Friday 24 May 2019

'There's an awful lot of theatre and very little drama' - Jimmy Murphy talks strategy at The Abbey and putting a rapist centre stage in his new play

Playwright Jimmy Murphy talks to Joanne Hayden about the problems with the strategy at our national theatre, why the Government needs to stop 'virtue signalling' when it comes to the arts and how difficult it was to put a rapist centre stage in his new play

Concerns:Jimmy Murphy claims the Abbey directors have run the institution 'like a British regional theatre'. Photo: Colin O'Riordan
Concerns:Jimmy Murphy claims the Abbey directors have run the institution 'like a British regional theatre'. Photo: Colin O'Riordan

Joanne Hayden

The writing life is generally a quiet one but not so these days for Jimmy Murphy. His new play, The Seamster's Daughter - which deals with rape and abortion - premieres in Smock Alley, Dublin later this month and there's a certain amount of off-stage drama occupying him, too. Among hundreds of theatre professionals to sign a letter of concern to the Abbey Theatre in January, Murphy has been one of the most vocal critics of the national theatre's current model of production.

We meet in Grogan's pub, a Dublin city centre watering hole favoured by writers and artists and busy today with tourists and afternoon drinkers. Over a pot of tea, Murphy, forthright and animated, talks about the widespread impoverishment and ongoing lack of funding in his industry.

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Soon, he will start rehearsals for The Seamster's Daughter, which he's also directing for Glass Mask Theatre company. He's associate playwright with the company and his latest play, part of a season of his work by Glass Mask, was inspired by the abortion debates in the run-up to last year's referendum.

"I suppose all my work is looking for the cracks and the grey areas and the contradictions in society," he says. "I listen out for the march of the drum that everyone's marching to, but I try and stay out of step with that."

Murphy's earliest success came when Brothers of the Brush, produced by the Abbey for the 1993 Dublin Theatre Festival, won an award for best new play. His other well-known work, The Kings of Kilburn High Road, was inspired by men he met in London in the 1980s - "men in pubs talking about the building sites they worked on, men on building sites talking about the pubs they drank in" - and adapted by Tom Collins into the 2007 film Kings.

Spotlighting three generations of Irish women, The Seamster's Daughter begins just before 20-year-old Megan discovers that she was conceived as the result of rape. About to leave Dublin for New York, she sets out to trace her biological father - the seamster of the title - uncovering other secrets along the way.

Megan lives with her mother, Alison, and her grandmother, Hanna. Years before, when Hanna realised that Alison was planning to have an abortion, she effectively kidnapped her, forcing her to carry the pregnancy to term.

Through the characters of Alison and Megan, Murphy asks questions about what it means to survive and to be born from rape. He finished the play after last year's abortion referendum but even though it's not didactic, it couldn't, he says, have been staged beforehand.

"I think the dust has settled now. We're okay, we can discuss it now."

In the play, Hanna's thinking - once ultra Catholic - has changed somewhat, but more contentious than any character's attitude to abortion is the seamster, a man who served time in prison for raping Alison and believes that, in doing so, he has paid his dues.

"That was very difficult," Murphy says, "to put a rapist on stage."

The seamster is normal enough, but also creepy enough for an audience to imagine he's capable of reoffending; at one point he locks the door of his workroom so that Megan can't leave.

When Murphy is teaching, he always tells his students to "give the devil the best lines". But here, he worried that he was "giving a rapist an argument for why he should be forgiven - even though he doesn't ask for forgiveness".

He hopes the play will be divisive.

"I'm excited because there's a wider conversation about theatre in Ireland at the moment," he says. "There's an awful lot of theatre and there's very little drama - so much one-man, one-woman stuff going on, which is understandable - but it's everywhere, and I think audiences need to be reminded that plays should piss them off sometimes, should make them angry, should make them confused, should make them cry, and I've had those moments with other plays and this play will do that no matter where you stand."

The wider conversation about theatre in Ireland at the moment includes the letter that Murphy and hundreds of his colleagues sent to Minister for Culture Josepha Madigan in January, expressing concern about the way the Abbey Theatre has been run since Neil Murray and Graham McLaren took over as its directors in 2016.

Among the points it raised were the abolition of the casting department and the increase in Abbey co-productions - resulting, the signatories said, in reduced wages and employment opportunities. Murphy, who was once a member of the Abbey's honorary advisory council, says that Murray and McLaren have run the Abbey "like a British regional theatre".

"They brought in plays... They stopped doing their own plays for the theatre festival. That's not acceptable."

The directors took up their positions following Waking the Feminists - the protest movement sparked by the virtual absence of women playwrights included in the Abbey's 1916 centenary programme.

"There was a sense that they [Murray and McLaren] were going to join in this revolution," Murphy says, "and instead they gave us the reason to start a new one."

On March 22, Murphy was part of a bilateral delegation of playwrights' representatives who met the directors as part of a series of discussions organised in response to the letter.

"The meeting was frank, passionate," he says. "I think we disagree fundamentally on the role of the playwright in Irish theatre... What's missing from their vision is the role of the playwright."

Instead of a Literary department, the Abbey now has a New Work department - a mistake in Murphy's opinion. A dramaturg has recently been appointed and he thinks the role should be "literary manager" - since "no one knows what a dramaturg is". One of the main sources of his frustration is that the Abbey seems to be commissioning comparatively little new work, but he's confident that he and his fellow signatories will effect change.

"Time is with us, the theatre community's with us, government ministers are supporting us, the Arts Council is supporting us."

After the meeting, and in a personal capacity, Murphy also made a public statement calling for the Minister for Culture and the Arts Council to appoint an independent investigator to look into allegations about difficult working conditions in the theatre.

The wider conversation about theatre in Ireland at the moment also includes the dearth of medium-sized venues in Dublin, and the continuing fallout from Arts Council funding cuts in 2007 that resulted in the disappearance of several theatre companies. Murphy is a member of Aosdána and can avail of the organisation's annuity, but many of his colleagues can't make a living wage.

"There was a time you could get a mortgage as a playwright, as an actor. That day is long gone," he says.

"I've been in rehearsals where women couldn't buy coffee, couldn't put money in the parking meter. It became normal to ask actors to work for free and a lot of them will because they're sitting at home."

Ireland is only too quick to "cast its dead poets and playwrights around the globe", he says. Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Minister Madigan need to stop "virtue signalling" and double the funding "cake".

"I'd like to see our f***ing Taoiseach at a play once in a while. I've never seen him at the theatre."

Last July, Glass Mask premiered Murphy's gangland tragedy, Idlewild, and later this year, the company will revive The Hen Night Epiphany, his all-female play first performed in 2011. For the moment, he has a certain amount of security but, unafraid to rock the boat, he sees part of his current role as fighting the corner for playwrights.

"The big fear for me is that all audiences are going to get are 60-minute plays starring an actor who has written about their weekend, or their struggles. Audiences will get used to that, they'll go and see a three-hour play by Eugene O'Neill and go, what the f**k is this?"

Everything starts with the playwright, he says, otherwise there's no work for directors, actors, set designers, lighting designers. "Somebody has to get up at seven o'clock to drive the eight o'clock bus."

'The Seamster's Daughter' is at Smock Alley Theatre, Dublin from April 15 to May 4

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