Dublin-born Conor McPherson is regarded as one of the UK’s leading playwrights. He exploded onto the world theatre scene in 1997 with the Royal Court premiere of The Weir, described by the Daily Telegraph as 'so good, you walk away feeling positively shaky'. For that production, he was awarded Most Promising Playwright from both London Critics Circle and London Evening Standard and in 1998 won an Olivier Award for Best New Play.
At the premiere of his 2004 play Shining City, the London Telegraph hailed him 'the finest dramatist of his generation' and the subsequent Broadway production in 2006 earned him a Tony Award nomination for Best Play.
Last week the Australian premiere of Shining City opened in Melbourne presented by local company Hoy Polloy Theatre. In July Perth Theatre Company will present one of his earlier works, St Nicholas.
Paul Andrew interviewed Conor McPherson for Australian Stage and asked him about his inspiration as a playwright.
Conor way back whenever, who or what was a key catalyst for your plunge into playwriting?
When I read Death of a Salesman at the age of fifteen or sixteen, I knew there was something about playwriting that attracted me very much. I liked that it had to be concise enough to do its work in a limited time span, but had to quickly go very deep emotionally to have any effect. This appealed to me for some reason. Then when I was seventeen I read Glengarry Glen Ross by David Mamet and became fascinated by the use of every day language to create a poetic and visceral piece of art. I can trace the beginnings of my own decision to write a play to these two works.
Has Irish mythology inspired you as a writer?
My last play, The Seafarer is based on an old Irish story of the Devil arriving to play cards with a group of ne’er do wells on a stormy evening. I am more interested in folk tales rather than ‘myths’. I like the personal aspect of folk tales which seem to happen to real people as opposed to myths which seem to happen to super human ‘heroes’.
Is there a particular tale that lingers in your thoughts?
I am more interested in historical monuments like Newgrange, a 5,000 year old structure in County Meath in Ireland – older than the pyramids, older than Stonehenge. It is a burial chamber with an opening where the sun shines directly into the structure once a year - at dawn on the morning of the Winter solstice. This is so spiritual and mysterious, the sunlight entering the tomb after the darkest night of the year, and it’s mind boggling how the people who built it had such an understanding of astronomy and time.
You have studied philosophy. Do you feel you have a particular philosophical or moral take on our contemporary way of being?
Philosophy taught me to accept my own ignorance. Being ignorant means you are always learning – or at least trying to. My plays are simply pictures of the world as I encounter it. I try to generate the feeling of what it is like to be alive and knowing you will die – how confusing it is, how interesting, how painful, how beautiful, how funny, how tragic… there is no one message or feeling I am trying to convey.
Is that demonstrated in Shining City perhaps?
Shining City is about what it means to be haunted. By the past, by our regrets, by our wishes for the future, by the stupid things we do, by our own unfinished business.
Monologue has been one of your great joys, why?
I always enjoyed the speed at which a monologue can take you deep into the heart of somebody and its efficiency in bringing an audience somewhere special in the most simple way.
Who are the playwrights you admire most - and for which contribution's that they have made?
I find many playwrights interesting - as writers - because they work in such a constrained way. Everything they do has to be capable of being performed. I like playwrights who seem to struggle with the constraints, where the writer seems to wrestle with the form – Chekhov, Beckett, Tom Murphy.
What fascinates you about the phantasmic and metaphysical worlds?
The unknown is always more beautiful and intriguing than the known. Mystery gets the mind and heart racing.
Dublin is the backdrop - what is the nature and culture of the Dublin that you reveal to us?
Ireland is a young independent democracy, still coming to terms with its freedom. Freedom from poverty, oppression, darkness. It’s hard to be free because freedom entails responsibility. Responsibility requires strength. Strength requires confidence. Confidence requires security. Security requires freedom, and so on… Dublin is a place struggling to know itself, struggling to love itself.
Shining City is a departure from your monologue approach into the two hander. By way of some insight into backstory and method to the actual writing of this play, was this a conscious decision in writing the play - as a two hander - or did the characters reveal themselves to you through monologues at first, that you eventually interwove?
I don’t consciously choose a form. Stories dictate their form. The structure of Shining City reflects the story it is trying to tell, that’s all. The whole monologue thing was never a choice for me. I always just told the story in the simplest way I could. I don’t feel the urge to write any more monologues at the moment. I’m listening to more voices - I hope.
Who inspired the John character?
I don’t really know where the inspiration for John came from. There’s a lot of guilt there. So maybe from feelings of guilt…
And Ian - the therapist character?
Ian, for me, is a picture of the human condition as I saw it at that time. He doesn’t know where he has come from. He doesn’t know where he is going. He doesn’t know how to belong. He is trying to be a good person. He is searching for happiness. But he finds pain everywhere. He may be the bleakest character I’ve ever drawn. He gives so little away. I feel sorry for him. He is absolutely paralysed, but still searches to move on.
Theatre can bring the ceremony and ritual back into our lives, what do you feel?
I completely agree. The ritual of theatre is beautiful. You arrive at the theatre. You get a buzz from being in a crowd. The lights go down, everything goes quiet. The audience have to concentrate to follow the story. They communicate with each other by laughing. They laugh at ordinary things to show recognition. They laugh at extraordinary things to show delight. If the play is really good, and really well performed, they become absorbed into the world of the play. At the end of the play, they clap to physically wake themselves up from the dream-state of the play. It’s a very ancient and perhaps underestimated experience.
Which contemporary playwrights do you keep an eye on today?
I suppose I keep an eye on anything that’s new and interesting. Enda Walsh is an interesting contemporary Irish playwright. Joe Penhall is an interesting contemporary British playwright. There are loads of others. I usually have some idea of what’s going on.
What are you writing right now?
Right now I am working on a low-budget movie that will be shot in Ireland in Spring ’08. I’m also trying to write a new play, but don’t know where it will be performed (or if it will be good enough!) I’m also preparing to direct my play The Seafarer on Broadway. We did it last year at London’s National Theatre and it went really well. So hopefully I can put it back together in a half-decent fashion.
Hoy Polloy presents Shining City by Conor McPherson - until 16 June 2007. Details»