Enda Walsh: 'Occasionally you make a work and have no idea how it came about'

Award-winning playwright Enda Walsh talks confidence, claustrophobia, and choices with Marjorie Brennan. His play First Child is being staged at Galway International Arts Festival this month
Enda Walsh: 'Occasionally you make a work and have no idea how it came about'

Enda Walsh.  Picture: Dan Linehan

While his play Medicine was showing at the Galway International Arts Festival last summer, Enda Walsh was in rehearsals for The First Child— the third and final instalment in his operatic collaboration with composer Donnacha Dennehy. Also running at the same time in Galway was Bedsit, the eighth in a series of immersive theatre installations by Walsh — his ninth, Middle Bedroom, is there this year. 

When it comes to ideas, Walsh obviously has no shortage but when it comes to the most important part, executing them, he is on another level entirely. What is his secret?

“I’m ridiculously positive, so there is that. And I do have a tremendous amount of energy. Sometimes I come across people with real artistry who lack a little bit of confidence and I think ‘Oh God, I wish I could just give them 10% of mine’,” he says.

Walsh, who has been based in London for many years, also thrives on collaboration, working with top talent in an impressive career spanning all genres, from writing the screenplay for the movie Hunger directed by Steve McQueen to winning a Tony for his work on the musical Once to creating the musical Lazarus with David Bowie.

“I really like working with people. I want it to be a positive learning experience for everyone, and people to push themselves and have a good time pushing themselves. I’ve been very fortunate with the people I’ve worked with. But yeah, thanks be to Jesus that I’ve got that thing that demands to be pushed and pushed because otherwise I don’t know where the fuck I’d be,” he laughs.

First Child is being staged at Galway this month after premiering in Dublin last year. A blend of opera, film and theatre, it is the final part in a trilogy following on from The Last Hotel and The Second Violinist, commissioned and produced in association with Landmark Productions and the Irish National Opera. Walsh says the starting point was a “sort of suburban thriller”.

“Thematically they were built around these suburban tales that on the surface feel really crass, like they’ve leapt off the page of the Sunday World. As soon as we started working on them, they became much, much deeper than that. Obviously, it is all through the filter of opera where everything is on such an enormous scale.”

Walsh praises the work the INO and its artistic director Fergus Sheil have been doing to bring opera to a wider audience. While opera has traditionally been seen as an elitist art form, Walsh believes this view can apply to the arts across the board: “I think people feel that way about theatre as well and I get it. Theatre, dance and art galleries — a lot of people think, ‘well they’re not for me’. I always just say, give it a go. I have always felt everything is up for grabs.”

This can-do attitude stood to Walsh when he was forging his own creative path. He grew up in the Dublin suburb of Kilbarrack, eventually finding his way to Cork, where he fell in with Pat Kiernan and the theatre company Corcadorca. Together they staged Disco Pigs, starring Cillian Murphy and Eileen Walsh, in 1996, and the rest is history.

There has been no shortage of acclaimed plays from Walsh since — including Misterman, The Walworth Farce and Ballyturk — but Disco Pigs has attained almost mythical status for its electrifying effect on Irish theatre and beyond.

“With Disco Pigs, I meet people who are artistic directors of theatres over here in Britain, and that was the first show they saw,” says Walsh. “I feel ridiculously proud of that. We really captured ourselves and Cork at that time. It might sound poncy, but occasionally you do make a work and you have no idea how it came about. It was just there, completely whole. And I’ve had a number of shows in my career when I’ve been lucky to have that.”

Walsh was back in Cork earlier this year, mentoring young playwrights at Graffiti Theatre in Blackpool, where he also worked in his early days. Supporting upcoming talent has its benefits for his own work, he says.

“I love it. I take on a couple of writers every year to read their work and talk to them about it. You learn a lot about a person’s process, and why they write and of course, it reflects back to your own work. With Graffiti, I wanted to be involved because I think any kid who is going to try and express something, I'm a champion of that.”

Joan Sheehy and Eric Jurenas in The First Child. Picture: Ste Murray
Joan Sheehy and Eric Jurenas in The First Child. Picture: Ste Murray

Many of Walsh’s plays take place in claustrophobic or restrictive settings dominated by routine. The parallels with everyone’s lives during the pandemic did not go unremarked upon.

“I’m not on Twitter but a mate of mine said there were people saying ‘oh my God, has Enda Walsh the rights to this, it’s like we are all living in one of his plays’. Did that prepare me for it? I don’t know. Of course, it tested everyone, it was just so incredibly bleak and shocking, but you do still have to back yourself, back the world and your fellow man that we are going to pull through it.”

He says he has not been tempted to explore the pandemic in his work yet: “I was approached to do a TV thing, right in the middle of it, they wanted to turn around a story about Britain’s chaotic response to the early days of the pandemic. I just had no interest in it. It’s tricky, when you’re a journalist, you respond to the world immediately but playwrights — at least, certain playwrights, and I’m included — it takes us a while to actually respond to the reality of things. Then we go at it in allegorical terms. I’m not divorced from the world but what happens in it, it does come out in the work eventually.”

Walsh has several under-wraps projects on the boil at the moment. During the pandemic, he wrote a spooky stop-motion animation three-parter for Netflix called The House.

“That was really good fun. There is a ridiculous amount of work out there in that whole TV and film world — and noise and money. It is exciting and confusing choosing what to work on. I take on these projects to see how the hell it's going to affect me as a playwright but I do love the different mediums.”

Walsh’s seemingly endless creative streak is fuelled by a fascinating fusion of curiosity, confidence and resilience: “I think mixing things up is really important, it’s all good for the head. Anyone I’ve met who has been successful in their field, you do have to fail — and I fail. I've had real disappointments and been upset over things. You can't allow those things break you or wear you down. You’ve just got to realise that you’re lucky or fortunate that you have the life you have. But then you’ve got to make the most of it, you have got to keep on working.”

The First Child, composed by Donnacha Dennehy, written and directed by Enda Walsh, is at Bailey Allen Hall, NUIG, as part of Galway International Arts Festival, July 18–23, 7pm; Sun, Jul 24 July, 6pm, no shows July 19 and 22.

Other highlights of Galway International Arts Festival 

One of Ana Maria Pacheco's pieces.  Picture: Patrick Redmond 
One of Ana Maria Pacheco's pieces.  Picture: Patrick Redmond 

Remember, Ana Maria Pacheco, until July 24, Festival Gallery. This powerful exhibition of work by the Brazilian artist features a new installation, Remember, created especially for the festival.

Muc Rí, July 14, 15, 16, 11pm, Father Burke Park. Described as a graphic novel on stage, this is a surreal reimagining of a myth collected by Lady Gregory. Performed in Irish with English surtitles.

The Pixies are one of the acts at the Big Top. 
The Pixies are one of the acts at the Big Top. 

The Big Top returns with performances from indie legends Pixies (July 14 and 15) as well as The Frames (July 23) among others. HousePlants, the Choice Prize-nominated collaboration between Bell X1 frontman Paul Noonan and producer Daithí, play the Roisin Dubh on July 15.

From a Low and Quiet Sea, until July 24, 8pm, Nun’s Island Theatre. An adaptation of Donal Ryan’s acclaimed novel from Decadent Theatre Company.

Hollie McNish, Jul 20, 8pm, The Loft, Seven. Catch this electrifying poet and performer reading from her new collection Slug...and other things i’ve been told to hate — a blend of poetry, memoir and short story.

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