Lockdown, it was a joke on Twitter, it was like being in an Enda Walsh play. The Irish playwright’s closed worlds could have been made for the pandemic. Your characters don’t need a government edict to stay home; they are too caught up in their own twisted logic to do anything else.
Walsh takes introspection to feverish, fun, and surreal extremes. Their smash hit, Disco Pigs, was about two teenagers speaking only in a private language. The Walworth Farce imagined a family of Irish expats endlessly reenacting a play in their living room. Ballyturk took place in a hermetically sealed house where two men invented city life on the outskirts.
So even though you wrote Medicine Before Covid-19 hit, it should come as no surprise if it resonates with recent experience when it debuts at the Edinburgh International Film Festival next month. “Enda has a copyright on Covid-19 and he’s making a ton of money,” he scoffs after a day of rehearsal, as a stage manager disinfects the chairs behind him.
The joy of talking to Walsh is that he finds his works as strange as we do. He laughs incredulously as he describes the eccentric rituals of his characters. In the case of Medicine, they are two musical theater actors, played by Clare Barrett and Aoife Duffin, who work in a psychiatric institution where they interpret the life story of their patient, John Kane (Domhnall Gleeson). It is a kind of therapy but, since they edit their story to the best bits, their motives are suspect.
Meanwhile, Kane has found himself in the system almost by accident and is now unable to exit. “I always look for characters who feel like they are on the edge of everything, but here I am talking about a person who, through our eyes, has mental health problems,” says Walsh.
The playwright has not suffered a mental illness, but has a close experience. “All the works have focused on what happens when a person has not been loved or cared for properly. This work is about people who are in care, in an institution or are addicts, people who need care, and it examines what happens when we neglect them ”. And he adds: “For me, theater is a way of looking good and saying: ‘Am I still a human being? What kind of human being I am? How do I rate my humanity? ‘This is a play about that. “
If the worlds Walsh creates are attractively strange, his relationship to the mainstream is equally curious. Although his works have enjoyed great popularity on the festival circuit (“They’re busy, they’re loud, entertaining, and silly”), they hardly please the commercial market.
However, Walsh also has his name in the stage musical Eleven, with its eight Tony Awards, and Roald Dahl’s adaptation of The Twits. His version of Max Porter’s Grief Is the Thing With Feathers with Cillian Murphy drew an audience of Peaky Blinders fans and was sold out instantly. If it hadn’t been for the pandemic, a musical, Sing Street, would have already opened on Broadway.
Walsh, who wrote Lazarus for David Bowie and Ivo van Hove, has a pretty star-studded company. That includes Gleeson, a veteran of the Harry Potter and Star Wars movies. Thanks to the proximity of Dublin’s theater scene, the playwright has known it since childhood. “In my opinion, he’s just a guy I’ve known for a long time,” he says. “That’s what happens with all these actors that I know, I forget that they have made movies.”
In 2015, Gleeson appeared with father Brendan and brother Brian in a revival of The Walworth Farce directed by Sean Foley, a production that Walsh describes as “ridiculously funny.” The playwright wrote Medicine with his four actors in mind (Sean Carpio completes the cast) and then went after them. “I just did. I said, ‘I’ve written this part for you. You can’t say no!'”
By right, a resume that includes Hunger for Steve McQueen and a promising project for Netflix should not also extend to a work that bills itself as “deconstruction of the fabric of theatrical performance.” Even Walsh seems to agree.
“When people see my work and like it, they approach me to work with them and start throwing business-like ideas at me,” he says. “They are intrigued by the way I am connected. But certain things, I have to say goodbye. I’m just saying, ‘I can’t deliver that. We can still be friends, but we don’t have to work together. ‘ Things like Medicine is where I feel most at home, but I also love making movies and musicals. “
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism