The Ireland that Conor McPherson has depicted in his acclaimed plays for much of his career doesn’t quite exist anymore.
In many of his works, above all his 1997 masterpiece The Weir, which premiered when he was 25, he declared a sharp eye and a keen ear for the parochial – with glimpses of the otherworldly: a land, familiar and strange, of story-telling and the supernatural, of sorrows drowned in drink and redemption sought in the teeth of despair. Men talk a lot, the characters habitually Irish-born and white.
“I don’t want to see five white men in some play now,” he tells me now. “There was a time in Ireland where that was all you saw – certainly in my work that’s all there was – and it doesn’t interest me anymore.”
Would he countenance more diverse casting of his existing plays, regardless of any demands for authenticity? Yes, he says: “I love working with casts who look different.”
Within a generation, aside from the boom and bust of the “Celtic Tiger” decade, much has changed on the Emerald Isle, demographically speaking. And McPherson, 52, is fine with that. “Ireland is different now, and it’s much healthier. Coming into contact with other cultures and nationalities is healthy for Irish people. Young people are far freer in their minds than they were. We’re doing really well. I just see that as all good. It’s progress. It’s about there being only one race, the human race.”
McPherson’s optimism and playfulness is apparent when we talk via Zoom from his home in Dublin. Yet hours later, a stabbing involving schoolchildren on Parnell Square East leads to the city’s worst riots in decades – with anti-immigrant sentiment at the heart of the violent disorder.
When I email him for a response, he tells me that his heart goes out to the children and their carer who were attacked, that “everyone here was profoundly shocked by the events of that day. However, the ensuing riots and looting that night don’t change my positive and optimistic view of Irish people and their character.”
That I’d turn to him thus is still a sign of the general respect in which McPherson is held. There’s something about the nature of McPherson’s work that means he merits the mantle long held by Brian Friel (1929-2015) as “Ireland’s greatest living playwright”. McPherson modestly bats that notion away – “I don’t see myself in that league.” Yet there’s a soulfulness, wisdom and hint of the numinous about his writing that gives it a rare quality, depth and solace.
McPherson tells me he views theatre as a site for something akin to religious experience: “For me, it’s like looking at an altar... what happens there has to be a meaningful ritual, otherwise I feel like I’m wasting my time.
“I’m not saying I have answers but for me the mystery of existence, and being conscious enough to understand that we exist, is meaningful. I don’t walk around with those thoughts at the forefront of my brain but when I’m working in the theatre, that’s what I’m trying to suggest.”
That strong existential slant seems remarkable given that he turned his back on his faith in early adolescence after being alienated by the beatings he received at his Catholic school. “Corporal punishment was still legal, so God and physical pain were all wrapped up in an ego-diminishing cocktail full of guilt,” he shudders. Yet the religious influence lingers, despite his rejection.
“Our country freed ourselves of that guilt,” he says. “I don’t know if the Church has ever fully recovered in Ireland. At the same time, Irish people are Catholic in their DNA – they have that sense of feeling that this world is only part of reality. They’re like Polish people in that respect.”
It’s a pertinent comparison as his latest stage project is an adaptation of the award-winning Cold War (2018), by Polish film director Paweł Pawlikowski. A love story – inspired by Pawlikowski’s own parents’ turbulent relationship – about an accomplished musical director, called Wiktor, and a beautiful, temperamental young singer (“Zula”), it roves from bleak Communist-ruled Poland in the 1940s to the West, and Paris, in the 1960s.
“I loved the movie, and found it fascinating. But I remember having a discussion with Rupert Goold,” he adds, referring to the Almeida’s artistic director, directing this. “He talked about the characters’ existence in a Soviet structure and then in the Western democracy they escape to. I said: ‘I see them more in a cosmic predicament. They’re lost souls.’ That’s what I connected with.”
He has augmented the sparse screenplay. Also added to the mix are a batch of songs written by Elvis Costello. “When I first talked to Paweł, I felt that trying to do a standard musical of Cold War was a fool’s errand. Elvis’s music fits beautifully.”
Though it doesn’t dominate, alcohol and the descent into wild drinking features too, a downward spiral McPherson needs no research to grasp. His drinking in his 20s got so bad that in 2001 – on the February night his play Port Authority opened in the West End – he was rushed to hospital, with a ruptured pancreas, resulting in months of treatment.
It was the Irish drinking culture itself that landed him there, he says. “It was an unquestioned practice. By the time you were 14 or 15, you were supposed to start drinking. I hope there’s more awareness in Ireland now, but these things can be quite embedded. Luckily for me I found out relatively fast that it wasn’t for me. It freed me. I remember someone saying to me ‘Are you worried you won’t be able to write?’ I said: ‘That’s the least of my worries.’”
When I interviewed Frank Skinner recently, he still mourned the gregarious side he had when inebriated. “I don’t miss it at all,” McPherson retorts. “There’s nothing I miss about it. It was very dark, as bad as it could be. It didn’t give me anything I don’t have now. If you are stuck drinking you can’t conceive of your life without it but that’s an illusion – you can flourish without it.”
While nothing McPherson has written since The Weir has had quite the same impact, he enjoyed a recent hit on both sides of the pond with Girl from the North Country, the eerie Depression-set play with music he concocted after being given free rein with Bob Dylan’s back catalogue.
He implies that he was relieved never to have met the great man in an anti-climactic way: “If it was a rushed cup of coffee with Bob Dylan between a hotel lobby and his tour bus compared with the time I got to spend with his work… well, I feel I’ve spent time with the real Dylan so I’ve no regrets about it.”
For a time, all his new work was held against the benchmark of The Weir, and he felt that pressure too.
“For a few plays, I was like, “Why does everyone keep talking about The Weir?” But now I look back and think it’s amazing to have a play like that in your life and that I wrote it when I was young enough to enjoy it. It’s a bit like Michelin stars – it’s very hard to get one. Two? Wow. Three? Very rare. If you’re remembered for two plays that’s cool. If you’re remembered for one you can’t complain.”
Life, right now, seems good for McPherson, with plenty of work coming in (there’s a film version of Girl from the North Country in the pipeline and next year sees the London premiere of his stage adaptation of The Hunger Games). On the domestic front, he’s long married, and a father too. Might that comfort factor diminish his artistic ardour? He smiles. “I think life is always challenging no matter where you are. I’m as engaged in the struggle of life as I ever was as a child, or teenager. I’m still entangled in it all, trying to figure it out.”
Cold War is at the Almeida, London N1, until Jan 27; almeida.co.uk