Monday 20 May 2019

The enduring romance of Enda Walsh

Enda Walsh has created memorably grotesque characters, and collaborated with Michael Fassbender and Bowie. What next? Our reporter finds out.

Enda Walsh with his wife, 'Financial Times' Fashion Editor Jo Ellison. Walsh is a man who is not afraid to ruffle feathers. Photo: Andrew Downes, xposure
Enda Walsh with his wife, 'Financial Times' Fashion Editor Jo Ellison. Walsh is a man who is not afraid to ruffle feathers. Photo: Andrew Downes, xposure

Anne Marie Scanlon

Enda Walsh cheerfully declares: "It's the best thing that ever happened to us," - the "us" being himself, his wife - the very fabulous Jo Ellison, Fashion Editor at The Financial Times - and their 10-year-old daughter Ava. It could mean many things.

Since Walsh burst into the public consciousness with his game-changing play Disco Pigs in 1996, he's been given so many accolades and awards that I could fill the rest of these pages listing them. Walsh's repertoire has expanded in the past couple of years: he co-wrote the successful film Hunger (which catapulted Michael Fassbender, below, to stardom); he has penned an opera - The Last Hotel, with Donnacha Dennehy; adapted the film Once for the stage, which moved from Broadway to London's West End, picking up awards as it went (eight Tonys, two Oliviers and one Grammy, among others); and collaborated with David Bowie on Lazarus, which opened on Broadway last December, not long before the singer died.

Walsh tells me he had been working with the legend for about two months before he found out how ill he was. However, the playwright didn't find it hard to keep the news a secret, because Bowie was so engaged with the work of the play, while also making his last album Blackstar, that it was easy to forget he wasn't well.

"He was massively sweet," Walsh tells me. "He was such a messer, such a laugh, and really free. He was a genuine artist and he couldn't give a flying f**k what anyone thought of him - it was just about following the work. He really was quite amazing."

The strange thing is that Walsh could be describing himself. To say that his work has polarised opinion during his two-decade career would be something of an understatement. Given the grotesque nature of some of his characters and the darkness that makes most of his work challenging, I was expecting a 'tortured artist' - someone troubled and, perhaps, troubling. Instead, Walsh is warm and chatty, equally at home discussing the school run ("I know who to avoid," he laughs), his thoughts on modern theatre and the duality of the Irish character. I ask him if he gets upset by the sometimes extreme bile that gets directed at him.

"I've had people come out in print saying 'will someone stop f**king producing Enda Walsh, the world doesn't need his plays'. That's upsetting, someone telling you you're f**king shit. It's really, really awful, but it's only awful for about an hour - and then you go, 'well, they're f**king wrong, they're idiots'. You have to do that. I don't care," he says laughing. "I really don't care!"

On paper this sounds terribly arrogant, but Walsh is one of the least arrogant people I've met. He's passionate about his work, but he is not a 'luvvie' and he's strangely level-headed for a creative person. The playwright's sense of perspective may well stem from his childhood - he is the second youngest of six children.

"They're all fairly full-on individuals," he says of his siblings, three boys and two girls. "I was the quiet one."

Both of his parents were Dubliners and his mother, Maeve Kennedy, was an actress in the 1950s.

"She gave it up when she started popping kids out," Walsh explains. "It was the perfect upbringing for a playwright in many ways. I was lucky to be surrounded by very idiosyncratic, driven people who all ended up working for themselves."

Walsh's father owned a furniture business, which was afflicted by the fluctuations in the economy.

"We're a big, noisy family," he says in an 'Oirish' accent, "but underneath it was the struggle to keep going - and you're aware of what's happening in the silence and the cracks."

Walsh was born in the late '60s and I argue that this was the culture of most Irish families in the '80s and '90s - operating in the post-Colonial atmosphere of 'whatever you say, say nothing'. Walsh agrees that, while the Irish have a reputation internationally as being friendly and outgoing, "we're as reserved with the truth as the British are supposed to be.

"When I bring work to America, people are obsessed with why the f**k Irish people are good writers," he adds. "The amount of times I've had discussions about our identity and who we are as people - being brought up with a second language, having huge secrets in our past that we allow to exist as we get on with life - all that darkness that exists under there, and it f**king explodes."

We're sitting in a corner of the opulent Langham Hotel just opposite the BBC HQ in London, where Walsh has lived for just over a decade. The writer felt he was getting "too comfortable" in Ireland and he believes that's a dangerous place for a writer to be. We're huddled in a corner beside a massive window, and every so often well-coiffed heads turn to stare at us - not because of something Walsh has said, as he speaks softly and doesn't have a discernable Dublin accent ("12 years in Cork softened me", he says) - but because he has said something that makes me howl laughing.

It's his time in Cork we're here to talk about and, more specifically, his highly successful collaboration with Corcadorca Theatre Company, which is now celebrating it's 25th anniversary. Walsh always wanted to write, and I ask him if he's ever considered novels.

"I've been approached to do that," he says, "but I would really miss seeing the audience reaction."

We have a little giggle about him turning up in people's living rooms and watching them intently as they turn the pages. In secondary school Walsh's teachers included writer Roddy Doyle and playwright Paul Mercier, and he explains: "They both introduced us to literature that wasn't on the curriculum. I can remember chatting about Bukowski with the lads in the yard when we were 15, so it was quite peculiar - but they were both so amazing and just great teachers."

As a schoolboy Walsh says he was "quite shy about many things". His mother suggested he get involved with the Dublin Youth Theatre, and it was there he started writing and staging plays. After finishing secondary school, Walsh did a degree in communications at Rathmines College, but "it was a bad fit for me", he confesses.

Working as a film editor, the would-be writer travelled for a year, living in London and France. When he returned to Dublin, he recalls: "I realised there was no 'in' for me. I wrote a tiny play for Dublin Youth Theatre, which I directed, which was really an appalling piece of work - I can't even remember what it was called."

It can't have been as bad as he says, as the Dublin Theatre Festival saw it and commissioned him to write another. "They gave me three grand," he says, his voice rising at the memory, "that was a lot of money at the time."

He goes on to tell me he wrote a play that had about 56 characters in it, and they said "it's completely unproducable". When I observe that not all 20-year-old men starting out in a writing career would be aware of the logistics of mounting a play - more actors meaning more expense - Walsh laughs, saying: "I knew all that, I just decided to write the f**king thing!"

Walsh's plays are distinctly non-traditional and, when he moved to Cork, he found his spiritual home with Corcadorca and artistic director, Pat Kiernan, who founded the theatre company in 1991.

"Pat was the real talent," Walsh says. "I was just hanging out of his ass. He was the real innovator and has really influenced Irish theatre in the style of work he has done. Pat was doing site-specific work before anyone was doing it in Ireland. There's a generation of artists now in Dublin and around the country who would have seen that work. That shit is important, otherwise we're just filling seats for 'a good play'.

"Corcadorca was 'f**k a good play, let's express something and push the form, push theatre'."

Corcadorca are well known for their work, which uses the city itself as a stage, and includes The Trial of Jesus on Patrick's Hill and A Midsummer Night's Dream in Fitzgerald's Park. Corcadorca and Walsh were, he says, looking towards Europe for inspiration, "as opposed to the generations of Irish theatre before us who were producing the standard proscenium arch plays set in a f**king cottage," he says disparagingly.

"And if it wasn't set in a cottage, it was set in a bar. With Corcadorca, we were sour to all that shit. We were not interested in that stuff, we were hugely influenced by the club scene - that was our music."

Transplanting himself to Cork also had an effect on Walsh's expression and language.

"It gave me perspective about myself," he recalls. "Being outside of my own voice, having that distance, I was listening to a language that wasn't my own, it was a dialect that I really loved."

Walsh pretty much loves everything about Cork - the language, the people, the "strong arrogance" and even the shape of the city - "it's shaped like a theatre." His admiration for Kiernan is just as strong, and he says: "Pat is a true Corkman in that he adores that city and he has produced work all over the place, in every area of it, and reached out to people - but it's not community theatre, he's a real innovator."

Much of his own writing is about pushing form and the effect an environment has on characters, many of whom are outsiders. He doesn't appear to be a particularly angst-ridden individual, but is he just hiding it well?

"I think a lot of writers are like that," he says. "If you examine yourself you feel sort of insular, and you live in your own head and you're trying to work things out."

Disco Pigs was the result of four years of experimentation and not only established Walsh as a writer to be reckoned with, but launched the respective careers of Eileen Walsh (Pure Mule, The Magdalene Sisters) and Cillian Murphy. The show toured internationally for two years and roughly coincided with the runaway success of the film Trainspotting. "People would say to us 'Disco Pigs is the new Trainspotting'," Walsh tells me, "and we were like 'no, we're much more romantic than that."

More coiffed heads turn as I roar laughing. "We were though - we were!" Walsh insists. "We weren't interested in bile or sex for the sake of it, it was a real romance… as much as I think about pushing the form and messing about and looking at stories anew, at the very root of it, we were probably still Irish - we were still looking at the dark romance of stuff."

Touring with Disco Pigs had a galvanising effect on the writer and Corcadorca. "We realised that our work was as good as some - most - of the people we were meeting in the Schaubuhne in Berlin, and we were going 'F**k yeah! We can do this! This is good'."

Having been a professional playwright for 24 years, Walsh believes, in many ways, writing gets harder, saying: "I push myself. I'm not interested in a well-made play, it seems f**king lazy to me to lay it out in an A, B, C, D kind of way.

"For me, the form needs to be alive and to be a surprise - otherwise it's a completely dead medium. I think it's a fantastic art form but, by God, there's so much shite. Visual art has travelled so far, and I get jealous of that.

"I get jealous of musicians, too. Sometimes we're still operating with a 'James Last' sort of presentation (in theatre), and it doesn't need to be like that."

To celebrate Corcadorca@25, Walsh is currently working on a play which will be staged by the company this autumn. So what was the best thing that ever happened to this multi-talented man and his family? His Cockapoo, Alvin.

"He's just the business, he's great," he adds. "I drop the kid to school, walk the dog, write, walk the dog again, write, cook the dinner."

Sacrifice at Easter, a new work by Pat McCabe, opens June 21 at Elizabeth Fort, as part of the Cork Midsummer Festival.

Sunday Indo Living

Editors Choice

Also in Life