Enda Walsh can dispel a few myths about Irish drama—and Ireland—for anyone who still thinks of villagers bickering around the hearth or mystics reciting odes to the sea. Think of him as the avant-garde little brother of mainstream playwrights like Conor McPherson, Martin McDonagh, and others in the Celtic clan.
New York hasn’t seen many of Walsh’s plays to date, apart from his self-directed production of Bedbound at the Irish Rep in 2003. This month, however, the Druid Theatre Company of Galway will present his latest drama, The Walworth Farce, at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn, starting April 15 and directed by Mikel Murfi.
More than his Broadway-feted compatriots, Walsh emphasizes characters and situations that reflect a new, economically transformed Ireland: wrapped in cyber rather than wool, and more fixated on multiculturalism than folklore. But the 41-year-old Walsh goes further, rejecting the reverent naturalism that sometimes traps new Irish plays in the bog. “I don’t want to see ‘life’ onstage,” says Walsh, sitting in a lounge at the Hotel on Rivington during a recent visit. “I don’t want to see something set in a pub and guys sitting around chatting, and by the end you’re going to sort of know them as deeper characters.”
Walsh jokes that he’s the rare Irish playwright who fumbles for words: “It takes me a thousand words to say three words.” His characters, too, have difficulty speaking; most hauntingly in his 2005 The Small Things, where a battered couple struggles to articulate fear-shrouded memories of wartime atrocities. In his 1996 Disco Pigs, boisterous 17-year-olds named Pig and Runt even resort to making sounds to express the exuberance of young urban swine.
“All the characters, I mean, they’re completely like me,” says the playwright. “The plays center around silence a lot of the time, the trouble characters have trying to articulate their lives or articulate the moment they’re at. They tend to be a bit frenzied and a bit broken, and they trip over real moments.”
Walsh, a native Dubliner, moved to Cork in the mid-1990s to work with a company called Corcadorca. He found early success with Disco Pigs, a linguistic tour de force that’s been translated and staged in more than 16 countries. The German theater, in particular, has adopted Walsh, who’s now equally at home in Munich as in Dublin or London, where he currently lives.
Druid’s presentation resounds with irony: The company staged the popular marathon cycle of Irish classics by John Millington Synge at the Lincoln Center Festival in 2006, and it was the first to bring McDonagh’s Beauty Queen of Leenane to Broadway. Now, the celebrated company returns to New York with Walworth—a play that, in one respect, is about oppressive national theatrical clichés.
The drama, which opens with a dumb show, centers on an immigrant family living in a claustrophobic London flat. The father forces his two grown sons to participate in his grotesque and pathological daily ritual of staging a little play depicting the family’s history of misfortune. When an outsider—a black supermarket cashier from down the street—happens into the act, the Genet-style dress-up games turn dangerous.
In every family’s myths, Walsh says, “a lot is based around story or fiction—sentimentality, romanticism, or whatever. There are very few true words and real telling, and I think that’s what this play is about.” Does Walworth‘s generational conflict mirror the changing society in his native land? “In terms of the ‘New Ireland,’ it’s true that there’s a bit of that,” he replies. “This is about being trapped in Ireland, and in this notion of Ireland that, of course, is a lie.”
While Walsh stresses that he’s happy to belong to a strong playwriting culture, he adds: “It’s great to have the opportunity of bringing over work that says, ‘Actually, there’s other work that’s happening in Ireland.’ Here’s another voice that’s of that tradition, but it’s a little bit more abstracted—and maybe a little bit more outward-looking than just falling back on old naturalism.”