- 03 Jan 17
The Irish playwright talks about his friend and collaborator...
Handpicked by him to work on Lazarus, Irish playwright ENDA WALSH was one of DAVID BOWIE’s closest collaborators at the time of his death. He talks to STUART CLARK about his friend’s love of theatre, his work ethic and legacy.
David Bowie’s death on January 10 this year came as a complete shock to even some of his closest friends and musical allies who had no idea that the 69-year-old had been battling liver cancer.
One of the people who did know was Enda Walsh, the Dublin playwright who collaborated with Mr. B on the Lazarus musical, which after a successful New York run is now a sell-out every night in London’s King Cross Theatre.
“I received a text from David on Christmas Day saying, ‘Sorry for not being in touch. A bit sick at the moment, but Happy Christmas’,” Walsh recalls. “We’d been working together for about a year-and-a-half when in May 2015 he told us that he was sick. And that was it, discussion over, back to the grindstone. There were other things we needed to be doing. He couldn’t stop; he had all these fucking ideas. This guy just worked, worked, worked. One day after not seeing him for a week or two he came in and said, ‘I’ve these four new songs for Lazarus’, and they were just stunning.”
Walsh, whose theatrical CV also includes Disco Pigs, The Walworth Farce, Ballyturk, The Twits, The Last Hotel, and the Tony Award-winning musical adaptation of Once, classes himself as a Bowie fan rather than an obsessive, which made meeting him for the first time slightly easier. “I’m from The Smiths generation, so I wasn’t really aware of him until ‘Let’s Dance’,” Enda admits. “As I got into my twenties, I started listening to his older stuff, so I absolutely understood and appreciated his legacy. Going into the meeting I was fine, but as it went on I was like, ‘Oh fuck, Jesus, I’m sitting with David Bowie. This is terrifying!’ He was a really lovely man, and had read all my stuff, which he had lots of questions about. It was my rather more difficult plays he was attracted to as opposed to Once.
“David went to see theatre and was fascinated by it. He’d been waiting to make some musical type thing for a long time, and would ask me stuff like, ‘How can you make something that isn’t literal, which carries some vague narrative and holds people?’ There was a lot of that.”
David and Enda’s getting-to-know-each-other included visits to Manhattan’s Museum of Modern Art, during which Bowie would pull down his flat-cap and try to go unnoticed.
“Occasionally, someone would recognise him and just stand there open-mouthed,” Walsh laughs. “The guy was inspired by all art and everything around him. He realised that you can’t be constantly going over the same ground again and again. You need to push it. David wasn’t afraid to throw things away that had previously been successful for him, and think new stuff.”
Lazarus is a sequel to The Man Who Fell To Earth, Walter Tevis’ 1963 sci-fi novel about an extraterrestrial who crash-lands here whilst on a mission to save his own planet, which has almost run out of water. Bowie was eager to revisit the central character, Thomas Newtown, who he played a decade later in Nicolas Roeg’s big screen adaptation.
“David came to me with four pages and said, ‘These are to get us going’,” Walsh resumes. “Along with Thomas Newton, a man who’s stuck on earth and can’t die, he’d sketched out these three other main characters – Elly, his assistant, who worships him and tries to become this woman from Thomas’ past; a mysterious girl who may or may not be alive; and a mass murderer. David had this central image of a rocket being made out of debris from Thomas’ apartment. I showed him a photograph of a stained glass window that had Christ as the central image and smaller windows and tiny scenes around it – and David responded by showing me this picture of a shattered one and saying, ‘I think this is what our structure is.’ Early on, we’d talked about how we needed to pass the story through the brain of a man who’s in a state of collapse. You don’t know what you’re looking at for a long time. Then it begins to piece together… sort of!” I think it’s fair to say that Enda and Mr. B weren’t going for the Mamma Mia!, We Will Rock You or, indeed, Once market.
“Very fair to say!” Walsh laughs. “It was always going to be something a little more abstract and less literal. Like David’s lyrics, it’s open to interpretation. The producer Robert Fox’s first thought when he read it was, ‘Fuck, I’ll never be able to buy that Caribbean island!’ This isn’t about the money. It’s not about making a huge commercial hit. It’s about making whatever the work will be.”
While reviews of Lazarus have ranged from the rave (New York Times: “Ice-bolts of ecstasy shoot like supernovas through the fabulous muddle and murk”) to the utterly bewildered (Daily Mail: “Not even Bowie can breathe life into this”), no one’s had a bad word to stay about star man Michal C. Hall, who sounds eerily like Bowie on the reconfigured versions of ‘Heroes’, ‘Absolute Beginners’ and ‘Where Are We Now?’
“Myself and David had been working for about ten months on Lazarus, and started having discussions about actors and stuff,” Enda reveals. “We wanted someone who when you look at them makes you go, ‘I know that’s a human being, but he’s got the energy of someone who isn’t.’ Michael was on Broadway doing Hedwig at the time, and had played those brilliant roles in Six Feet Under and Dexter. He’s the sweetest person but has that strange detachment, which makes him fucking mysterious. And, of course, he has that killer voice. To be able to belt out songs like ‘It’s No Game’, which would finish a lot of people off, eight times a week is extraordinary.”
Enda says that the happiest he saw David was when they got to the rehearsal stage.
“By then he knew his cancer was really bad, but that didn’t slow him down one iota. We were continually bouncing ideas off each other. I know he was writing songs right up until he died. He played ‘Blackstar’ for me, and I thought, ‘Oh my God, this is such a brilliant, ballsy track.’ The band he had was really killer. We talked about family and other stuff, of course, but the main focus was always the work.
“David loved being at rehearsal. It was quite a thing at first for the cast, but then they got used to him. We’d cram into this tiny rehearsal space right on top of the actors and he’d be so happy. It was a really fantastic thing. To be surrounded by so many people belting out songs… you could see that it meant the world to him.”
Walsh doesn’t buy into the notion of Lazarus and Blackstar being some sort of grandiose last will and testament.
“People say, ‘This is the man who stage-managed everything’ but I never saw that,” he insists. “David was always saying, ‘What are we going to do next?’ Not once did I sense a finality talking to him.”
Despite his rapidly deteriorating health, Bowie still worked it like a pro at last December’s opening night in the New York Theater Workshop. “There was no way he was going to miss it,” Enda concludes. “At the end of the evening, he went around the theatre and thanked everyone. God almighty, he was such a sweet man! We said our goodbyes in the foyer, and then he walked out to this explosion of camera flashes. You’d be working with him and forget that he was ‘rock legend David Bowie’. He was very good at going, ‘Actually, that part of my life isn’t me.’ What was David was making cups of tea in the rehearsal room, sitting down to watch the actors and having a biscuit. I feel incredibly privileged to have collaborated with him.”
Enda Walsh takes care of ribbon-cutting duties on January 5 when the 2017 Dublin Bowie Festival kicks off in The Sugar Club with a screening of The Man Who Fell To Earth followed by a Q+A with Enda about its theatrical sequel, Lazarus, and other matters of a Thin White Duke-ian nature. Running over six action-packed nights, another of David’s trusted lieutenants, Gerry Leonard, flies home from NYC to perform on January 9 in Whelan’s with a post-gig chat to Professor Eoin Devereux, the author of David Bowie: Critical Perspectives, which will be coming out in paperback edition.