Known for fantastical, physical, gag-heavy theatre pieces (and for featuring Jack Gleeson of Game of Thrones fame in their ensemble), Dublin-based company Collapsing Horse this month premiere their new work The Water Orchard at Project Arts Centre. The title immediately recalls Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard (1904), one of the Russian playwright’s most acclaimed works, which plots the demise of the aristocracy and the rise of the bourgeoisie in turn-of-the century Russia. In Chekhov’s play, this critical socio-cultural event is filtered through generational disputes over inheritance in an aristocratic family, specifically the fate of the family’s estate and the orchard of cherry trees it contains.
Written by Collapsing Horse ensemble member Eoghan Quinn and co-directed by company director Dan Colley, The Water Orchard has similar elements: an aging matriarch who presides over an estate that produces water of fine vintage and who refuses to allow her children to tear up the orchard to build a ‘brunch garden’ as a means of procuring investment. The friction of competing generational concerns is there, the orchard is there – so far, so Chekhov.
“I did have the thought, reviewers are going to come in and say ‘It’s like a watered-down version of The Cherry Orchard’,” Eoghan quips. The similarities stop there though – while The Cherry Orchard is a conscious commentary on Russian society at a specific moment in history, The Water Orchard is defiantly place- and time-less. The decision to concoct something so ludicrous as an orchard that produces rarefied vintages of water was a deliberate ploy to unfasten the world of the play from the real world.
Eoghan: “I sometimes find, especially with comedy, that you can open people up to the ideas you’re talking about if you can convince them not to be projecting the thing they’re already constantly thinking of onto it.”
The play is a comedy – a serious one. Collapsing Horse has always dealt with the comedic in their work, but this new production hopes to push the boundaries of what counts as comedy and what comedy’s function is.
Dan: “One of the things that’s interesting in this production is the focus on comedy for comedy’s sake… in a way it’s an effort to put all of the production values, all of the design considerations, all of the ensemble building, all of the writing effort into comedy in a way you would more often see put into drama or post-drama in Ireland – because we believe that laughing together is no small matter.”
The answer to the question of whether the play makes any sort of political commentary remains murky throughout our conversation. The Water Orchard is without a specific temporal or political context, yet the apparatus of a social democracy is apparent.
Eoghan: “In the background of this play there’s a government that all the conservative characters agree is great, unlike the other [more liberal] characters who have been in childcare by the state or are relying on healthcare for their families that is provided by the state… at the core of the play is an impression of conservatism as a stultifying mindset.”
Sounds pretty political to me. But Eoghan insists that these political signposts are merely one texture in a piece that’s much broader (and funnier) in focus. The political mindset of the company can perhaps more clearly be seen in their approach to making work than it is in the work itself. In a company where the creation of shows tends towards the devised (though Dan says he’s increasingly happy to leave defining terms like that behind), there is a strong awareness of issues around authorship and who gets to ‘own’ the end creation.
Dan: “Eoghan tends to write the scripts before we go into rehearsal whereas I tend not to, and those might seem like quite different approaches on the face of it, but I realise they’re not… Plan A is what we come up with in the room and Plan B is the script. Plan A is that the actors will come up with much funnier stuff in the room, much more beautiful stuff in the room.”
For the company, the creation of a piece of work is an open-ended period of experimentation, non-thematic and non-political, which might start with putting pen to paper for the writer and continues in the rehearsal room.
Dan: “Eoghan writes really instinctively and you don’t think it’s gonna be a thing until you can read the script and see the rhythm of it and you start to laugh. And then we all look back in retrospect and go ‘oh, you know what this thing is about?’ That’s probably more reflective of the honest case for most writers – that we all write from a place of instinct and the thematic justification and coherence comes after.”
Eoghan: “It’s like that Picasso quote – if you know exactly what you’re going to do, what’s the good in doing it?”
The Water Orchard is at Project Arts Centre from Tuesday July 18 to Saturday July 29 nightly at 7.30pm. Tickets €16-€20.
Words: Rachel Donnelly
Imagery: Courtesy of Collapsing Horse