'Everything I've written has been about some sort of love and need for calm and peace'
Playwright Enda Walsh talks about being taught by Roddy Doyle, baring his soul with his actors, and risking everything by moving to London
Enda Walsh is slim and wiry with pale skin; he has a shy disposition and a kind of mischief in his eyes. This week the first opera, The Last Hotel, by Ireland's leading contemporary playwright, has its Irish premiere in the Dublin Theatre Festival. Enda has written the libretto to Donnacha Dennehy's score and this well-met collaboration - they made Enda's play Misterman together - invites a choice cast, including Ireland's top soprano Claudia Boyle, and clown actor Mikel Murfi.
On a break from rehearsals Enda drinks a strong Americano and hunches forward, talking in long, lucid sentences peppered with the f-word.
His plays can be terrifying, shining a light on the dark habitats of disturbed and isolated individuals. But the man behind them is mild-mannered, polite and funny, brimming with a surprising positive energy.
Love is his theme tune, he mentions it frequently. The author of Ballyturk and The Walworth Farce spends so long constructing deranged and damaged worlds, what makes him go on? "It's only ever love, isn't it?"
His breakthrough play, Disco Pigs, was a shocking tale of lust and madness - but for him "just a love story". He talks about a "love" for his actors, and their "love" for the difficult roles he hands them.
This opera, he says, is about four characters who long to be loved. "Everything I've written has been about some sort of love and some need for calm and peace, some truth."
He "loves" directing it, even "loves" the "debris everywhere" as they rehearse. He goes so far as to say that, day-to-day, "I love writing. I can't wait to sit down."
He was born in 1967 and grew up in north Dublin. His English teacher, at Greendale Community School, was Roddy Doyle, who he talks about with affection.
"Roddy Doyle got all of us into literature when we were 14 or 15," he remembers. "It was quite a thing; you'd be in the yard smoking, all these normal lads from Kilbarrack, but suddenly discussing Charles Bukowski and beat poetry."
But playwriting came long before English class did. It began within a psychic space that Enda remembers keenly and speaks about with intensity. "As a really small boy, I was aware of atmospheres, which kids are, and as we get older we're 'busy' with other stuff.
"But as a kid, sitting down and being quiet, feeling the atmosphere of a room, going, 'why is the room charged in that way?' Now that is playwriting.
"All we're doing as playwrights is trying to charge, emotionally and atmospherically, a space. Trying to f***ing throw it all up into the air. Atmospheres of real frustration and pressure."
He continues, with a mounting upset in his voice, "When I think of my old man coming home from work - he had a furniture shop - and he sits down with us at 6.15 and we're all eating our dinner. That was a man who was under an extreme amount of pressure to keep six kids going. That. That's the thing I connect with more and more. When you walk into a place and you go, what's happened here, what's in the air?"
It took Enda a few years b
efore he found what he wanted to do. He studied film before moving to Cork, where he devised plays with a small theatre group, Corcadorca, some of which were "terrible".
It was in Cork he met Cillian Murphy over a script for Disco Pigs. Enda was known to only a clique of subversive artists. In 1996 Disco Pigs premiered in the Triskel Arts Centre and toured three continents for 18 months. Then came the film he adapted, which launched the careers of Cillian Murphy and Elaine Cassidy.
You might call Enda Walsh the writer to the stars. To drop just a few names: Cillian Murphy and Stephen Rea (Ballyturk) Michael Fassbender (the film Hunger which Enda wrote) Brendan, Domhnall and Brian Gleeson (The Walworth Farce) - and another name we'll come to.
But when you see his plays, you find that what Enda does with stars is brings them down to earth with a crash landing. He writes characters that release a person's humanity, whether Cillian Murphy ripping at his t-shirt in Ballyturk, or Domhnall Gleeson abused by a father in The Walworth Farce.
"I want the characters to feel, and the actors to feel, really under pressure. I think an audience respond to that. They first see an actor physically throwing themselves around the stage and they think 'that looks f***ing dangerous, they're going to fall and break their neck'. But it's just showing the vulnerability of people."
He has made lifelong friends with his actors. When we meet, Cillian and he just had a couple of beers at home in north London. "We're such lightweights," he says under his breath. Then he looks very serious.
"We were very fortunate to find one another. I can imagine working with Cillian again and again as we get older. I know him not only as a friend."
He pauses, as if letting us in on a secret.
"You have conversations in a rehearsal room. Men don't talk about, generally, the stuff that you would talk about in rehearsal rooms." Oh? "You end up having a deeper, deeper friendship. You really get to know their souls, and that's fantastic."
Sitting in this north Dublin café Enda blends right in, dressed in jeans and an unremarkable shirt. He has no trace of a London accent. It was a difficult decision to leave 10 years ago, he admits.
"I could have had a really settled, easier life, just before The Walworth Farce. I thought, 'f**k it, I'm going to go away. I'm going to risk really failing in London, and being poor'."
While Disco Pigs was touring, Enda met a willowy London history graduate called Jo Ellison, who moved to Cork for him and wrote for the Irish Examiner. But Jo, and bigger opportunities, took him to London. They got married and settled there, and Jo has been made fashion editor of the Financial Times. They live with their small daughter Ada in a clambering four-storey house in Kilburn. Enda sits at the top and writes, and takes a break to walk his dog to the local graveyard - which, of course, "I love".
"I think it's important for a writer to feel a little bit alien and be in the shadows and be able to disappear into the community and be invisible and feel small. I feel at home in Dublin, but I couldn't live here, it would be really bad for my work."
He made the right move by the rest of the world. In some 20 years, there have been over 20 plays, with translations into more than 20 languages. Just this year, 50,000 people saw Once: The Musical in the Olympia in Dublin, Enda's adaptation that has been on the road for three years and earned him a Tony. Unfettered by commercial success, he continues to push his theatre in different forms: this year saw his first libretto, an adaptation of Roald Dahl's The Twits, and another interesting collaboration on the boil.
A year ago a producer wrote and asked if he'd like to work with David Bowie. "He's read all your plays, he's a fan," Enda was told. "I was like, 'okay…'" Our man looks perfectly calm about Bowie having knocked on his door. "I popped into New York and met him, and over three days together we talked about a piece. He interviewed me so sweetly about my work."
Come again - David Bowie interviewed him? Indeed, he nods. Our teen idol spoke to him about the motifs and structures of his plays, "he was completely on top of all of that." They start rehearsals of Lazarus this month - a story about a man who falls to earth.
Enda is wary, perhaps, of being seen to be too prolific, and assures us: "It's not that I'm producing all this work like a f**king little factory. I'm always looking for collaborators, whether actors, designers and musicians, people that I know will push me and challenge me and inspire me, and we learn together."
He often asks himself why he chose to write plays, and always comes up with the same answer. "You get silences. And you try to describe what the silences are like, and what it is for you to wake up in the morning and look up in the mirror, then have to put yourself out and do work, and like all of us, to f---ing scratch a living and to exist.
"They're such extraordinary gifts we've been given. We're lucky as individuals that we get to do that. And yet, there's something incredibly vulnerable and sad and tiny about life."
He continues, "You write plays to understand characters but also, to understand you, you're trying to speak to yourself. I know that in a way it's better that they're out than inside; I think I might be in the ground if they were inside."
He looks appalled at such a cheap notion as writing to make himself feel better. His plays, he emphasises, are "not therapeutic. They can be melancholic, but they're also completely outrageous and of themselves."
So Enda Walsh loves things that are big and abstract and difficult. It is no surprise, then, that he cares little for ordinary nice things. How does he spend the moments when he's not writing, rehearsing and pursuing his plays around the world?
"What do I love doing? Of course, I love spending time with my wife and my kid. And my dog, and my friends. I'm not a hobby person, I don't have a hobby, I don't do any of that."
'Hobby' is said with distain, as if, 'What kind of loser is into gardening?' Not Enda Walsh. "It's either I'm working, or I'm spending time with my friends and family. I mean, they're the important things."
'The Last Hotel' by Enda Walsh and Donnacha Dennehy, runs until October 3 at the O'Reilly Theatre, Dublin