Enda Walsh is one of the weirdest, wonkiest stars in the well-lit firmament of Irish playwrights. His burlesque adaptation of the story of Odysseus's wife, Penelope, begins at the bottom of a drained swimming pool where the ill-fated suitors of the Ithacan Queen are rehearsing their marriage proposals.
As with Walsh's The Walworth Farce, which toured Australia to great acclaim in 2010, Penelope is a mix of farce and tragedy, with a wicked edge of Irish fatalism. The play recieves its Australian premiere this month at St Kilda's Theatre Works in a collaboration with Red Stitch Actors Theatre.
Enda, tell us about where Penelope started?
Well, I read the Odyssey when I was a boy and I've always been interested in the suitor. I was approached by Tilman Raabke, a German dramaturge I've worked with a lot in the past, a great theatre brain. He invited five European playwrights to look at the Odyssey and to take a section of it to write on. Each was produced in a different town in the Ruhr Valley in Germany, which is this big cultural centre in Europe, and the audiences went from town to town looking at each of the five plays.
Do you remember what was happening in the world as you were writing, the influences you might have drawn on?
The boom ended in Ireland in October 2008. I wasn't conscious of writing about it, but it was in the papers and I was reading about it every day: about the disintegration of a country, and about these men who basically made it happen. A couple of them ended up in prison, one guy committed suicide.
What theme did you have in mind?
Initially I wanted to make a piece about love. I wanted to make a piece about four guys at the bottom of a swimming pool in Speedos grappling with the problem of existence, asking themselves what they'd done to love all these years. I can see, now, of course, that there's a lot of those failed financiers and businessmen in there, and I find it both fucking hilarious and super tragic. Hence the swimming trunks.
Do you ever set yourself to write about contemporary issues?
I don't think it's the job of the playwright to talk about the here and now. I can't actually do that, talk about economics and that. That's the job of the journalist. But I live in the world and I know through a process of gnosis all those things are going to come out anyway.
How do you see, in retrospect, the question of love tying in with the world of high finance?
The commodity is really love for these men, the competition to win this woman's heart, and how in the quest for, for, a commodity, fuels man's capacity to burn the world.
Viewed from the other side of the world, the Irish literary scene has an intimidating aura of greatness about it. Immersed in that culture, are you conscious of the greatness? When you take on something like The Odyssey, are you conscious of the ghost of James Joyce, standing at your shoulder whispering "been there, done that"?
It's in your DNA, you know? As a kid growing up, and in your twenties, it's all part of your learning. I always feel I'm carrying on a conversation with, well, much greater playwrights than myself from the past. It's the only thing I know. I feel like I'm an Irish playwright before a 'world playwright'. It's really in your make-up to know all about these playwrights and to respond and carry on the conversations they've already started.
So when you're in Germany, for instance, you feel like an Irish writer abroad?
Yeah, I do. The plays travel all over the world and are interpreted in different ways, but I know back home it's not so much about the language of the plays: it's the shape of them. It feels very Irish, I think, to that audience. Anyone who's seen a number of plays in Ireland will say, "Oh, I get it. Enda's riffing on Tom Murphy from back in the '70s, or whatever." Not that I'm conscious of it, but it's in your body to that sort of stuff.
Are there non-Irish influences? Your work does seem to have an affinity with contemporary German theatre, especially in some of the more surreal stage imagery.
Seventeen years ago my first play, Disco Pigs, was sort of this massive hit in Germany. I was really, really lucky because I didn't know anything about form – and I'm still grappling with questions of form – but I really liked the way they presented things in Germany. It clarified some of that.
But also Irish people and the way we talk about stuff, I think we have an access to surrealism, to making things really oblique, and of course we're famously miserable people. We do have a fucking darkness to us, under the guff. That comes out in the work, certainly.
How then do these four miserable Irish figments, these suitors in the drained pool, how do they relate to the epic tradition, to The Odyssey?
My plays always tend to happen in real time and they're always sort of about man and his environment, man responding to his surroundings. That was my starting point. But here, through the language they use, we go off on this really lyrical journey, you get a sense of geography and travel. But they're just in a fucking pool. So you get a sense of these huge adventures happening around them, but actually they're immobile human beings. I get that, that thing of thinking, "My god, we could just keep on walking and open up the world, we could have adventures, we could just go." But we don't. What we do, in fact, is make the world incredibly safe for ourselves. We get up in the morning and make our lives really easy, black and white and sepia coloured. I look at these men – or to see them looking at themselves – and realise, fuck, actually, we're yet to live. They only realise it, though, when they've got an hour left to live.
Do you think of yourself as a storyteller – in that bardic, homeric tradition – or as more of a craftsperson, a deviser of scenarios and collaborator?
I think a little bit of both. I've never really thought about it, but I think my characters tend to look at themselves as story tellers. I know though that part of the craft for me is getting some distance on what I've written, you know, to make sure it's hitting the air properly. I'm conscious more and more of that, as I get older, and it's a weird thing. You know, when does a piece become authored? You want the words to come from the characters, but you hear the voice of Enda Walsh coming through. God, is that a really terrible thing? I feel really conflicted, and that's a very difficult thing for me. As a younger man I just wrote, but now I'm getting really involved in that question.
What has changed? Is it just that you're becoming more reflective as you get older?
I think it's because the plays are getting much more difficult. I'm conscious that I'm fucking more with form. Language is language, and I don't think people come out of plays humming words and saying, 'Oh, wow, what about that word, what about that fucking sentence?! Brilliant sentence that was.' What they take away is form and shape. A play that moves them moves them because of the mechanics of the piece, the mathematics of the piece.
I'm shocked to hear you say so! I thought if any contemporary playwright could write a play where people remembered the music of the language, it'd be Enda Walsh. I was going to ask what inspires you to such verbal acrobatics, the words upon words upon words, but it sounds like you're trying to distance yourself from that.
I'm writing a play at the moment and, you know, I can see that the words are the atoms of the piece, really – they make up everything, of course. But a lot of the time the plays for me are about inarticulacy and people trying to find the words for what they want to say. It's about the journey from inarticulate to articulate, or about how they're inarticulate, that's what I'm interested in. It's like watching someone come to life in front of you after years of being completely immobile.
So you're not giving up on words?
I'm a fucking playwright, so, jeez, I've only got words, and it's not like I think I'm going to be writing fewer words; it's really about using the words less for the images they conjure than for their rhythm.
Was this concern with form what inspired a play like The Walworth Farce, which kind of deconstructed the form of traditional farce?
The Walworth Farce is a good example because, for me, I find farce so aggressive towards character. It really just kills character. It's like a map, just go there, go there, go there. It's really suffocating. Originally, I wanted the last fifteen minutes of The Walworth Farce done with static, with noise, and the actors playing out something that we couldn't hear, really killing the words. It would have been quite cool to look at, but because I had entered the logic of a farce I need to finish the farce, to give it an ending. I – the playwright – was a slave to the mechanics of that kind of play. So it's always about how the form is attacking words, and the words attacking the form. It's like a fucking battle, and who's going to come out on the other side? I'm conscious when I'm writing that I'm not just writing my way through words, I'm always feeling the form coming at me.