You know what you never see in an Irish play? A MacBook. You never see an iPhone either. Apple products made it to the Aran Islands years ago, but they’ve never made it to our national stage.
In an Irish play you’ll rarely see someone text their mammy or post a picture to Instragam. It’s as if we all have decided that the 21st century doesn’t belong on our stages.
Why is this? It could be because anything that threatens all the softly smoking turf fires and the comfortable old country pubs where colorful locals assemble to tell each other tall tales is just too threatening to our unbroken complacency.
So somewhere in the 19th century it appears we decided to stop the clock. Maybe we felt we had enough to be talking about already. Or maybe we did it to prevent us talking at all.
Either way, it’s become obvious that most of our contemporary playwrights have decided that the Ireland they write about should never make it past 1960.
That’s why it’s especially exciting to announce The Quare Land by Cavan-born playwright John McManus, which is now playing at the Irish Repertory Theatre and which I very strongly encourage you to see.
Set in 2008 as the country’s long national nightmare of prosperity was coming to a close, the play introduces us to 91-year-old Cavan farmer Hugh Pugh just as he is taking his first bath in four years.
Hugh is preparing for a much-dreaded visit from his alcoholic 92-year-old brother, but before he can even relax in his equally ancient tub he’s unexpectedly visited by an Irish stand in for the devil, a property developer named Rob McNulty.
Rob is a rather pointed name for a playwright to give a property developer, which hints at the depth of anger lurking underneath the surface of this lethally funny play.
But McManus refuses to turn his stressed out wheeler-dealer into a caricature. As The Quare Land progresses we begin to realize that in his own way Rob is as much a victim of the acquisitive age that he lives in as poor old Hugh.
When the play opens we earn that Hugh, in the most roundabout way imaginable, has come into a little parcel of land he never knew he owned. Wouldn’t you know this land is located smack in the middle of the 18-hole golf course that McNulty wants to build next to his massive five star hotel.
So what he’s looking at, Hugh realizes, is an opportunity to name his price. What happens next is a delightful guessing game of cat and mouse that ends up saying more about modern Ireland and modern Irish concerns that any other Irish play I have seen in years.
McManus himself hasn’t arrived on the New York scene after years spent learning his craft in Dublin or London. In fact he’s a plasterer by trade and he admits to having seen about 10 plays in his entire life.
He’s not already known to the Irish theater scene; not is he the fortunate son of some South Dublin literary or academic family. The only thing he has quietly admitted to is being good at essays in his school years and trying his hand at the odd play the odd time.
But it turns out that working in the Irish building trade is the ideal background for a contemporary Irish playwright. Because where else will you learn exactly what, when and how the country went so badly wrong. McManus writes directly from the coalface in other words, and he’s not afraid to get his hands dirty in pursuit of the uncomfortable truth.
Some critics have already compared him to Martin McDonagh, but the truth is McManus’ has already proven himself to be a much more accomplished reader of contemporary Ireland’s psyche.
It’s a story yet to be told, how the big shots in Dublin made a mess of the small fry far out in the country, and McManus is all over it. Swanning around in their top hotels and making their big financial deals before the crash, they would later flee the country to escape the consequences, skipping out and leaving the plain people to pick up the tab.
If you’re not angry about what the town did to the country then you just weren’t paying the kind of attention McManus clearly was. In The Quare Land he gets to settle accounts and the epic showdown is worth the ticket price.
“The play is set in 2008 when the place was about to utterly collapse,” producing director of the Irish Rep Ciaran O’Reilly tells the Irish Voice. “The rot is just starting to set in, and here’s this guy trying to hold onto his hotel, his wife has stopped speaking to him and the only thing standing between him and his dream golf course is that cantankerous old Cavan farmer. He really feels like the world is on top of him.”
There’s a huge amount of anger in The Quare Land about the Celtic Tiger and the crass materialism of the whole thing, O’Reilly says. It was this fact and the sheer brilliance of the script that made the award winning company decide to produce it.
“We rarely get somebody who writes with a Cavan cadence,” says O’Reilly, who hails from Cavan himself.
“In fact I haven’t read a script like it before. He’s definitely a new voice. I just found it to be one of the funniest plays. It really made me laugh and I laughed all the way through the rehearsals.”
But it’s still a significant risk for the company because Irish plays can be vastly different to American ones in their sense of humor, in terms of what’s considered funny, even in terms of what Americans will accept.
“For the most part people seem to be thinking it’s funny, some more than others, since the previews started,” says O’Reilly.
“I doubt McManus had seen more than two plays in his life before he started writing them himself. But he just has everything he needs to make the play take flight. Including a very Irish darkness and a dark sense of humor.”
Certainly there’s a wonderfully anarchic energy driving The Quare Land. Behind it all there’s a punk rock level of fury that hasn’t been seen on an Irish stage in years. It doesn’t offer comfortable answers, but it does strive to tell the truth.
“The play starts with Hugh Pugh’s objection to Rob’s materialism and crassness in the beginning, but by the end he just becomes part of it himself,” says O’Reilly.
If there’s a moral it’s this: make a dodgy deal with the kind of people you despise and you could very well end up becoming one of them yourself. The Quare Land knows where the Irish obsession with owning property began, and it knows the perils of it, too.
The Quare Land is now playing at the DR2 Theatre 103 East 15th Street, New York. For tickets call 212-727-2737 or visit www.irishrep.org.