‘Did you ever write?” asks Enda Walsh. “Yeah,” says Charlie Murphy.
Playwright and actress are sitting together because Charlie, who you might know as Siobhan from Love/Hate, is starring in Enda’s brand new play, Arlington.
“Did you?!” he gasps.
“I love writing,” she smiles.
Ireland’s most raved-over dramatist has just let slip that when he was 17, he wrote love poetry for girls – “really, really, brilliant poetry”. Taking tea in Dublin to promote the world première of this surprise new play, which he pulled like a rabbit from a hat for Landmark Productions and the Galway International Arts Festival, he appears delightfully stunned.
“Do you still write?” he asks.
“What do you write?”
“You don’t. Do you?”
“But seriously. How often would you do that, of a week?”
“I wrote a poem for someone yesterday.”
The cast are in their third week of rehearsals and discovery is in the air. Maybe if Arlington was a different sort of play, it wouldn’t matter that Charlie writes poetry. But the play is set in a world that feels, according to its writer and its director Enda, “sad, and terrifying, and brutal.” It is about “love, enduring an oppressive, collapsing world”, says the 49-year-old.
In truth, no one can say what it’s about until they’ve seen it. As with most of Walsh’s plays, it’s up to the audience to say for themselves. (“There’s nothing like sending an audience out and going, you f**king go away and think about that,” says the foul-mouthed priest of Irish theatre).
But mention of “refugees”, “disparate lives”, “war”, “horrible regimes”, “right-wing regimes”, “ISIS” and “America being fed fear” suggest that Arlington is more about The World and Now than anything he’s made before.
His plays are often set in confined spaces outside of reality as we know it. Ballyturk in “no place, no time”; The Walworth Farce in a murderous tower block somewhere in London; The Last Hotel (an opera) on what might have been the edge of an empty earth.
“I don’t write work that is overtly political or sociological,” says Walsh, “but this feels like it might be under the fingernails of what now is.”
Arlington features Isla (Murphy) in a waiting room, in a tower, being monitored. “It does feel like a weird fable,” says Murphy. She falls in love, but through a wall, with Young Man (Hugh O’Conor), whom she can’t see.
“It’s a strange, modern way of falling in love with someone,” says Hugh.
Phrases like “star cast” are unavoidable, with Murphy, O’Conor and the voices of Olwen Fouéré and Stephen Rea in the mix. The play is also a formal leap, with an intriguing new dimension brought to Walsh’s close circle of set and sound designers – choreographer Emma Martin is working with contemporary dancer Oonagh Doherty who plays “Young Woman”.
Arlington came to Walsh during a bleak time.
“Everyone was dying last year. One of my best friends died in September, my mum died in October and I was working with someone I knew was going to die.” (David Bowie, who made Broadway musical Lazarus with Walsh before he died in January).
“I was feeling a bit bashed-up. I thought it would be really good for my soul to write something about love,” he says.
Walsh wrote it in three weeks during a “blaze” of productivity in January, and commandeered his cast. Like a siren on a rock lures her sailor, Murphy came to Walsh through a voice. He had seen the Wexford actress in Mark O’Rowe’s Our Few and Evil Days and in his own play, Disco Pigs, at the Old Vic. But it was her disembodied voice in his installation A Girl’s Bedroom that caught his fancy.
“When I started writing this, I thought maybe Murphy will like it.”
And? “I loved it, loved it,” she shrugs. “I’m skipping into work every day.”
As for O’Conor – the child star of My Left Foot and Lamb turned beloved film and stage actor, and a director and photographer in his own right – at 42, this is his first Enda Walsh play. “I’ve never been happier coming into a rehearsal room. He’s so exciting to be around, and you just feed off him. Enda’s got this incredible imagination.”
And the work itself? “There’s nothing like it,” says O’Conor. “Literally, I’ve never read anything like it.”
But Arlington is where poetry and death meet. In February, Walsh was walking by the Liffey when he saw the Arlington Hotel. “I thought, that is such a beautiful word, Arlington. It feels grand.” He remembered it came from the Arlington Cemetery in Washington: “City of the Dead, they call it.” He had the title for his love story.
Arlingtonory plays at Leisureland, Salthill, July 7-24 as part of Galway International Arts Festival. Enda Walsh’s installation pieces Rooms – A Girl’s Bedroom and Room 303 also play.
Written by Maggie Armstrong for The Independent 3.07.16