- 21 Oct 04
One of the nation’s most acclaimed playwrights, Conor McPherson has examined the Irish condition in forensic detail in plays and films such as The Weir, Port Authority and Saltwater. In his new play Shining City, McPherson uses the disturbed psyches of his lead characters as a means to explore loneliness, isolation, friendship and salvation in the ghostly setting of contemporary Dublin. “The city holds some very dark feelings for me,” he admits to Kim Porcelli.
John hasn’t been the same since his dead wife started calling round to give out to him. They hadn’t been getting along before her car accident, but her death had, it seemed, only made things worse, only made her more liable to appear at inopportune moments, materialising from nothing out of the household shadows with that same mournful expression: that same aging face, crumpled by disappointment; that same open, pained mouth.
If you’re already, as the saying goes, feeling sinister, there are probably few lonelier places in Ireland for an already frantic, isolated person to be than in Dublin’s still-remaining hundreds of dark, dusty, cavernous old Georgian rooms. Maybe it’s because those big windows, despite their size, leave outside more light than they let in; maybe it’s because their stately, still gorgeousness envelops you with a kind of sombre cosiness that doesn’t inspire you to leave and look to the outside world for solace. Maybe it’s something to do with being in a building so old that it was here before your troubles, and so solid that it’ll be here long after you’re gone.
Still, it’s to a room like this John went in order to get the ghost of his dead wife out of his house and his head: to Ian, an ex-priest-turned-headshrinker who lives and works in just such a shadow-veiled, rickety Georgian building, and who is haunted by a few things of his own – not least his uneasy transition from the comforting unknowability of the divine to the tiny, all-too-fathomable sadnesses of normal Dublin life.
It’s the perfect time of year to go see a lonely, ghostly play like Shining City – but then, the plays of Conor McPherson have had something of the autumnal about them before. Born in Coolock and now living in Dun Laoghaire, the 33-year-old is arguably most famous for The Weir, his 1998 play featuring, in the quiet Dubliner’s own words, “people sitting around a country pub telling ghost stories”. Shining City, his latest, currently playing at the Gate, is, once more, helplessly funny, full of perfectly pitched local idiom and drawn-to-scale characters, and warmly atmospheric. It’s also, in its own way, just as haunted, by sad pieces of the past that won’t go away.
Kim Porcelli: It struck me that Shining City is a kind of study of loneliness. It was really fun, and funny, but at the same time it was very upsetting, and profoundly sad – and, bar none, the loneliest play I’ve ever seen in my life. It felt like it was about the kind of loneliness that happens when there’s something you’re trying to avoid in yourself, and so you start isolating yourself from people who love you.
CONOR MCPHERSON: I’d say that’s probably what it’s about, in lots of ways. But it’s very difficult for me to even say what it’s about. Because it’s not particularly planned out, what it is you want to write about, really. You just tune in to whatever’s there. The first idea I had for that play was John thinking he was seeing a ghost. It sort of worked backwards.
Where did it come from?
Well, you know, when you’re thinking about things in the past, and about how they’re still with you, and about how you can’t change certain things… you know, it’s not a very pleasant feeling. It was a crystallisation of some of that. And I suppose, really, the play is probably ultimately about that feeling of existential loneliness, really: that there’s basically no meaning to what we can understand.
Are you saying, loneliness as a result of there not being a point to life?
Well, I think it’s that idea that, if there’s no God, well, then… there’s no beginning, middle and end. There’s no understandable purpose or meaning to our existence. I think everybody who’s brought up in a religion either accepts that for their whole life, or else comes to a point where they have to confront it. And I think if you go the way where you think, ‘Actually, I don’t really know if there’s anything else,’ it’s – I think it has serious implications for a person. Because you can’t really understand the nature of what it is to be a human being, unless you understand what the end of the journey is. Do you know what I mean? And that’s why you’ve got a central figure who’s struggling with his faith. That’s kind of, I suppose, where the play rests, the kind of faultline it’s on.
I know you have a masters in philosophy from UCD. Did you study theology as well?
(Very definitely) Oh, no, no, no.
Did you deliberately not study it? Is it something you don’t have a lot of time for?
I think probably, no, it wouldn’t be something I’d ever venture into. ’Cos it’s almost like the study of aliens or something. It’s a study of something we have no idea even exists. At least with philosophy, you’re sort of dealing with – it’s the study of what we actually know, or don’t know.
Is it, though? Because when I studied it – I didn’t get as far as you did, but there was a day in class when our professor ‘proved’, supposedly, that black equals white. And from that day on, I felt like all bets were off, and that the whole thing was a ruse. That philosophy wasn’t the study of definites – it was just about how good an arguer you were.
Well… That’s really just a problem of language. That’s not necessarily a problem of the actual truth, of what exists, and of what reality is. We’ve probably got no conception of what reality is, or why anything exists. So, you know, just ’cos someone can say black is white, or whatever: that’s not really that important.
But I think philosophy is one of those subjects that you do for the sake of it, really. Because you get pleasure from it. But at the same time, I think there can be a compulsion to want to study it, because you’re asking those big questions…
For you, is it that philosophy was the theoretical study of questions you have in your mind, and theatre is the practical expression of those questions? Do you work out questions that you have about the world through your writing?
I think I probably do, but I think that how you actually feel is ultimately inexpressible, that in a way language is not… sufficient, that you have to sort of create a picture, or kind of a… a dream, or something, to sort of… juxtapose these various concepts towards each other, so that they just float around together, and that’s the picture. And you hold up the picture, and you say, ‘This is a picture of reality, as I see it. The truth, as I feel it.’
The example sometimes I use is: when the very first human beings snapped into self-consciousness, one of the first things they did was to draw pictures on a cave wall, of themselves, and of animals, and of their world, basically. And I think that’s a very primal urge, and I’d say that’s what drew me to it, too. It’s exactly the same instinct, which is just to have a look at your world, and say, ‘God, what the fuck is going on?’
How important is a sense of place to you, as a playwright? Even though the play took place entirely inside a Georgian flat, it was almost as if the city of Dublin was a character – one that was absolutely palpable, but happened to be always offstage.
I think probably what I was trying to express was a sense of alienation. Dublin city is a kind of a funny place, really. And for me it would hold very dark feelings, as well as feelings of home. And I suppose the dark feelings would be probably to do with the existence of poverty, and the moral kind of… ineffectuality that you feel. And being alone in the city at night – that would be a feeling, very primal and very deep, that’s in you from when you’re very young. And I think the Dublin the characters talk about in the play, the city they seem to describe, is quite… harsh, or… something. There’s a kind of mad energy in it, which nobody feels quite a part of. And probably the set is trying to recreate a feeling of sort of… just darkness, really. Darkness, in the city. And also trying to make it beautiful, too.
But also, your home, and where you’re from – ultimately, if you’re going to tell a story, that’s how you’re going to express it, really, is from home, because those are the characters you know you can get into and really… make them live, I suppose. It’s just very… what’s the word… very unmediated, very raw. I mean, you could, I suppose, take the story and set it in a different place. But that would destroy all the emotion of it, for me.
One thing my friend commented on about the play was that the use of language was spot-on. He’s from Dublin, and he was just saying how, in a world where everything in the English language is from the UK or the US, it was so thrilling to, as it were, see your own people and hear your own language on stage. Especially in view of the fact that much of Shining City is in the form of monologue, how do you write that stuff in a way that feels genuine?
It takes a lot of tinkering, really. And the actors have to work very hard. We’re just blessed, with Stanley Townsend – he plays the guy going to the therapist. That’s a real workout of a part. All those long speeches. That’s the equivalent of – I’m not saying that my work is classical or anything, but it would be the equivalent of a concert pianist having to come out, and memorise a huge overture, and sort of… blast it out. That stuff is only as good as the actors that you have. And then, as the actors are saying it, in rehearsals and stuff, you cut lots out, because you find it starts to repeat a little bit, or something. Or I do, anyway. (Laughs) And then you tidy it up, and shape it. It’s like sculpting. It’s like a big solid block of ice. And you have to… make it flow. But it’s great when you get into it with the actors. It’s lovely, because you can actually see it get better.
I haven’t read all of your work, but you seem to gravitate toward monologue more than most playwrights…
Well, I suppose it’s kind of… That word crops up a lot… I don’t really know what a monologue is.
Let me re-ask you without using that word. You seem to like to use storytelling, as distinct from dialogue and/or indicating stuff in a physical way.
I think it’s probably just that I’m too impatient, to sort of somehow … finesse the work into something that could emerge through dialogue. I just have to give it a lash. (Giggles) That’s it. I just need to belt it out, you know? And it’s what I want to hear. It’s great when it hits the audience like that, too. They go on a sort of little journey, if the monologue is performed really well. And it can be very funny. But it’s never been a conscious choice. I’ve never consciously chosen anything that I’ve written. It’s always had to just come as it comes. I kind of can’t help it.
Whether it’s intentional or not, it feels really brave and risky. It was actually a bit shocking and unnerving when I realised the characters were going to just sit and talk, the way people do in real life. It felt incredibly intimate. And it really brought the basic weirdness of theatre home to me.
Well, you’re saying it’s very brave – what’s brave is putting anything in front of anybody. That’s the tough part. It’s absolutely a nightmare, doing anything creative. Because you’re frightened that it’s gonna fail. Once you’re doing it, you know, you can do what you want, you’re free. But the hard part is the whole act of it. You know? Monologues themselves, or what something is when it happens, for me, is neither here nor there.
My feeling, as well, is that you’re ‘an actor’s writer’ – not meaning that you give actors stuff with which they can showboat, but in the sense that your work is about what goes on inside people – the invisible stuff, the quiet stuff, that you don’t really see in life, but that is nonetheless there.
That’s the great thing about really good actors, is that even when they walk onstage, there’s something going on. Which is exactly what you’re talking about. And if they can give your words a bit of breath and give it life, it’s astounding. My work really depends on actors. I’m not the kind of writer where you could read the stuff off the page. I read very little, I don’t really read novels and stuff. I’m not a huge fan of writing for writing’s sake. I hate my own writing on the page. I prefer it to be alive, and in people’s mouths. Mostly what I would read is history, and biography, or science or something. Something that’s not actually about writing itself. That’s the kind of writer I am. I need it to be said, as opposed to read.
Have you ever acted yourself?
I did, a bit, when I was in college.
How did you find the physicality of being an actor? Working in three dimensions, where as a writer, you’re kind of working in two, if you know what I mean?
I found it alright. I think I always kind of kept the fourth wall there. (Laughs) Like, I wasn’t really giving of myself, particularly. I was…. just saying my lines, and hoping to God it was all OK.
It’s a really scary thing, I’d imagine, if you’re doing it right.
Yeah. Yeah, it is. It is. I mean... I don’t know how actors do it, really. I don’t know if there’s a huge blank spot in their minds where they just… don’t realise exactly what they’re doing up there. Do you know what I mean? For me, I’m kinda like, ‘Jesus, this is crazy.’ I couldn’t do that. I’m just glad they can.
You’re probably best known as a playwright, but you’ve also worked in film: writing I Went Down and writing/directing Saltwater and The Actors. I was talking to an actor friend about the old theatre-versus-film question, and he was saying that he certainly wouldn’t turn down any roles in films, but the reason he loves theatre is “because it’s so dangerous”.
It’s the live thing, too. If you’re sitting in town somewhere, having a cup of coffee, you can watch people for quite a while before you get bored. But you wouldn’t watch a film for an hour of people walking down the street. There’s just something about actually being there, and the vague sense of possibility, which keeps everything just vibrating a little bit more. Where you think, ‘Oh my god, this is live. Anything could happen.’ And that’s what the theatre has over film – that very sort of… primal, sort of vibration, that is happening to all the animals (laughs), you know, in the room, at once. You can’t replicate that. You know? It’s very real. Very powerful. And if you can generate it, and get all the energy going the one way, it can be amazing.
That feeling that everyone in the room has kind of agreed to… go along with it, for the night. That you’re kind of all pretending together.
Exactly. Exactly. It’s great, that feeling. ’Cos it’s very different, I suppose, isn’t it. It’s very different from… (pauses)
You have to be kind of childlike, in a way that is not really required of you very often by other kinds of pop culture, or high culture…
Yeah. And it’s probably a thing, too, that when you see actors in front of you doing this thing, in a way you know they’re doing it for you, in this moment. This wasn’t filmed years ago. This is right now. I think people go into a sort of trance. Which is why, at the more frightening moments in the play, we’re able to really frighten the audience. Because, in a way, they sort of… they want it to be real. And they sort of fall into a little… kind of hole, where for a second (snaps fingers) they think it is. It’s quite fascinating, really.
I thought it was really interesting to have the character of this 50-something man going to see a therapist – and being surprisingly chatty, and open. Even post-The Sopranos, and post-talk show culture, there are still very much two camps, when it comes to therapy: those who think ‘talking cures’ are wonderful and really can help if you’re just open to the idea; and others who think it’s a total crock, not to mention nauseatingly self-indulgent. I would assume you come down on the side of thinking it can be helpful?
Well, I think that human beings are complex beyond science, and I think that we’re also very simple, at the same time. And I think that it’s like: if someone is running up against problems again and again in their life, then to actually be invited to think about their life, and the pattern that it might have taken… (shrugs; in ‘why-not’ voice) You know. For once. Most people never do it. But for once, to actually look at the shape of your life, and how you arrived at each big decision, and how it’s continued after that, and are there any patterns there… Even to do that once, has got to be helpful. You know. Who knows if it’s good, bad, indifferent, I’ve no idea. Bit it strikes me that there… couldn’t be anything wrong, with at least examining your actions, and your feelings. So I’d imagine it probably is very helpful.
I’m aware that you once had a problem with alcohol, to the extent that you were seriously ill in hospital from it, and gave up drinking, and generally went through a really awful patch a couple of years ago. Did you ever consider therapy? Or go into therapy?
I did, for a little while. Not for very long. It took me a few goes to find someone who… I could… relate to. But when you do find someone, it’s kind of easier than you think. What’s hard is that what you expect will happen is never what does, but the things that do happen, and which do occur to you, can be very important. And you can realise things for the first time – about the powers that have been at force in your life, and that where you might think, in certain areas of your life, that you were acting very freely, that in fact you had no choice, and that you were… you know… the pressure you were under was tremendous. Just to see that, helps you to understand the person that you are, and to see yourself truthfully. And if you can do that, you can set yourself free. You can set yourself free from making the same repetitive mistakes that got you stuck in the past.
But having said that, I don’t think everybody needs to go into therapy. But I would never dismiss it. I would never dismiss anything, out of hand, that anybody wants to try.
I read where another writer, I can’t remember who, suggested that energy can’t be created or destroyed, and that if you almost exorcise something from within yourself, then it has to go someplace. What do you reckon the experience is, of being a therapist, and of hearing all these traumas from people’s lives?
I think that probably the people who do it, or who are good at it, probably really, really need to do it. That it must fill something very deep within them. They’re obviously very, very curious, about life, and about trouble. Very curious about trouble, I’d imagine. I think that psychotherapists, themselves, have to go to psychotherapy. They have to as part of the job.
The woman on The Sopranos does.
Yeah. I think that’s the deal. But I think they’re just hugely, hugely, hugely interested in people, and that’s why they do it, and how they do it. When we were in London, before doing this play, we got a therapist to come in and talk to the cast about it, just to describe a little bit of that whole world. And the lady that we got who came in, she works exclusively with, like, psychotic, violent criminals. And that’s her passion. It’s just like: everybody wants to do something, out there. And I think the people out there, who love it – I don’t think they come away damaged by it. I think they revel in it.
Having seen SC and read The Weir as well, it seems as if ghosts, as a theme or device, are something that you visit in your work quite a lot. Where does that fascination come from?
Dunno. It was just always there.
As in, since you were small?
Did you ever see a ghost? Or think you did?
I don’t think so. I don’t think I ever have. And I probably never will. But it’s just something I’ve always been fascinated by. I just always found it very exciting. Probably because it means… there’s a god. Or something. Just something else. Something better. Or something more interesting. Do you know what I mean? I don’t know. (Thinking) Or something more… What? Spiritual? I dunno. I’ve just always had that kind of instinct, that I’ve always wanted there to be something else.
I remember when I found out that there was no Santa Claus. I was really kind of, like, shocked. Devastated. Because (snaps fingers) the magic just disappeared. You know what I mean? Because even at that age, you were just thinking, like: ‘Yeah, but, you know, no matter what happens, there is a Santa Claus. There is, magic. Anything is possible.’ But as the possibility just gets removed from your world, as you grow up, it’s just like ‘Ugh.’ It’s really grey. You know. But then, it’s like – as life goes on, for me anyway… possibility just keeps opening up. My mind, anyway, opens up to more and more possibilities of existence, and that in fact… if we could know… the secrets of the universe, it would be an amazing thing to know. I just can’t help feeling that.
Did you ever try to contact… you know, ‘the other realm’, when you were a kid?
When we were younger? Yeah! Oh, yeah.
(Laughs) Of course we did. All the time.
What did you do?
I dunno. Nobody would know how to do it, would they. So you’d have to sort of go, (sonorous séance voice) ‘Is there anybody there…’
We had a Ouija board.
Yeah. See, in Ireland, Catholic Ireland, now, you couldn’t really have a Ouija board. That’d be like… having, like, a gun. (Laughs) Type of thing. It’d be just… confiscated by the police …
Seriously? It would not!
Well, not by the police, but certainly by… (scandalised voice) If somebody found out that you had a Ouija board, like – people would definitely have believed that that was something to do with the devil! And that it was seriously – because people here would believe that the devil was real. You know? Cos God was real. And all that. All the Catholic stuff was very real here, when I was a kid. Not so much now. But, yeah, we tried to do all that. Tried to freak ourselves out, basically. I was always… probably one of the ringleaders of trying to… contact the dead, you know…
Who did you try to contact?
Oh, I have no idea. Anybody who was listening.
Why is the play called Shining City? Is it any reference to the word ‘shining’, as in The Shining?
No. I think for me, Shining City is, like, heaven. I think in some religious tracts it’s referred to as, like, ‘the shining city’. The pilgrims, when they went to America from England, were looking to go to ‘the shining city on a hill’, which would be their freedom – to worship, and all that. So, for me, that’s kind of what it’s about. But at the same time, I really like the titles of the things I do to just be really ambiguous. You know what I mean? If it’s just sort of a nice little handy label, that’s it, really, for me.
Shining City, written and directed by Conor McPherson, is at the Gate Theatre, Dublin until Saturday, November 20
Photography Liam Sweeney