Bush Moukarzel is reading a book about Chekhov in a café in Rathmines. I arrive soaked after cycling through the rain to our interview. I have a cough. He has some kind of flu that’s persisted since he returned from New York the previous week. He’s on antibiotics. We’re a chipper pair, our conversation punctuated with bouts of hacking and spluttering.
We talk about our respective illnesses, fear of flying and how the recent New York run of Lippy went. The 2013 theatre show, based on the true story of a mysterious suicide pact between a woman and her three nieces in County Kildare 14 years ago, returns to Dublin this month for a run on the Peacock stage at the Abbey. Written by Bush, with a contribution from Mark O’Halloran, Lippy won Best Production at the 2013 Irish Times Theatre Awards. The piece has since toured internationally, winning further awards and increasingly breathless acclaim from critics. The Guardian’s Lyn Gardner described it as ‘[pushing] at the limits of theatre’. The Irish Times’ take was more definitive: ‘like nothing else you’ll see’.
I tell Bush I’m going to write about him, his work and what he has to say about theatre for Totally Dublin. I ask if he’s enthused:
‘Well, that’s great, if it helps sell tickets. I mean, I haven’t seen the sales figures for January yet. If they’re good, then we don’t need to do this.’ [sardonic look]
Not an auspicious beginning. I begin, anyway.
Tell me about your early work in theatre. What did you write about first?
When I was studying philosophy for my undergrad in Nottingham, I wrote a couple of pretty sketchy, pretty bad plays that I took to Edinburgh. One of them was a kind of Barton Fink-esque murder story about bananas. It ends with a guy being stabbed to death while wearing a banana suit. That was the image that started the whole thing – I thought, wouldn’t it be funny if a guy bled to death in a banana costume, really graphically and painfully. So I made a whole play based on that image. The play wasn’t good, but it was an attempt to catch up with that image. Similarly, Lippy had one image that started it off. It always starts with an image that you then you try to catch up with.
And what do you write now?
What I’ve written has been a series of projects. There isn’t an overarching theme. I tend to have a lot of bits of writing hanging around that I don’t know what to do with. Things that look half like theatre, half like prose, half like poetry, half like shopping lists. So the project is like an anchor, and you see what’s at the heart of that, what works, and some of the concerns or scenarios you’ve been writing about go into that project, some into another, and you start to subdivide and categorise…
You have a part-time day job. But on the days you’re not doing that, how do you begin your day?
I have no discipline to it, because I have no idea how this is going to carry on. I feel very unsure about it. As a theatre practitioner, I’m both in shows and running the company, doing the admin, but I’ve no office and the company’s split between three people over two countries. It’s so fragmented that there’s no coherent way to organise it. If you’re a writer of fiction, you could say 9am to noon will be writing, noon ’til 2pm will be lunch, newspapers and reading, and 4 ’til 9 in the evening writing, and then pub. But when you’re managing a business, the writing actually becomes the afterthought. You find snatches of time and it becomes very fragmented. I remember saying to Willie White [Director of Dublin Theatre Festival] that the only reason I write post-dramatic plays is because I write them during my day job, or at home in bed or on my iPhone. It’s got nothing to do with a philosophy, it’s just conditions. If I had a typewriter and an office, I’d write a Maeve Binchy novel *[sardonic look]*. I’ve got no problem with that. So there’s no postmodern agenda, it’s just I never work in the same place, I never enter a deep meditative state of thought. That’s how I live my life, that’s how I imagine most people live their lives, so in that way that broken kind of dreamscape becomes a true reflection of a life. So hopefully that has some quality, but it’s certainly not some hardcore manifesto.
You watch a lot of films and have worked with Mark O’Halloran, who has written for the screen (Garage and Adam & Paul). How does this affect your work for the stage?
I watch more films than I do plays. I think that’s probably true of most theatre practitioners and I really think about that and wonder about it. I’m OK with it. I think it’s interesting that you can’t really be influenced by theatre in the same way as by films. You can be influenced by what’s on around you, which is probably not going to encompass a huge breadth of styles and sensibilities. That’s not to say it’s not good quality, but it’s about 1% of what theatre has meant because it’s a local phenomenon. We’ll never really know what Brecht was like, or Chekhov was like. We’ll never know what it was like to watch the shows in the Moscow Art Theatre. Whereas, with cinema, you can take the whole history of the form into account. I think it’s probably easier to carve out a place within theatre because there’s less weight on your shoulders. You can more naïvely think, ‘I’ve never seen this!’ – and you haven’t – even though it was clearly done already 20 years ago in Italy, or whatever. I think you need a kind of ignorance to assume that what you’re doing is original, or to even assume that there’s a degree of originality in it, and then forge ahead. Whereas in film, I don’t know how you would make a movie, because you’d have to watch a lot of films, most of the films ever made. If you care about any medium, you want to enter into it. They’re a historical phenomenon, the arts. And then, what do you do? You’ve got them all, got every style, and they’re all so good. So you go on, but it must be harder with that anxiety of influence. So, in theatre, it’s easier to see the influences as cinematic.
It’s interesting that you use expressions like ‘anxiety of influence’ and ‘weight on your shoulders’. Do you think it’s absolutely necessary to be connected to your predecessors, aware of them, to make something good? Can somebody, without having studied the history of art or theatre or cinema, whatever the medium, go in and create something worthwhile?
Well, you could definitely create something worthwhile any which way, because the proof is in the event. But, I would imagine that to make something an original work of art, you have to have an instinct for it. You don’t have to have completed an institutionalised, rigorous study of it, but you need that instinct. Take someone like Bukowski as an example, who’s seemingly writing from the hip and fuelling himself on whiskey and then jumping on the typewriter. Firstly, these artists are always secretly very widely read, but there’s still an instinct for the history of art, even if it’s not an intellectual, analytical relationship. You’ve got an instinct for where it’s gone, where it’s been and what’s needed now. So even if that means you haven’t got a comprehensive timeline, even if you’ve only got the last 40 years in focus, I think you’ve got to know what you’re coming out of, what you’re in conversation with. That would be my instinct. But, nothing is final. What would be a major work of art that wouldn’t be in conversation with what’s come before?
Well, you could say it’s always in conversation with what has come before regardless, because what has come before has influenced the context the maker finds themselves in. Even if they’re not explicitly aware of that influence. In that sense, everything is in conversation with what’s come before.
Yeah, and that’s what I mean by having an instinct for it. You don’t have to know it in the sense of knowing the terms for the different movements, or using the language of academics. But, for example, knowing who Jackson Pollock was, and knowing why it would be beneficial to the spirit of the age to have art smashed open. I can’t think of any work that doesn’t seem to be in a conversation, but that doesn’t mean it’s a strict thing. Because the alternative to that, which is something that has no regard for history, is pop culture. And mass culture. That feeds on nostalgia and feeds from amnesia, so you have very circular things happening within that. Pop, in the sense of mass culture, is cashing in on amnesia, on the fact that you didn’t remember that the same movie was made seven years ago. Literally, the same movie with more or less the same plot line, and probably the same title and they just sort of make it again for a whole new generation of consumers. Entertainment works without memory in that way.
And if you had to say what, specifically, is the problem with that?
Well, it’s a type of cover up. What you’re doing is patronising people’s intelligence and patronising people’s abilities to make connections between history and art and across time. You’re obliterating that. It’s like a cover up for war crimes and things like that, erasing a part of collective memory. Pushing people into an ideology of amnesia, which can mostly be fairly benign. It just means, you don’t go to that film again. But that same structure and that logic can be used quite malevolently, in the context of international policy, with people making the same decisions that previously led us into bad situations. Culture that doesn’t make connections has a dark edge to it.
Your work with your company Dead Centre has so far included Souvenir [based on Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time], Squark! [about a pet parakeet kept by James Joyce], Lippy, and now you’re working on Chekhov’s First Play [based, loosely, on the first stage work by Anton Chekhov]. So bar Lippy, the other three are quite explicitly in dialogue with their predecessors. Perhaps you have a heightened awareness of the need to make work connect with its context…
It’s frustrating in a way. I like original stories and I like original works. All those projects were original theatre works, in terms of ambition. They weren’t footnotes on existing works. So the source material, for me it’s just a jumping off point, or even a joke. Chekhov’s First Play really has very little to do with Chekhov, but it’s a signifier for a moment in art history, a moment in theatre when there was a shift in aesthetics. It’s picking up on the spirit of the thing rather than attempting to do a version of his work. I’m struggling quite a lot, especially after Lippy, with the idea of knowing what fiction would be for. So you have a story and something terrible happens in it and somebody suffers and they try to investigate that suffering and make it right and so on, and when all of that’s totally fictional, I find it impossible to imagine how it would sustain itself. Lippy is an interplay, it has a reference point that is a real event, so it becomes about putting on trial the use of fictional devices to allow us to meditate on reality. Do they open anything up? Do they help us? So I’m at a bit of a loss about what would need to happen to write something from nothing. I don’t really know what that would entail. I understand all this stuff that’s embedded in history and embedded in the anxiety of influence and all that. I understand that like I understand what it is to be a child and in dialogue with your parents. But I don’t know what it would be like to write an original story. I’m going to try.
You said earlier that the idea of a cohesive public is a myth. What do you mean by that?
Yeah, I think it is. I think that the better the art, the more varied the response. A standing ovation from the whole audience is the worst result you could get – you’ve failed. But, two walk-outs, half the audience ecstatically happy, the other half happy enough and some of them doubting, that’s all good. That means people have used their intelligence. We’re all so different and our days have been so different that we can’t all be in the mood to consume the same thing unless we’ve really been manipulated. Society is cohesive in certain senses, but when speaking the world back to ourselves we’re always trapped in certain contexts. How you break out of those is difficult and that’s the aim.
How do you see this thing playing out in the future?
The only thing you hope for is that you have ideas. Because that’s what keeps you feeling alive and not depressed. The only fear would be that you just have no ideas. It was great getting [the script of] Lippy published. It’s related to what I was saying about theatre not influencing anyone because it doesn’t travel, and then suddenly having this document that can travel. There’s a degree of satisfaction in that. It’s such a strange art form, because it’s just gone when you‘ve finished. You almost feel like it didn’t happen.
Words: Rachel Donnelly / Photos: Liv O’Donoghue & Luca Truffarelli