There are these three Irish-men who live on top of each other in a flat in London’s Elephant and Castle district. Playwright Enda Walsh knows them well. He used to see them, or people like them, drowning out the last vestiges of all that lost hope they used to have when he worked behind a bar round that way. Then, Walsh was still in his teens, and himself newly arrived from Ireland on his own voyage of discovery. Now, like so many of the people he served, he’s still in London, and, with the arrival of his play The Walworth Farce at The Traverse this week, has clearly soaked up his former customers internal workings enough to make a grotesque cartoon of it.
“It’s your classic Irish play,” Walsh says of The Walworth Farce’s origin, “about these three Irish-men coming to London. I’d never written that sort of play, but I wanted to do something with all that stuff that you think is hideous, about this very humble notion of wanting to get back to Ireland. They’re great characters, but I just had to give them a context for them to create a world for themselves that’s outside of what’s going on outside their door, where they’re seeing black people for the first time and going on this thing called the Underground.”
The result is a bizarre construction whereby the three men must act out a play written by the father of the group every day of their lives. Coming from the writer whose career was kick-started a decade ago by his crazed small-town love story, Disco Pigs, its flirtation with farce promises to make it his most mature work to date.
The play’s opening scene, an extended wordless routine of madcap absurdism involving salami sausage, fake moustaches and men in drag, pulses with the attention to detail displayed by Morecambe and Wise at their vintage best if a hand grenade had been thrown through its heart by The Three Stooges.
This in itself is a departure for Walsh, whose previous works have been break-neck exercises in free-associative internal monologues blurted out in an uncensored rush of chewy vernacular and half-invented patois.
“I’ve always had a langer-load of words in my head,” is how Walsh puts it. “but there’s no tradition of farce in Ireland. None. That’s why I wanted to do it, just because no-one in Ireland would know what was going on. It’s a really sort of alien tradition, but those sorts of rhythms really interest me. Anyone can write words, and I know I can still do that, but these days I‘m more interested in exploring form. Up until recently, writing a play was for me like a match. I’d get the audience in a headlock and say okay, run. Now it’s less a hundred metre sprint and a bit more of a ride. When I start the first page I’m not immediately racing to the end anymore. I‘m learning about what the conventions of that play are.”
The Walworth Farce is produced by the Galway based Druid Theatre, who last appeared in Edinburgh in 2005 with DruidSynge, their epic all day performance of JM Synge’s collected dramatic works. The same time DruidSynge was wowing Galway, Walsh’s play The Small Things was playing down the road at the tiny Granary Theatre. Walsh and Druid director Garry Hynes had long been admirers of each others work, and a commission was easy enough. When Walsh delivered The Walworth Farce, however, Hynes felt unable to direct the play, and the more physically based Mikel Murfi was brought in instead.
“He’s a lunatic,” Walsh enthuses. “He’s so pedantic on the detail and finding out the logic of all these characters. He really helped me dramaturgically, just in terms of him helping me understand the seriousness of comedy, the prat-falls and the timing, all that stuff I never knew about.”
It’s been a decade now since Walsh took Edinburgh by storm with Disco Pigs, his turbo-charged rites of passage play produced by Corcadorca, the small-scale Cork based company who suddenly hit the big time. Disco Pigs was picked up by commercial producers, who toured the play within an inch of its life. Walsh, director Pat Kiernan and their young cast went along for the ride of a lifetime, and, while it may have been a case of too much too young, it put the careers of all involved onto the A-list.
Biggest break out star was Cillian Murphy. Since playing Pig, Disco Pigs’ teenage tearaway who creates his own world with his female partner in crime, Runt, Murphy has appeared in the Danny Boyle directed horror flick, 28 Days Later, starred in Ken Loach’s Irish Troubles saga The Wind that Shook The Barley, and played the villainous Sandman in Batman Begins.
Eileen Walsh, who played Runt, starred in the film Janice Beard 45 WPM and the Peter Mullan directed The Magdalene Sisters. Orla Fitzgerald, who took over as Runt, appeared alongside Murphy in The Wind That Shook The Barley, and appeared at The Traverse during last year’s Fringe, taking the title role as another troubled teen in Pumpgirl.
“None of us knew what was going to happen,” Walsh recalls of the Disco Pigs days. We didn’t have a clue what we were doing, didn’t know how our careers would end up, and just got on this rollercoaster for two years. It was a hilarious time, but it was a real education as well, coming to Edinburgh and seeing companies like The Right Size.”
Walsh’s next move was to write Mister-Man, a one-man play he would perform itself. Prior to the show’s Edinburgh dates, however, Walsh found himself having serious panic attacks, and Mister-Man was cancelled. His next work, Bedbound, did make it. Bedbound’s tumble of words between a father and daughter vaguely resembled Tom Murphy’s play, Baillegangaire. There are elements of Murphy too in The Walworth Farce, most notably his early play of Irish-men abroad, A Whistle In The Dark. Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming is shacked up in their too, albeit etched with the brutalism of Martin McDonagh.
“I’ve always written about families,” Walsh acknowledges, “and connect with it at a very basic level. But I think this is the first time I’ve written a play where a real person enters into the world that’s been set up. All the characters I’ve written have been larger than life, but here there’s someone here who comes in with no history of this world, where these men are living this lie again and again and again.”
Walsh’s maturity as a writer is compounded by his next project, which sees him move into factual territory. Working with
orkingt project, however, sees walsh move into more factual territory via a feature fil directed by, Disco Pigs, i ernal monolovisual artist Steve McQueen, Walsh has scripted a feature film based on the last six weeks in the life of IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands, who starved himself to death in 1981 as the ultimate protest at his political internment. Walsh is also considering a version of Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov.
Beyond his exploration of the dark side, these days Walsh is happily domiciled in a part of London considerably leafier than Elephant and Castle, just around the corner from Murphy. The two hook up from time to time, and their kids hang out together. A very different picture of Irish emigrants, then, from the one painted in The Walworth Farce.
“There are people who still live like that now,” Walsh insists, “and no matter what they say, they’ll never ever get back to Ireland. That’s some way to live.”
The Walworth Farce, Traverse Theatre, Aug 3-26, various times
The herald, August 2007