Take a play with no beginning and no end, featuring three narrators, a leprechaun, a mythical king and some cowboys from Ringsend, and you are left with one of Ireland’s best-loved literary masterpieces. By turns anarchic satire and experiment in literary form, Flann O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds has long been called impossible to stage. That is, until one acclaimed Irish theatre company got their hands on it. Here we talk with Niall Henry, director of Blue Raincoat’s upcoming production, about the perils of staging the unstageable.
So, lots of excitement for this, especially since you got there before the film! Is this the first ever adaptation of At Swim-Two-Birds?
Not exactly; we first toured it a couple years ago, opened in Sligo in 2009, toured it in the summer last year. We went to Edinburgh and Glasgow with The Third Policeman, and we’re taking it to New York next year.
How did the production come about?
A friend of mine had done a dissertation on him, and we just got talking a lot about his work. This was around the time we were working on the Ionesco plays. Now we’ve done three Ionescos and are developing our third Flann play- it’s funny how, over twenty years in theatre, maybe more, you just seem to find yourself drifting towards things you have an affinity with. With our company, there seems to be a pattern emerging of things surreal and dark. Maybe it’s to do with personalities down in the west of Ireland.
With The Third Policeman the plot is much more linear, but did you find yourself approaching At Swim, with all its found objects and meta-textual jokes, with a little trepidation?
Well, theatre is always going to be about doing theatrical things, it’ll never succeed at those very literary elements. What we took from The Third Policeman was kind of ‘Third Man’, Orson Welles-ish. It became really quite simple in the end, with At Swim; the idea was to transpose the conceit of a writer writing a book about a guy writing a book, who in turn writes about another guy… this became our vehicle for all the colours and textures of Flann’s view. This chain of writers became a theatrical gag.
Was it fun bringing to life all the more theatrical aspects of the book, like the Ringsend Cowboys and the Leprechaun and the Pooka?
The Pooka is there! The story is all there, because the story is the trick as well, the intertwining of all those ideas. I mean, my daughter is just turning three right now, and it’s that age at which, telling her stories, the more surreal they become, the more she’s fascinated. And the more linear and fucking boring the story is, the more she gets bored! Flann O’Brien starts off with a couple of threads, then starts playing around with them and goes completely mad. And somehow it all ends up tied up into a whole. It takes on this extremely exciting and imaginative quality, which is theatrical in itself.
There’s so much pretension and speculation over Flann, so many misguided attempts to interpret him when at the end of the day it was always about fun.
I know and it’s not really my field; I mean, it gets to the point where you ask, do I go beyond my limitations to please academics, or do I go with instincts instead? One of the things about theatre is that you get your five or four weeks of rehearsal, and then you have the show. It’s not like you give it in to publishers when it feels finished. There are certain things which must be respected, and one of those is that we must be clear.
Did you feel the urge to update the social satire, to make it a Celtic Tiger parable or the like?
You’re going to hate me, but I’d find that a really Dublin-centric thing to do. People do that kind of thing and it just bores me to tears. I mean, good art is good art, there’s no need to update it. What Flann O’Brien wrote about is mind of an Irish person, I think his whole body of work is about that, and more importantly about how the Irish person perceives himself. He’s among the best satirists of the twentieth century. It’s all about making fun of over-interpretation, and that’s the joy in his work.
Blue Raincoat’s production of At Swim-Two-Birds hits the Project Arts Centre between 22 Feb – 5 Mar. Tickets priced €18/20.
Words Roisin Kiberd