NOVELIST and playwright Pat McCabe has been in Cork for the past few weeks developing his new play, The Stars of Bel Air, with Corcadorca Theatre Company.
A rehearsed reading of the play, open to the public, takes place at the Triskel Arts Centre’s Theatre Development Centre tomorrow, as part of the Cork Midsummer Festival.
Monaghan-based McCabe, best known for his novels, The Butcher Boy and Breakfast on Pluto (both of which were made into films by Neil Jordan) says he is excited about working with Corcadorca, a company that he has been keeping an eye on. “I know that Pat Kiernan (artistic director of Corcadorca) has a particular style. Pat commissioned me to do a play. I had written The Stars of Bel Air and pitched it at him and we decided to work together.”
Describing the play, McCabe says Bel Air represents “a magical place, a kind of imaginary Hollywood. In the play, there’s a showband but it’s not really about the band. It’s about this glamorous place that ordinary people would have gone to for romance and a sense of possibilities”.
The play is set in a big country house in an unspecified location. The showband is a standard brass Brendan Bowyer-type outfit. “The play takes place in the present, but the characters are quite old,” says McCabe. “But it’s not a play about a showband talking about the old days. It’s more mythic than that. It’s really like an exotic cabaret.”
The play stars Kate O’Toole, daughter of screen legend Peter O’Toole. “She’s a magnificent actor and a great singer too. She plays a faded starlet called Connie who’s a sort of mixture of Diana Dors and Alma Cogan.” The other main characters are played by David Herlihy and Peter Gowan.
McCabe says it’s very difficult to explain what the play is about. “It’s kind of evolving. Basically, it’s a strange linguistic symphony where we’re playing around with the unspoken fears of people who never say in public what they think in private. That always interests me. It’s about love, thwarted love, thwarted aspirations and ultimately, mortality.”
McCabe says that before workshopping the play, the drama was too long and too much like a novelist’s play with a lot of prose. “It’s a matter of taking a meat cleaver to it and working in close conjunction with Pat. Pat has particular views of it and so have I. We have to reach a kind of compromise.”
Kiernan has a strong vision for the play. “It would be no good if he didn’t have that. It needs formidable authority because it’s asking the audience to go to an unusual place. It’s ambitious.”
While McCabe’s writing can be quite dark, he hopes that there will also be plenty of light in this work. “But I don’t know yet how it will work out. If it’s dark, I’ll go with it but I hope it’s not. I’m getting fed up with darkness. There’s a lot more going on in the world than that.
“I’m not just saying that because of the recession but because lightness is as much a part of the human experience as darkness.”
The soundtrack of the play has been composed by Maurice Seezer. “The story is as much told through music as it is through language,” McCabe explains. “There are old fashioned songs in it such as Victorian parlour hymns like ‘The Holy City’ and ‘Jerusalem’. There are also a couple of ’60s pop songs and Dickie Rock numbers as well as lonesome plangent ballads from the ’50s. These songs are not played because people know them but because they happen to be part of the integral message of the story.”
McCabe used to help run the Flatlake Arts Festival in Clones, Co Monaghan. But it came to an end this year. “It was an artist-led thing but it got messy through nobody’s fault. Resentments build up over people not being paid. You end up as some kind of unpaid civil servant. We might do some sort of indoor project involving readings in the future, but I’d never do a festival again.”
Next year, McCabe has two books coming out. He says he was lucky to get a publishing deal in the current climate and wonders if literature is “in a way, over”. He is also working on short stories. “I’m writing a lot about the ’70s and people I’d have hung around with — political people and feminists.”
McCabe wouldn’t encourage anyone to embark on a writing career unless they were prepared for a lot of heartbreak and disappointment. “I wouldn’t encourage my own kids to do it,” he says.
He hopes that The Stars of Bel Air will attract plenty of feedback at the reading. The aim is to see if it works and merits a full production.
* Entrance to the reading at 6pm tomorrow is free