“I thought it would be good to try something that wasn't so narrative-driven,” Walsh says of The Last Hotel's creative roots. “I was really enjoying doing Misterman, and felt my work was changing, so when Donnacha turned round and said he had this idea for an opera and asked what did I think, he knows the type of stuff I'm into, so it seemed like a good match.”
The result of this is a darkly brooding meditation in which a couple meet a woman in a hotel room with matters of life and death on their minds.
“It initially feels like it might be a threesome,” says Walsh. “There's a frisson there where you're not quite sure what's going on, but there's a man at the bar collecting his thoughts, it incrementally creeps up on you what it's all about. It all came from reading various stories about assisted suicide, from people wanting to commit suicide to people helping them, so we've got these three people in a hotel room, who'd all been children, and now they're doing this, in this sad, bizarre, terrifying scene. This thing is so suburban, but the act is shattering for them.
“Often in opera the story happens at a snail's pace, but with Donnacha's music the premise here is incredibly strong. You feel as if the characters are trying to find a means of expression, and what they say is ripping the soul out of them. It's not just them having a conversation. It's about them wanting to say something important. It's proclaiming. A lot of plays set in real time in the way that The Last Hotel is feel really charged, so you know this is a really big day for them, and that they have to get this stuff out.”
Such urgency has defined Walsh's work, ever since he burst out of a lively theatre scene in Cork in 1996 with Disco Pigs, a ferocious two-hander that featured a nineteen year old Cillian Murphy in his first professional acting job alongside Eileen Walsh. Disco Pigs' sixty-five minute explosion of adolescent romance took Dublin, Galway and Edinburgh by storm, transferred to the West End and was made into a film.
Since then, Murphy's work has been a regular in the Traverse Theatre's Edinburgh Festival Fringe programmes, with Bedbound in 2000, The Herald Archangel winning The New Electric Ballroom in 2005, The Walworth Farce in 2006 and Penelope in 2010 all defining Walsh's dark sense of the absurd and quasi-Lynchian sensibility.
Such a sensibility could be seen and heard in A Girl's Bedroom, a twelve-minute monologue narrated by the disembodied voice of a twenty-three year old woman who left her bedroom aged six and never stops walking. Taking place in a meticulously pink recreation of the room, A Girl's Bedroom is the second room-based miniature Walsh has written for Galway International Arts Festival, and follows on from Room 303, which was seen at GIAF in 2014 alongside the full-length Ballyturk.
“It's a really simple idea,” Walsh says, “just do something I a big white box that you walk into. I want to write one every year, and then eventually do them all together, so you walk into a theatre full of these boxes. I don't know how yet, but I want them to all connect in some way.”
Of Lazarus, which will be directed by Ivo van Hove, also at Edinburgh International Festival this year with his production of Antigone, Walsh describes his collaboration with Bowie as “incredibly easy. He's seen a couple of plays of mine, and he talked to me about them and we got on. It's not in any way an adaptation of The Man Who Fell To Earth. It's more based on the character of Thomas Newton, who Bowie played in the film.”
The Last Hotel's score will be performed by the tellingly named Crash Ensemble, the twelve-strong contemporary music group co-founded by Dennehy, while the show itself will be co-produced by two Dublin-based companies, Wide Open Opera and Landmark Productions. Landmark were also responsible for Once, Walsh's move into musical theatre which saw his collaboration with composer and lyricist Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova in former National Theatre of Scotland director John Tiffany's production scoop eight Tony Awards, a Grammy and two Olivier Awards.
For The Last Hotel, Walsh wrote the libretto first, reading it out loud to Dennehy, who recorded it before writing the score.
“Donnacha's music is incredibly accessible,” Walsh enthuses. “Some operas can lock you out, but what Donnacha's done, even though it's incessant, is constantly moving, and has this real incredible beauty to it.
While both Once and The Last Hotel use music explicitly, a musical pulse has been vital to Walsh's work ever since the relentless rhythms of Disco Pigs kick-started his career. With Lazarus opening in New York in the autumn, Walsh's musical associations have seen him commissioned to write Jules in the City, a film based on the life and times of singer/songwriter Rufus Wainwright.
“There's always been a huge musical influence on what I do,” says Walsh. “The thing that kept Corcadorca together was just going to nightclubs. We lived like owls.”
Things have changed in Walsh's writing, as he himself observes.
“I think I've moved away from being interested solely in character to things being more about form,” he says, “so things become more visual. One of the strengths of Ballyturk, and one of the things that infuriated some people, is that I think I've learnt that the well-made play isn't always a good thing, but if you're going to do something different from that, you have to try and find something beyond that for an audience to find it accessible, and for there to be enough space for them to dream with it.
“I look back at Disco Pigs and that was just a splurge. I couldn't write something like that now. I don't have the energy for one thing, but these days I want a mystery. Unless there's some kind of mystery onstage I'm not interested.”
The Last Hotel, Royal Lyceum Theatre, Aug 7-8, 10, 11, 12, 8pm.www.eif.co.uk/lasthotel
The Herald, August 10th 2015