Earlier this month, the morning after the opening of his play “Arlington,” in Brooklyn, the Irish playwright Enda Walsh was rubbing his eyes. What did he think of the opening? “I didn’t see it!” he said. “I went out for dinner!” Dressed in a white T-shirt, jeans, and a leather jacket, Walsh looked like a cross between Jughead Jones and a young Sean O’Casey: when O’Casey was writing “The Plough and the Stars,” he barricaded himself in his Dublin flat and wrote “Get on with the bloody play” on the wall above his desk. Walsh shares that aura of riveted panic. I mention that his plays often pivot around an event that’s already happened. “Yes! The action hardly ever occurs onstage! When ‘Misterman’ opens, there are dogs barking, and Tom’s holding an egg, and just like that, the day begins to unravel. Where’d he get the egg? The fact that he killed a girl two days prior, it doesn’t come up! In ‘The Electric Ballroom,’ before the play starts, Ada sees a dog run over, right in front of her. She feels nothing and she thinks, What kind of person have I become? And her whole life blows up.”
In almost all of Walsh’s dreamlike, darkly hilarious plays, the central character has been sent to his—or her—room. His work explores the liminal space between interior and exterior worlds by stringing up a cat’s cradle of language in which his characters swing between memories, dreams, and reflections—an act in which the audience colludes. It’s unclear exactly how this happens. Some of this may be due to Walsh’s exceptional ability to forge immediate connections, on and off the stage. Teho Teardo, the Italian composer and sound engineer who was a founding member of the group Meathead, and who composed the music for “Arlington,” first collaborated with Walsh three years ago, on his play “Ballyturk.” He told me, “When I first met Enda, we went for a walk together in London, and I felt as if we had always secretly known each other—as if we had been in a band together, all along, simply playing different instruments!”
“Arlington” takes place in a large, bare room, furnished with plastic chairs, a fish tank, a radio, and a potted Swiss-cheese plant. The room is one of thousands in a group of towers somewhere on the Irish coast, or any coast. When Isla, played with beautiful ferocity by the Irish actress Charlie Murphy, peers out the window, she sees seagulls. It’s a three-character play in three acts, in which two of the characters are in solitary confinement—almost, as they are watched by an overseer, who has taken the job because the man who held it previously has disappeared. Of the prisoners, only Isla speaks. The gyroscopic second act is performed by a speechless dancer, Oona Doherty, and Teardo’s musical choices—cajoling, brash, percussive—form one of the zip lines holding the acts together. In Walsh’s plays, the action feels jerry-rigged, until it doesn’t.
In “Arlington,” Isla’s dreams are projected onto the room’s back wall: a lush canopy of light and emerald trees, a city street, footsteps. Walsh says, “Isla imagines herself on a train, going into the city, having a sandwich. She highlights just how sweet the mundane is if you have no access to it.” The play, he says, was inspired in part by the refugee crisis. He thinks for a moment, then says, “ ‘Arlington’ is an allegory. But, you know, it doesn’t feel a gazillion miles away. You arrive, for instance, at a seaside town in Europe, and there are all these people, and you realize that all they want is ordinary life. My characters are isolated. They aren’t in control of their lives—that control has been taken from them—but they’ve set it in motion, and lived it.” We’re sitting on stools at a table at the theatre’s atrium. Walsh puts his fingertips together to make a steeple, then laces them, palms up. “You put people on the stage, and they speak—at least I hope they do—for everyone.”
Walsh called Emma Martin, the Irish choreographer, out of the blue to ask if she would collaborate on “Arlington.” They arranged a meeting, but a few weeks before it was scheduled, he called again and said, “Oh, fuck it, I’ll send you the script, and you can see if you still want to meet. It’s about a woman alone in a room who throws herself out a window.” Like Teardo, Martin told me, she felt an immediate affinity. “I read it and I thought, straight off, I’m going to stay in the room! I told him I had a dancer in mind, and Oona read the script. We watched a lot of films about solitary confinement and caged animals—elephants, shifting from foot to foot from the first moment. He just got it. Enda’s kinetic. It’s a busy nervous system!”
A second piece by Enda Walsh, called “Rooms,” which premièred at the Galway Arts Festival last summer, is currently installed at the Irish Arts Center, at the site of the old Cybert Tire Warehouse, on Eleventh Avenue. Three separate rooms (a galley kitchen with old-fashioned fittings, a seedy hotel room, a six-year-old girl’s suburban bedroom) have been built on the second floor. On timed tickets, three people are allowed into each room to listen to a recorded monologue. In the kitchen, a woman who is going mad decides simply to stand at the sink, stock still, for a week. Her speech, by turns frenzied and guttural (“And breathless—though not showing it—and drowning—but not telling him . . . what if a bird entered and landed on my head? Would I flinch? And what sort of a bird would I wish for?”), is Walsh at his most Joycean. In the shabby hotel room, an itinerant preacher has come to the end of the road. In the third, the girl’s bed is unmade, as it was on the day she ran away and walked farther and farther afield, until she couldn’t see what’s she’d left behind, or why.
Walsh wrote the girl’s monologue for Charlie Murphy, who is best known to American audiences as Anne Gallagher, who is abducted by a sociopath in the BBC police procedural “Happy Valley.” (This fall she joins the cast of “Peaky Blinders.”) Six months later, after she read for “Rooms,” Walsh sent her the “Arlington” script. Murphy was then living in a houseboat on the Embankment, in London. “I was carrying all these chairs—there was no direct route from the water to unload them from the car—and I opened the envelope right then and sat down in one of the chairs to read it. I couldn’t wait!” Murphy laughs, then says, “He was a hero of mine, Enda, you know, growing up. He’s a wild one. And, of course, I said yes.”
Walsh was born in 1967, the youngest of six children, in Kilbarrack, a suburb north of Dublin, near the Irish Sea. It’s an old town built on what was originally grange, or field lands, held by Dublin churches. When Walsh was a boy, a group of residential towers called the Swan’s Nest Court were built in Kilbarrack; the towers fell into disrepair and have since been torn down. At the Greendale Community School, one of his teachers was the novelist Roddy Doyle. Walsh’s father was a furniture dealer whose fortunes fluctuated, and his mother was an actress. His plays first drew critical attention in 1996, when “Disco Pigs,” the story of two teen-agers, Pig and Runt, “who have an almost telepathic friendship,” moved from the Edinburgh Festival to a successful run on the West End. Since then, in addition to his prolific output as a playwright (fifteen plays in as many years), his work has included the book for the Broadway musical “Once,” for which he was nominated for a Tony Award, and a stage adaption of Roald Dahl’s novel “The Twits.” “Arlington” is the first of Walsh’s plays to be produced at the Abbey, Ireland’s National Theatre. Currently, Walsh lives in London with his wife, Jo Ellison, the fashion editor of the London Financial Times, and their eleven-year-old daughter.
This is Walsh’s seventh production at St. Ann’s Warehouse. Susan Feldman, the founder and artistic director of the theatre, first saw Walsh’s fratricide comedy, “The Walworth Farce,” which had been commissioned by the Druid Theatre, in Galway, in 2008. Feldman says, “Enda works inside a combustion of words and split personalities and lost love. I remember I saw ‘Hunger,’ ” (a 2008 film directed by Steve McQueen and starring Michael Fassbender), “and in the closing scene, the actor playing Bobby Sands has a twenty-minute talk with a priest about a wounded foal, which is a metaphor for Ireland. I had no idea Enda had written it, but I thought, There it is again, that voice.” We are talking on the phone, and Feldman is in a car driving into London. The connection breaks for a moment, then comes back. She says, “When I saw ‘Arlington’ the first time, I thought it was the most articulate expression of grief I’d ever seen.”
Walsh says, “In my plays, each character reaches a point where something happened that led them to where they’ve ended up. As a child, I was obsessed with running away! I would get about four doors down and then be sent back by the neighbor. ‘Rooms’ is the closest I’ll ever get to writing a novel, or poetry. I feel a close relationship to the audience in these spaces. It’s the simplicity: the immersive trick of listening to a stranger.” In each of the rooms, I tell Walsh, I had closed my eyes and listened—could “Rooms” be a radio play? He shook his head no. “Because of my dad, I’m obsessed with stuff. I furnish a room. I like to feel that the characters are ghosts, and the voices come from the objects they’ve assembled. But the question, for me, is always, Why can’t they access the exterior? And the answers—in ‘Arlington,’ or ‘Rooms’—are very precise. In ‘Misterman,’ Tom sets up the village, recalling every detail, and either very slowly or very quickly, we understand how we all do that, by creating worlds—the ones that we can bear—very, very carefully.”
Noon light from the sky over the river floods the atrium. Walsh says, “Here and in Europe, we’re living in a different world now. It’s a mammoth adjustment. You’re thinking, Christ—Is it O.K. for me, now, to just write plays? Shouldn’t it be coming from a political place? I can’t write directly, it’s an Irish thing. The story has to come out of the side of my mouth. ‘Arlington’ is that dark city of the dead, and it came out of watching the slowly moving car crash that is Trump. I know the play is testing for the audience. I always throw the audience into something confusing, and then the narrative starts to pull itself together. We know something’s up, there’s tension in the room, but we just don’t know what.”
During our conversation, Walsh has methodically deconstructed a blueberry muffin. Now he eats the crumbs one by one. When I was a child, on a trip to Washington, D.C., with my grandparents, I was taken to Arlington Cemetery. It must have been 1967, or ’68. My sister and I played tic-tac-toe in the car. A photograph survives from that wintry afternoon, in an old red photo album, letter-stamped “Our Trip to Washington.” I am wearing a pale-blue wool coat with a brown velvet collar and a matching hat tied under my chin against the wind. The white crosses stretch limitless into the background, a game that nobody won, or wins.
I found myself telling Walsh this. We talked for a little while, about other things. Then he said, “I remember once I was crossing a bridge in Cork, in the mist, and as I stepped onto it, I thought, I am so tiny. It was like being hit by a bus.” He paused, then said, “It’s important to remember your own fragility. In the end, I write simply about love, and people wanting that, always. It’s in every bloody play.”