DRAMATIST Michael West has distinguished himself with his work for The Corn Exchange theatre company since the late 1990s.
The Corn Exchange has delivered — under the direction of West’s wife, Annie Ryan — a series of acclaimed productions, among them Dublin by Lamplight, Everyday, Freefall and Man of Valour. Each of these has been produced via a ‘devised theatre’ methodology different to traditional literary theatre.
Rather than write the script and cast it, each new Corn Exchange play has begun with West and Ryan deciding upon cursory themes and images, then inviting a group of actors to explore these in a complex rehearsal process.
The bones of the play emerge in these rehearsals, before West, as the writer, binds them together into the play proper, drafting a final script, while refining structure and theme.
The process has had stunning successes and imbued the company with a distinctive identity — bolstered by Ryan’s repeated use of the masked character-types and direct style of commedia dell’arte. Yet, perhaps as a result of The Corn Exchange’s process, West’s gift as a writer has been masked. If one considers his plays together, themes recur, not least his insights into the wonders and sore complexities of the lives of so-called ‘ordinary people’.
Moreover, his plays are also marked by an eager formal playfulness that probes the possibilities of performance and technology.
When one considers, in addition, the numerous adaptations West has scripted for The Corn Exchange (The Seagull, Dubliners), the Abbey Theatre (The Marriage of Figaro, Lolita), and the Gate Theatre (Tartuffe), it is obvious he is a prodigious writing talent, who has yet to receive his full due.
Perhaps the Abbey’s production of West’s new play, Conservatory, will help bring his significance to Irish theatre into still greater focus.
The play stars Stephen Brennan and Deirdre Donnelly, as a mature couple who, one night by their fireside, dig up an uncomfortable episode from their past.
And Conservatory is a rare thing for West — a play that he wrote the old-fashioned way.
“I think of myself as a writer, first, and a theatre-maker, second,” says West. “Conservatory is a play that came to me as a writer. It came to me as the image of this older couple having an argument about a box.
“And I was very curious about who they were and what was in the box.
“It’s a study of marriage and of being a parent, a study of love and of losing love, and of all the things that occur to you when you have kids and you’re watching people get older.”
West says there is pleasure in single-handedly writing a play and then selling it on to someone else to produce. “As a career model, I probably should have tried this before,” he deadpans.
In contrast to the striking formal play of his Corn Exchange work, the script for Conservatory was spare, he says. West has been taken with what director Michael Barker-Caven, and his designers, have done to flesh it out visually.
“The question was how to make this interior domestic scene float into an exciting theatrical experience,” he says. “They have come up with a very elegant solution to that. The trappings of the play are naturalism. It’s a couple sitting beside the fireside, talking about crosswords. And, yet, where the play goes and how it pulls images out of the air is very full. The point is to make the thing itself shine and make the actor in front of the audience bristle with life. That’s the game,” West says.
Whether it’s devised or traditional, West says the key thing in theatre is to be open to the talent of others.
As a lecturer at The Lir drama academy at Trinity College, West counsels young writers to be alert to the benefits of the rehearsal process.
“I always tell them that theatre is a very blunt instrument of the entertainment industry in the first place,” he says. “But writing for theatre is a nightmare, because you are utterly dependent on the kindness of strangers and on all of the idiots who ruin your play, from your brilliant idea up to its reception. In a rehearsal room, you may discover that your idea just doesn’t work.
“And that’s a terrifying thing. But the whole thing about theatre is that it’s an objective medium. Somebody is watching it and if they don’t get it, then it doesn’t happen. And that’s the great thing I’ve learned from working with Annie: she has a relentless ability not to be impressed with what’s supposed to be happening ‘in theory’. She’ll just say, ‘what is that supposed to be?’ That questioning is a great gift to a writer.”
It was student theatre that brought West and Ryan together, when she, a Chicago native, was on an exchange year at Trinity.
To what extent does their relationship inform West’s reflections on marriage in Conservatory, or in plays like Freefall, where marriage was also to the fore? “Your life informs your work,” he says. “Having children, and being in a long relationship, shape your abilities to perceive the world, as well as how you partake of it. And, certainly, if you have kids, that utterly changes your sense of the permanence and the impermanence of things. So that stuff has had a profound impact.”