It will be something of a homecoming for actress Eileen Walsh takes to the stage in Rob Drummond's new play, Quiz Show, at Edinburgh's Traverse Theatre this coming weekend. It was in that very theatre, after all, that a teenage Walsh first appeared alongside an equally youthful Cillian Murphy in Disco Pigs, Enda Walsh's blistering and poetic coming of age tale that was an Edinburgh Festival Fringe sensation in 1997. Quiz Show also marks the Cork-born actress's return to the city she actually does call home, after originally moving there shortly after Disco Pigs before decamping to London for several years.
Quiz Show is Drummond's latest dissection of popular culture that follows on from Bullet Catch and Wrestling. Unlike those two works, which were solo pieces performed by himself, Quiz Show is a fully-fledged play without any onstage appearance by Drummond. Instead, the play looks at today's celebrity obsessed world via a TV game show that doesn't quite go as planned. Walsh plays Sandra, the show's main contestant chasing the ultimate prize.
“She's searching for truth, I guess,” Walsh says, “but all is not what it seems. Sandra is someone who is good fun, and a bit of a live wire who doesn't really stick to the rules, and then has a huge change. The journey she goes on in the play is basically the length of her life. She's someone you both laugh at and with, and then hopefully by the end you understand her.”
Walsh has divided her time between London, Edinburgh and Dublin for some years now. At one stage, she was appearing in the Dublin Theatre Festival in Franz Xaver Kroetz's bleak solo study of a woman alone, Request Programme, while somehow managing to commute to rehearsals for Ian Rickson's production of Hamlet at the Young Vic. Walsh played a female Rosencrantz opposite Michael Sheen in the play's title role. The intensity of both plays in some ways sum up a career which has seen Walsh push herself to dark places from the get go.
“I guess people know some of your stuff,” she reflects, “so when it comes to casting, it's inevitable I'll be cast in something heavy or emotionally draining, so it's nice doing Quiz Show, which has a nice balance. There are moments of darkness, but there are lighter moments as well, which lets the audience in a lot more.”
The youngest of six children, Walsh followed in her elder sister's footsteps by becoming an actress aged just seventeen when she auditioned for Dublin-based theatre company, Rough Magic. She was spotted by Enda Walsh, and performed in the first run of Disco Pigs during her summer holidays after her first year at university in Dublin. The runaway success of Disco Pigs changed everything, not just for Walsh, but for the entire company.
“We all met our partners here,” Walsh remembers. “We all have kids the same age. We all got married the same time. It was a real hot summer of amazingness that you look back on so fondly. When I was in London, I lived round the corner from Cillian, and from Enda, and we all had the same baby-sitters, and that was lovely.”
As well as such personal epiphanies, Disco Pigs also opened the door on a set of brilliant careers. The most obvious of these has been Murphy, who embarked on a film career which has seen him appear in 28 Days Later, Batman Begins and The Wind That shakes The Barley. Enda Walsh's plays have been seen all over the world, with his musical, Once, running on Broadway, where it scooped a Tony award. He also wrote the screenplay for Steve McQueen's study of Bobby Sands, Hunger.
Eileen Walsh's profile may not have been quite so high, but she has still notched up major screen roles playing the title role in quirky comedy, Janice Beard, as well as in Peter Mullan's film, The Magdalene Sisters.
“People sometimes seem to feel sorry for me and think I've not done as well as Cillian,” Walsh laughs, “and obviously his career has gone stratospheric, but I'm doing alright, I think.”
Walsh has continued to work with Disco Pigs director Pat Kiernan and his Cork-based Corcadorca company, and played Portia in Kiernan's production of The Merchant of Venice. It's a trend that Walsh has kept up with in her theatre career, having worked frequently with outgoing National Theatre of Scotland director Vicky Featherstone, as well as at the Abbey and the Peacock in Dublin with Jimmy Fay.
For Featherstone, Walsh appeared in Abi Morgan's debut play, Splendour, and Gary Owen's The Drowned World, both of which played at the Traverse, while Walsh also appeared in Featherstone's NTS production of Mary Stuart, and, at the Royal Court, a revival of Sarah Kane's play, Crave. For Fay, Walsh appeared in The Playboy of the Western World and a major revival of Edward Bond's seminal play, Saved. Walsh also appeared in Mark O'Rowe's play, Terminus, which toured to New York.
For Corcadorca's twentieth anniversary, Pat Kiernan asked Walsh to perform Request Programme. The production toured to the Galway Festival, where Disco Pigs had played prior to its Traverse run. As fate would have it, Murphy and Enda Walsh were also in town, performing Walsh's play, Misterman.
“It was gorgeous,” Walsh says. “We're all still very close. Sometimes we don't hear from each other for a while, but then things slowly creep back together again. I know Enda and Cillian are talking about doing something else together again, and I'd love to do more with them. Cillian and I have been talking about maybe doing something as well. So we still hop off each other a lot, but it's different. We met an awful lot of influential people off the back of Disco Pigs, and both Cillian and I got our first feature films from it, and you don't realise rare that is. At the time, we were just doing it, and thinking we were brilliant and that's what happens, but now, looking back on it, you realise how few and far between plays like that come along, and that when they do come along, you have to grab them with both hands.”
Quiz Show, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, March 29-April 20
The Herald, March 26th 2013