Although the plays of Enda Walsh, 42, have not yet opened on Broadway, there’s no doubt that he is fast securing his reputation in the U.S. as arguably the most accomplished Irish playwright of his generation.
Walsh’s dark and challenging scripts aren’t calculated to appeal to a very wide demographic, but they’re winning a lot of public and critical attention nonetheless.
In 2008 Walsh’s script for the Bobby Sands biopic “Hunger” was part of the creative partnership with director Steve McQueen that won them the coveted Camera d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. The year before Walsh struck gold with the Cork-based comedy “The Walworth Farce,” which won the Fringe First Award at Edinburgh and then played internationally to packed houses.
Walsh was back in town last week for the American premiere of his latest play “The New Electric Ballroom” (which has also won the Fringe First Award, two years in a row). The play, an edgy new shocker that stars some of Ireland’s most celebrated actors, is a Druid Theatre production that Walsh directed, and since its premiere at the Druid Theatre in Galway the production has only grown in strength and focus.
This week Walsh is back in London moving house, talking to IrishCentral’s sister publication the Irish Voice between the loading vans, last minute shopping and other interview requests. But just like the characters he writes about, Walsh is capable of remarkable concentration in the midst of flux, and it turns out to be the perfect way to talk to him about his challenging, quicksilver scripts.
“I do think it’s a better play ‘The Walworth Farce,’” Walsh said. I don’t know how it works fully; the whole shape of it is sort of unusual structurally. And I don’t know where the play is going a lot of the time. It still sort of surprises me, but I’m glad it’s turned out the way it’s turned out.”
Walsh first came to prominence as a writer in 1998 when his play “Disco Pigs” became a huge hit in Ireland (it was later made into a film starring Cillian Murphy). Currently he’s under commission for two films, an adaptation of his play “Chatroom” and a biopic about legendary English soul singer Dusty Springfield.
“I always feel when I’m writing as if I have all those great Irish writers around me and echoes of Irish plays, but my own work comes out the way they come out. There’s a great big sort of blender that goes on and something new is formed,” he says.
“It’s something that I’m not at all conscious about. I sit down and attack my own anxieties and woeful need. From my point of view it’s my fear of life. I flail between really enjoying things and really despairing of things. Not in a depressive way, but I do get really, really anxious about things. I can see all of that in the play.”
Fear of the future, based on the painful experiences of the past, is a theme that is everywhere in Irish writing. Walsh thinks it may even reside in the Irish DNA. For Walsh’s characters lived experience is quickly transformed into remembered story, so that it can somehow be contained and in some way neutered.
“Thank God I’m a playwright and I have access to getting this kind of thing worked out in a script. Everything my characters go through is the kind of thing I really really fear happening,” he says.
“Living by patterns and routines with a bigger story hanging over you and not being able to live your own life because of it -- those are the things that everyone sort of feels on a daily basis.”
In 2007 Susan Feldman, the artistic director of the St. Ann’s Warehouse theater in Dumbo, visited Edinburgh and was electrified by Walsh’s script. Right away she decided to invite the production to the U.S., and in the process she brought Walsh’s work to an ideal audience -- New Yorkers who value challenging theater. Based on the rapturous reception that the play received Walsh’s star ascended, and “The New Electric Ballroom” will cement his reputation.
“It’s the job of the playwright to be sensitive the tiny things that might pass us by during the day and to annihilate them until they feel larger and they feel real. If I didn’t have access to that expression I’d be dead I think,” Walsh says.
Walsh is also preparing for the filming of “Chatroom,” a movie targeted at a teenage demographic, which will be directed by “The Ring” director Hideo Nakata. Thereafter his film about legendary soul singer Springfield will go into production.
“She’s quite an interesting character because she actually hated her own voice. That’s a wonderful place to begin with,” says Walsh.
“She’s this Irish/Scottish girl living in Ealing, London and she loves black music and eventually loved black women -- she hated the color she was and her own voice. It’s great music, and the approach of this film will quite different to the usual biopic.”
Actor Mikel Murphy, who Walsh is collaborating with again in his current production in Brooklyn, is a performer who understands every aspect of his craft and can channel it as the need arises.
As Patsy in “The New Electric Ballroom” Murphy plays a down at heel suitor, and his vocal work (he becomes a latter day Elvis Presley), his performance work (he’s all manic energy throughout the play) and the unexpected sweetness that lies just beneath the surface of his gruff fishmonger character are all present from his first appearance onstage.
“I have always said that I will never work with the same person twice because I hate the notion of repeating myself. But really I have never found an actor that I wanted to return to and was fascinated by,” Walsh says.
“I’m no director and he really helped me out because I’m very unclear about things in a rehearsal room. He really gives me confidence. He approaches plays from a really logical place, but then he goes wild and takes real risks.
“The speed and the sensitivity of him amaze me. He’s mad looking, as a leading man for me he’s probably it. He’ll direct my next play, Penelope, next year.”
As Breda in “New Electric Ballroom,” the once beautiful 18-year-old girl who seems dammed to relive her one and only losing shot at finding true love, Rosaleen Linehan gives a remarkably controlled and subtle performance. This role is a major step away from the great leading ladies that Linehan excels in, and it’s a mark of her own artistry that she has the courage to tackle what in other hands could easily become a farcical role.
Says Walsh, “Linehan’s the most dangerous actor I’ve ever worked with. She’s really brave and a brilliant reader of theater, but then she’ll cut loose and playing to audience and paying them really well.
“Ruth McCabe is brilliant; to hear your lines being spoken by an actress like her is amazing. And I wrote the play for actress Catherine Walsh because I think she’s the most interesting actor of her generation.”
“The New Electric Ballroom” is playing at St. Ann’s Warehouse, 38 Water Street, at Dock Street, Dumbo. Call 718-254-8779, or visit stannswarehouse.org. Show runs until November 22.