Posts Tagged ‘Michael West’

Scriptorium: Michael West

15th April 2020 by admin

Picture by Mathias Fend

Work with The Corn Exchange includes The Fall of the Second Republic, Dublin By Lamplight, Freefall and Man of Valour. Teaches scriptwriting at Queen’s University Belfast.

Clíona Ruiséil: What are your thoughts or feelings about this crisis – has it affected your work and how you view the world?

Michael West: It’s a bit like having an opinion about an asteroid. And hard to comprehend while it’s still going on around us.

Obviously I’ve never had a show closed down by the government before. And to see the next 6 months’ work for myself and colleagues torn up overnight is also deeply strange — quite apart from the question of lost income, it’s the loss of purpose and focus that will prove challenging in the long run.

On the one hand, working in the arts is to be part of a cycle of death and rebirth, project to project. And yet if the theatres can’t open, or audiences refuse to come, what then?

I work from home anyway, so on a daily basis, the same basic distractions and table are still there. I’ve taught a couple of classes online and it was ok.

As I’m typing this the sun is shining and the air is warm and fragrant. The birds are making a ferocious racket in the morning. The quiet is luxurious.

It’s unexpected to find spending so much time with my family so pleasurable — and we are all grateful that we aren’t sick or working in the health services, and count ourselves fortunate every day. People are being kind and thoughtful. I imagine long phone calls are general all over Ireland.

CR: Tell me about your most recent play, The Fall of the Second Republic?

MW: The title and premise of the show — an embattled Taoiseach forming a grand coalition with the other civil war party to hang onto power and crush his rivals — came to me about 10 years ago. We pitched it to the Abbey around the time we were presenting Freefall there in the great snow of December 2010.

The city pretty much shut down around us, and the actors and audiences had to walk to the theatre, where the Abbey handed out hot port to welcome them. It was also the week the IMF came to town. It was one of the most joyful and depressing experiences of my life. Anyway, Freefall is about a dying man seeing his life flash before him. It’s funny and sad and lyrical, dealing with the collapse of a marriage, and looked at the shadow cast by children lost to institutions and the possibility of kindness.

And The Fall of the Second Republic was to be a correction to all of that — a furious, foul-mouthed ensemble comedy to catch the sense of anger at the politicians of the time, but also to provoke laughter. The Abbey passed.

When the current directors of the Abbey asked us back to present Dublin By Lamplight in 2017 I pitched it again as a follow-up, wondering what the grandchildren of those characters would have made of Ireland in the 70s.

By that stage, given the elections in the UK and the USA, the descent into madness and populism made the idea more relevant. The decision to set it in the 70s was a response to the impossibility of keeping up with topical satire. A fictional 1973 offered a simpler time, where politicians were still scared of the truth because they still believed it existed. And I was becoming more intrigued by how Irish politics in that fraught time steered carefully away from demagoguery and proto-fascism in the pursuit of economic stability. Civil liberties, women and children were thrown under the bus, but the political centre was carefully held.

The Abbey commissioned the play and offered a co-production with The Corn Exchange to present it. I wrote a sprawling first draft over the following year and we held a workshop in the summer of 2018. That draft focussed mainly on the internal politics of Manny Spillane and his entourage in Leinster House. The role of the journalist, who became Emer Hackett, was very underdeveloped. Annie Ryan felt that the idea of Manny Spillane’s fall from grace being triggered by a journalist in the years of Watergate made more sense now and that the play needed an outside, female perspective to set off the political shenanigans.

We were originally supposed to present the show in late 2019, but funding struggles between the Abbey and the Arts Council led to a postponement of the show to 2020. The Corn Exchange also had its funding cut to zero, so we were in the strange situation of presenting a posthumous play. We held another workshop with the cast in early December. And we started rehearsals with a fabulous ensemble on January 13. Andrew Bennett who played the lead in Freefall took the part of Manny Spillane. Anna Healy (with whom I first worked in the Abbey with Andrew in The Marriage of Figaro in 1996) was to play his personal assistant. Caitríona Ennis was the fearless journalist, Emer Hackett. John Doran was her lover, Finbar Lowe.

The other roles were played by Declan Conlon, Pa Ryan, Niamh McCann, Eddie Murphy and Camille Lucy Ross — frequently running off and coming back on in different wigs and outfits. Comedy is a gruelling game but I loved every second of rehearsals, rewrites and all.

CR: Arthur Miller said that writers should ‘ask questions’. Do writers have a duty to tackle political, moral or existential questions, or what could be considered other important issues?

MW: To talk of a writer’s duty is itself a political, moral and existential framing of what writing is. Duty implies obligation and service. It is both onerous and honourable. It confers authority and importance on the writer — before they’ve even written anything.

For myself, I’m wary of anything that makes writing into something heroic. But equally I can’t imagine why you’d want to write if you weren’t addressing something you felt was important. And that includes writing for pure entertainment.

Providing answers is rarely satisfying, but asking good questions is another way of imagining yourself into another’s situation.

“What if?” is the premise behind all drama.

@m_r_west

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