingly yet to come to fruition.

With Walsh's career taking delicious turns hither and thither, it will be interesting to see what comes next for the playwright. "In terms of reputation, his international standing looks set to get better and better," surmises Jordan. "The Walworth Farce is likely to go down as one of the great Irish plays in years to come. And with another play coming in the Dublin Theatre Festival this year, he is going to be everywhere. He seems determined to be one of those writers determined to leave their mark."

If his future endeavours contain even a soupçon of the energy, vim and searing verse of his previous work, audiences are in for some delightful times indeed.

Indo Review

Entertainment Newsletter

Going out? Staying in? From great gigs to film reviews and listings, entertainment has you covered.

Editors Choice

Also in Entertainment