He is a successful playwright and screenwriter with a new play opening in London so, as Enda Walsh himself admits, maybe it is about time he started lightening up, finds Caroline Bishop.
“My God, that was like a half an hour therapy,” laughs Enda Walsh at the end of our phone conversation. I agree, what began as a chat about his latest play, Penelope, seems to have morphed into a deconstruction of the playwright’s psyche.
It started normally enough. Walsh, the author of plays including The Walworth Farce and Disco Pigs, is about to see his modern, surreal take on the story of Penelope’s suitors from Homer’s Odyssey receive its London premiere at the Hampstead theatre. Having already had it staged in his native Ireland, at the Edinburgh Festival – where it won a Fringe First – and in New York, Walsh is calm and philosophical about the imminent opening. “Like everything I’ve done, it is what it is and people like it or not like it,” he says.
In fact, returning to Druid Theatre’s production of his play is giving Walsh the chance to re-examine an abstract piece which, it appears, even he didn’t entirely comprehend at first. “I tend to write quite fast” he says – Penelope was written in just three weeks – “and looking at shows originally I feel a little bit locked out myself and probably even more than the audience. Why is this the way it is, and why are they talking the way they are talking, and why this recurring theme, you know?”
Funnily enough, I was hoping he would know the answers to such questions. Usually darkly humorous and challenging to watch, Walsh’s plays are never straightforward. His previous stories have focused on a polio sufferer (Bedbound), two sons locked away by their father in a grotty flat (The Walworth Farce) and three sisters self-imprisoned in an Irish village (The New Electric Ballroom). Continuing the theme of characters trapped in a claustrophobic situation, Penelope centres on four men living in an empty swimming pool who, for the past 20 years, have been vying for the love of Penelope, who is waiting for the return of her husband Odysseus. Facing imminent death at the hands of that returning soldier, they live in a bizarre world of barbecues and sunbathing, interrupting their day only to take it in turns as orator, still hoping to woo the austere, silent Penelope who listens and watches up above. It is funny, dark and surreal; but what does it all mean?
“My plays have always been about, at the very sense of them, why are we living?”
“There are a few things I think it’s about,” says Walsh, agreeing to “have a stab” at explaining his play. “When I see it I go, ok, it seems to be about death. I think what these men have done, the way they have used their lives and lived completely wasted, failed lives, we are watching them just completely re-evaluate what they have done and also go ‘f**k, I’d better actually make sense of myself and I’d better actually leave something behind’.”
They are, he says, “unlikely” Greek heroes who go on a psychological journey.
“That to me is an interesting journey to take: men who have used love for 20 years, have smashed it into the ground, have tried to manipulate this woman and have completely manipulated themselves and their friendships, are now, probably out of sheer panic, knowing that they are going to die, [feeling] ‘we need to do something positive’.”
In part, he says, the play relates to the economic crisis in Ireland and “those men who completely fucked up the country”. The suitors are “that type of wasted individual” and, as if trying to offer them redemption, Walsh’s play is attempting to “find them some sort of goodness out of it”.
But he also, unprompted, connects his characters’ situation to his own life. The need to “do something positive” is something he wrangles with daily, he says. “I am quite a sort of pessimist, I am a bit depressed about f**king things. I can’t allow myself to have a good f**king time. So it’s taking those nihilistic type of characters and trying to give them some sort of rest.”
Later, he says: “A day doesn’t go by where I don’t think, I could f**king disappear right now and of course no one would f**king care apart from my wife, my kid and my family. In terms of my work… every day I think of course it matters nothing. Now that’s something that I know is in the characters too. They have to bash their way through that and try and find something.”
“I am quite a sort of pessimist, I am a bit depressed about f**king things”
This seems a strange thing for a successful playwright to say of himself. Since arriving in the public eye with Disco Pigs in his 20s, Walsh has had his work staged all over the world, been positioned within a generation of acclaimed Irish writers including Conor McPherson and Martin McDonagh and had critics hailing him “a truly original theatrical voice” (The Guardian). He didn’t even plan to be a playwright, but fell into it after studying film, a training which came in handy when he co-wrote multi-award-winning film Hunger. Most unpublished writers would envy such success, so why the negativity? “I’ve always been like that,” he says, half-laughing at himself. “Anxiety has f**king unfortunately fuelled my life to various degrees. I don’t do it purposely or indulge my anxieties or whatever, it’s just a part of me and I know it fuels all these characters. It’s a very restless quality that the characters have, I suppose, that I can completely identify with.”
This restlessness and pessimism must be exhausting. When I ask why he thinks the suitors stay when they know they will die, he says: “They still believe in the fight, the chance that they actually could win this woman. It’s a completely deluded thing. It’s like me believing that I am going to be internally happy. Of course I can never be that. You strive for that, to be happy all the time and you just cannot be. And I see these men and they are going for a prize that is completely unwinnable and yet they stay in there. But that’s f**king life, isn’t it?”
This may all sound like Walsh is a joyless sort. But in fact he is an upbeat, friendly, garrulous interviewee who laughs self-consciously when talking about his innate anxiety, as though ridiculing himself. What’s more, despite the dark themes of his plays and the negativity he projects, he thoroughly enjoys what he does. “I absolutely adore it,” he says. “It isn’t a torture for me. It’s incredibly nourishing and I get so much out of it, and if I didn’t have it I would be in the ground, I would be a mess.”
There is a sense, in fact, that Walsh’s writing is cathartic, as though he uses it to try and make sense of life. His propensity to write about contained situations comes from a desire to get to grips with the core of human nature. How do people react when forced into a situation they can’t get out of? “I love that the plays have this sort of claustrophobia and this intensity and this pressure cooker-ness and thrown into that pot are a swirl of themes I suppose that I’ve been using for years,” he says. “My plays have always been about, at the very sense of them, why are we living? In that sense it’s so f**king ridiculously trite and pompous, but that’s really, really all they are. The characters tend to talk about that. Like it really, really, hugely matters to them that they are going to evaporate if they don’t figure out why the hell they are living.”
“It’s a completely deluded thing. It’s like me believing that I am going to be internally happy. Of course I can never be that.”
It is natural to want to put your stamp on the world, I suggest, and he adds: “One of the saddest things I ever… my old man before he died, I think that was his big thing, actually not being forgotten. What a weird thing. Maybe we all have that, maybe we do.”
I wonder if Walsh will ever get to the point where he feels he has made a lasting impact. Despite being in demand, he still can’t quite believe he is a writer by trade, something which perhaps indicates that insecurity is at the root of his pessimism. “I’m still surprised that I’m still working. I look into the year and I go, oh right yeah, my God I’ve got enough work for the next couple of years, does that mean I’m going to be a writer for the next couple of years? Wow I can’t f**king believe that. When are people going to f**king completely find me out, and go ‘he’s a complete fraud’?”
One of his current projects may be just the job to help Walsh lighten up a bit. He is collaborating with John Tiffany and Steven Hoggett – the director and choreographer of the National Theatre of Scotland’s Olivier Award-winning Black Watch – to make a Broadway show out of Irish musical film Once, a romantic weepie about a pair of struggling musicians in Dublin. “It’s incredibly adorable, it will break your heart,” he says. Adorable is not a word you would naturally associate with Walsh’s work, I say, and he laughs. “I know! There are a couple of people who have gone ‘well done Enda, well done for taking that on, that’s great, you can enjoy yourself this year’. There is a bit of that; you don’t have to f**king annihilate yourself every f**king second of the day.”
But then he will be heading back to darker territory by writing a movie about Franz Stangl, the Austrian commandant of the Treblinka extermination camps during WW2. “It’s extremely schizophrenic I know,” he says of these career switchbacks, “but that actually is… probably… me.” Then he concludes: “There are some times where I actually just need to pat myself on the back and go ‘listen you are alright, don’t worry, carry on, enjoy yourself for a little bit’.” I couldn’t agree more.