Two years shy of his fortieth birthday and Conor McPherson is certainly living up to his reputation for helping relight the torch sparked by Synge, Shaw and O’Casey. With his plays preformed globally, he’s also dripped his ink across the the nation’s silver-screens with a trio of movies (I Went Down, The Actors, The Eclipse) that may not have hit the mark, precisely, but at least don’t stench out the provincial box office like Wide Open Spaces.
Having caught the writing bug in UCD’s Drama Soc he spread the virus through his love of monologued drama, casting the most noticeable stylistic shadow over Celtic Tiger-era theater. He may have fallen into it as a way to meet the meager means of the small theatre company he set up after college, Fly By Night, but soon every new Bic that hoped to leap from page to stage was scrawling out their own soliloquies on the contents of the kitty’s litter.
“It seemed to happen that within a couple of years of me doing it, a lot of monologue theatre started to appear. And part of the reason I didn’t want to go back there [he hasn’t written a monologue piece since 2001] was because it had become bit much. I was glad to move on. It was a phase I went through more than anything I was consciously trying to achieve.”
But the dye was set and McPherson’s brand of theatre was as distinct to the Irish stage of the time as the tacky café lattés, brown envelopes and grind school educations that popped up elsewhere. What does McPherson think of its legacy?
“I think that what we realize now is that all the shit that was going on in the State at the time was an illusion. And these smaller plays were small because they needed to protect what was real. Because what was going on around us was not real. Somehow the darkness could only be addressed in a very private, personal way.”
This darkness appears to be the calling card of the Irish writer. “There is a lot of darkness in our society. An awful lot of addiction and violence. Throw in the heady mix of Catholicism and I don’t know what else we could have written about. ”
But what is it that international audiences have latched onto in McPherson’s work, given that his plays are usually set in a very localized environment and the people in them are as bound to one place as possible?
“Perhaps its because there is a big supernatural element to a lot of my work. Those fears and questions we have about the afterlife – God, salvation – are things that preoccupy people in other cultures. It transcends borders.”
There have been a few good days at the office of late, with his production of The Birds winning near universal acclaim and The Sea Farer about to return to the Abbey. I wonder if the chance to write a play primarily populated with female characters was part of the appeal for the author whose other plays are male-centric.
“I’m always looking to go into the new and for me, not having written that many women’s roles, I found The Birds challenging and rewarding. It was unchartered territory for me, so I’m very pleased that it has turned out well.”
It’s back to the men for now though with The Seafarer, very much a male-dominated drama, bringing us an alternative to the groundhog plays on offer elsewhere this, and every, yuletide. Does McPherson believe, as The New York Times does, that it is a Christmas play?
“It’s set on Christmas Eve and it’s a drama. It’s funny and it’s dark and I think it’s also very redemptive. It’s about the part of us that yearns to be delivered into the light again. It accepts the Christian story and works within that so in that sense it’s very much a Christian play. But it is also a pagan play, a universal spirituality rather than a play about Jesus Christ.”
The Seafarer runs from the 4th of December until the 30th of January at the Abbey. See www.abbeytheatre.ie for tickets and times.
Words: Caomhan Keane