Sara Keating, ‘Ordinary lives, but full of drama’, interview with Paul Mercier, in The Irish Times (Wed., 16 March 2011).

Paul Mercier has returned with two plays, both set in modern Dublin and resonant of difficult times – yet it’s not the job of theatre to write about the banks, he says, but about the lives that go on regardless writes Sara Keating.

[ Source: Available at The Irish Times - online; also at Dublintheatre.ie - online; both accessed 03.07.2011.]

THE MORNING OF the first preview is perhaps not the ideal time to interview a playwright, particularly when that playwright is Paul Mercier, whose two new plays are opening in repertory on the main stage at the Abbey Theatre this week under his own direction. As I wait for him to come down from the rehearsal room, where he is still working with Don Wycherley and Andrea Irvine on The East Pier, the multi-levelled set for The Passing is being installed on the stage for the evening’s performance.

When he arrives in the theatre bar Mercier is a tightly coiled spring of nervous energy, which articulates itself in a restless compact frame. He searches for words with gestures and drifts off into silence occasionally, inviting me to fill in the blanks. He gets up so suddenly from the table several times that I am convinced he is going to walk away mid-sentence to go back to the rehearsal room; as if whatever he has just said has given him an idea that might be better served elsewhere.

It is a challenge, Mercier admits, this “funny dynamic, where I am working on one show [The East Pier] that is still nowhere near finished, while the other [The Passing] goes in front of an audience tonight, and next week, they’ll be both there, running alternately, in rep. Usually, you go through various stages of emotional ... y’know ...”

“Anxiety?” I proffer.

“... with a show. But with this it’s everything, all of it, all the time. And yet you have to be careful not to try and let one ... what’s the word ...”

“Infect?”

“... the other. I can see the actors trying to work it out when I come in: what zone, what play, is he in now?”

It is fortunate, then, that the two plays sit so neatly together, “because they weren’t really written deliberately as companion pieces”, Mercier insists. “There is no neat recurrence of themes really, or characters; no bringing of the two worlds together in any concrete way. But what they share which I think is important is that the world they evoke is the same: the present-day suburban experience of Dublin. They are contemporary in the very ... em ...”

“Literal?”

“... sense of the word: they reflect real people’s experience today.”

That is not to say, however, that the plays are engaged in any direct way with the political context of contemporary Ireland: they are not. Mercier’s work is often talked about in relation to its social context – 1985’s Wasters is remembered for its portrayal of disenchanted unemployed youth in recession-blighted Ireland; the 1986 play Studs for its celebration of working-class male identity in crisis; the 2006 play Homeland for the way it anatomised Celtic Tiger Ireland.

However, for Mercier, reflecting a social world, in crisis or not, is not the point of his writing. The Passing and The East Pier may be set in contemporary Dublin, amid the wreckage of a bust economy and a visionless future, but “events like the banking crisis, or whatever, happen every day. We’re either flush with [money] or we’re not. These events have been happening since I first began writing in the 1980s. The times then were challenging too ...” He drifts off into pensive silence.

“And people still live and die and fight and make bad decisions and are unhappy with their lot?” I suggest

“Yes. Ordinary life continues regardless of the economic circumstances.”

“That’s not the job of theatre anyway,” he elaborates, when he can find the words, “to write a play about the banks. The drama of [public events] is already played out, and what can a writer bring to it that’s new. It was the same with 9/11. Within days, people were saying, ‘this has happened, now art must respond.’ But what is interesting is not what happened, but how for the most part the circumstances of our lives don’t really change. So this new crisis in Ireland may be forcing people to ask themselves where their lives are going, but that’s to do with human ...”

“Nature?”

“... not the banks. The people in my plays are at a critical point in their lives. It’s just that their economic circumstances are making the questions more pressing.”

As such, then, there is no specific mention of negative equity or Nama or the IMF in The East Pier or The Passing. But the plaintive tone they share is perhaps the most striking element of their contemporary relevance. The characters that inhabit both worlds are restless, searching and bitterly disappointed with how their lives have turned out. You might not call either play a metaphor for the contemporary social disease in Ireland, but there’s something strikingly resonant about them anyway.

It was a desire to see the world that shaped him represented in the theatre that first prompted Mercier to start writing for the stage. Growing up in Blackrock, educated at UCD, working as a teacher of Irish and English, Mercier found the theatre in 1980s Dublin to be “karaoke-style”.

“This idea that if something was on in the West End, we had to have it here,” he says. “I’d go to see Shakespeare, which was great, and things at the Theatre Festival – and of course there was some great contemporary writing too and experimental work, but that seemed to be talking just to other people who worked in the theatre. I didn’t see anything where I thought ‘that’s me up there. That’s the world that I am living in right now.’

“And that’s what I wanted, that’s the theatre I believe in. It’s about giving ordinary life dramatic expression, giving the people who come to see it ... not empowerment ... not liberation ... validation? No.”

“Recognition?” I suggest.

“Yeah, recognition. So if I was writing about disenfranchised kids or a football team or inner-city Dublin, it was not about writing an ‘issue-based’ play, but about saying ‘This is going on, this is as worthy of dramatic expression as anything else.’ ”

Mercier’s theatre company, Passion Machine, became one of the most vibrant forces in Dublin theatre of the 1980s and 1990s, producing his own work and the work of other writers, such as Roddy Doyle’s Brownbread and Declan Lynch’s Massive Damages. The success enabled Mercier to leave his teaching post at Greenhills College and become a full-time writer. However, his work was not without its critics.

“People would say, that’s not the role of theatre. That’s for soap opera. Kitchen-sink, they’d say.” (In response, Mercier playfully called one of his most celebrated plays Kitchensink.) “But it’s about letting ordinary people connect with the world in a different way. That’s really what ‘culture’ is about.”

Perhaps as a result of his inclusive creative aspirations, much of Mercier’s work has taken more fluid form than conventional literary text-based drama. (Perhaps because of their performative quality too, much of his work remains unpublished). Homeland, for example, took shape in 2006 after five-week improvisational rehearsals with the actors.

“There was a general idea of what we wanted to create and we took it from there. And the style was more physical, visual as a result. We were playing with the mechanics of the stage as much as with the subject matter.”

Remembering the “crazy” process, he grins when he says that “the best thing for me at the moment I think is to have the play written well in advance”.

The East Pier and The Passing, he says with relief, “were commissions. They are all about the written word. But that doesn’t mean that the [plays] haven’t been reshaped through the rehearsal process,” he continues, and in talking about the practicalities of the process he is as fluent as he has been throughout the interview.

“That’s why I like to direct my own work. Not because I want to be in control – and if I want the work to survive they will have to be directed by other people at some stage. But for me the decisions that I make as a director are necessary for me to fulfil my role as writer. For me there is no division in the artistic role.”

There is movement behind us in the Abbey bar and Mercier jumps up from his seat again – “Is there someone looking for me?” – as if this new practical direction in the conversation reminds him that there are actors waiting upstairs and stage-hands who need him in the theatre.

“Shred the scripts you saw when you get home!” he shouts as he bounds up the stairs, as if to reinforce the fact that what you expect with a Mercier play is never quite what you will see.

THE JOURNEY TO HERE

Playwright Paul Mercier began to make his name in the 1980s as writer and artistic director with Passion Machine Theatre Company, for whom he directed 11 of his own plays, alongside work by writers like Roddy Doyle and Michael Harding. More recently he was director of TG4’s landmark teenage drama Afric . His work for the stage remains indelibly associated with Dublin.

MERCIER’S DUBLIN THROUGH THE DECADES

1980s Mercier’s Dublin in the 1980s was characterised by groups of alienated youths finding community in an indifferent city through rock music ( Drowning, 1984), drinking ( Wasters, 1985), and sport ( Studs, 1986). Mercier directed the film version of Studs in 2006.

1990s Mercier’s Dublin Trilogy defined a decade in Irish theatre. Buddleia (1995) brought its characters on a physical journey through the shifting capital. Kitchensink (1997) showed a city constantly under construction, while Native City (1998) probed the new realities of racism.

2000s In Down the Line a family comes under pressure as its children come of age, while the expressionistic fluidity of Homeland (2006) reflected a culture struggling to define itself amidst new wealth and materialism.


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