As Corcadorca marks 25 years of great theatre in Cork, Pat Kiernan and Enda Walsh tell Alan O’Riordan about the early days, Disco Pigs and what’s happened since

PAT KIERNAN is a forward-looking kind of guy. As the artistic director of Corcadorca theatre company, he has to be. It’s always about planning the next show, he says, and “every time you go into it, your’e going into something for the first time. There’s always the same anxiety, the same excitement”.

The next “next show” is Sacrifice at Easter, a work in collaboration with Pat McCabe and Mel Mercier that will take an eclectic look across the last 100 years, using the present centenary as its starting point.

We’re talking over pints in a Dublin bar at the end of Kiernan’s first day of auditions for the show. But, we’re also trying to get him to cast a rare backward glance, because Kiernan has been looking forward now as Corcadorca’s main man for 25 year s — a significant milestone on a long road marked by some classic productions.”Well, we’re looking at the 100 years since 1916,” he says, “and to think Corcadorca has been in existence for a quarter of that — that’s kind of scary.”

Twenty-five years ago, Kiernan and Conor Lovett (now half of the Paris-based Gare St Lazare Players, renowned interpreters of Samuel Beckett) founded the company so that they could, as Kiernan says, continue to do work after graduating from UCC and leaving its dramatic society behind them.

This simple imperative led to the foundation of a company whose ambition, achievement and impact have been without equal or precedent in Cork theatre. From the international success of Disco Pigs, to a run of spectacular summer shows that came almost to define the cultural year in the city, Corcadorca has left an indelible mark on its home town. And, whether coincidental or not, Kiernan’s own decision to largely pursue site-specific work has overcome the notorious reluctance of Cork audiences to put bums on seats. Instead, Kiernan and Corcadorca have animated sites in and around the city — industrial buildings old and new, the Elizabeth Fort, Sir Henry’s nightclub, the city courthouse, Cork City Gaol, Haulbowline Island, Patrick’s Hill turned into Calvary — winning a loyal audience in doing so.

DISCO PIGS

Walsh and Kiernan
Walsh and Kiernan

Yet it was a small stage play, Disco Pigs, that first gained the company a big reputation. Its writer, Enda Walsh, moved to Cork from Dublin in the 1990s and fell in with Kiernan and Corcadorca, becoming joint artistic director for several years. Walsh, speaking on the phone from his home in London, remembers an energy about the city in those years.

“We were all in our mid-20s or younger and that has its own energy,” he says. “But the city at that time, between the bars, the music, there was something going on. I don’t know what it’s like now, but there just seemed to be a shitload of people in their 20s who were trying to do work and make stuff.”

Walsh recalls, with the harshness of an artist, “a terrible, terrible production” of Animal Farm just before he wrote Disco Pigs. “It was really shit actually,” he says, warming to the theme. “A mess. I felt it was the end of the company, this really boring middle-of-the-road stuff, then I said to Pat, ‘I had a dream about two pigs walking around Cork city eating the buildings.’ Pat said maybe write it. So I wrote it and it turned out the way it did and we said, ‘OK, we won’t close the company, we’ll do that and see how it goes.’ What everyone found out with Disco Pigs was the strength of Pat as a director. He really made that piece.”

The small scale of the piece, says Kiernan, meant you needed creativity and energy. “I remember during one of the first performances, a woman who shall remain nameless, a theatre practitioner, when it started and the music came on, she left her seat and came up and said ‘It’s way too loud.’ But we said, no no, this is the way we want it to sound. She thought she was doing us a favour! But that energy was what we wanted.”

After an awards-laden international tour, Corcadorca returned to Cork in 1998 with another artistic success, Phaedra’s Love, a version of Sarah Kane’s provocative take on Greek tragedy. The production, in an old quayside building, was inspired. But, as Kiernan recalls, nobody came to see it. “After all the hype, we realised, actually, if you’re a company based in a city you have to mind your audience there. They don’t give a fuck if you’ve won awards. That was a huge realisation for us: your relationship is with the Cork audience.”

In that goal lay a parting of ways with Walsh’s own vision. “Yes,” says the playwright, “I could have stayed there, but it was really important for me to go away and isolate myself and try to figure things out. I was in awe of Pat and how he directed, but as we went on we became sort of combustible. I could see that Pat had a clearer direction than I did you. He was going, ‘Right, I want everyone in Cork city to know who this company is.’ And that didn’t even dawn on me, the site-specific pieces and getting out and showing the work in that way. I was some artist in his bedroom going ‘Jesus, what am I doing?’ He had a bigger scope and outlook compared to my singular, artist-driving arseholery.”

It was, nonetheless, a tough decision, says Walsh. “It was like a band breaking up.”

‘We did fall out,” agrees Kiernan. “Yeah. And it was silly. I suppose it was invariably going to happen because I had the ambition to keep the company in Cork whereas Enda had different ambitions. But it was a great couple of years. And the great thing about the company is that there have been so many phases over the 25 years.”

BIG AMBITIONS

Mick Heffernan on Patrick’s Hill, Cork, for The Trial Of Jesus in 2000
Mick Heffernan on Patrick’s Hill, Cork, for The Trial Of Jesus in 2000

For Corcadorca and Kiernan, the next few years saw the company use Cork literally as a stage for some of their most ambitious and successful works: The Merchant of Venice, The Tempest, Woyzeck. That period ended abruptly after The Hairy Ape. Ironically, a critique of capitalism was the last large-scale work mounted by the company before a global recession saw swingeing cuts for the arts.

“It was an awful time for everyone,’ says Kiernan, “but we were depending on dwindling public money, and there was the fear of being cut at any time. So what did unfortunately happen to me was that I started asking what should we be doing, rather than what do we want to do.

“That was an uneasy couple of years,” says Kiernan. “We did go back into theatres — it’s a lot cheaper to make work in a theatre — and it was interesting, but the relationship between the audience and the material wasn’t as vibrant.”

The lesson for Kiernan was clear: to stick to his vision of off-site work, even if in a smaller scale. But, significantly, Sacrifice at Easter will be a production of pre-2008 proportions, set in Cork’s Elizabeth Fort. Perhaps we are entering a new period where Kiernan will have more resources to back his ambition.

WORKING WITH BOWIE

Murphy and Kiernan with company manager Fin O’Flynn in 2005.
Murphy and Kiernan with company manager Fin O’Flynn in 2005.

For Enda Walsh, the move to London in 2003 was the beginning of an illustrious period, with plays including Ballyturk and The Walworth Farce, and also work on Broadway including Once, which led him to work with David Bowie on Lazarus.

“It was a year and a half of wonderful, open collaboration,” says Walsh of working with Bowie. “He was an extremely generous, a very funny man. [Lazarus] was a really personal piece for him, so to be involved in writing with him was a ridiculous honour.”

Walsh knew from the beginning how grave Bowie’s illness was, but, he says, “He was very present all the way through. He was in and out of rehearsals, we were chatting on the phone. He came to previews and the opening night, but at that stage he was very, very sick. So it was really sad.”

In recent years, Kiernan and Walsh have been working together again. Kiernan directed How These Dead Men Talk in 2014 and staged Gentrification last year; a new play by Walsh for the company is planned for later this year. “You go back and you think, there is just so much more to be got out of the relationship,’ says Walsh, “now that we’ve both gone and created all this other stuff. I still feel very connected to that city and with what Pat is trying to do.“

Kiernan agrees: “There are memories there that can’t be just forgotten. We were living in each other’s pockets for a long time. It’s very exciting to work with a writer who you know like that, to read the work and know where it’s coming from.”

Corcadorca will host an anniversary party at the Triskel Arts Centre on May 14, the date of the opening night of the first ever Corcadorca production, Leonce and Lena, staged in 1991

 

FIVE OF THE BEST: Some of Corcadorca’s most memorable productions

Disco Pigs (1996)

Looking back at Corcadorca's influence on theatre in Cork and beyond

An explosive, electrifying cult hit in Cork city that went off to conquer Edinburgh, Melbourne and a host of other international festivals, as well as launching the careers of Eileen Walsh and Cillian Murphy. Not bad for a portable two-hander on two chairs — the very antithesis of the large-scale shows more typically associated with Corcadorca. But, it did have energy, attitude and integrity of a kind that became a Corcadorca stamp in the years that followed.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream (2001)

Looking back at Corcadorca's influence on theatre in Cork and beyond

The dexterous use of so many spaces provided endless moments of surprise for audiences led from scene to scene through Fitzgerald Park as summer dusk descended. It was also a shape of things to come, with Pat Kiernan’s direction maintaining a narrative clarity in balance with the many charms and clever twists in the setting.

The Merchant of Venice (2005)

Looking back at Corcadorca's influence on theatre in Cork and beyond

It’s tempting to think of the run of ambitious large-scale site-specific works as a golden age for the company, but there are signs, with Sacrifice at Easter, that the conditions necessary for this kind of scale of work are returning. That said, the breadth and sweep of this production remain unmatched. A triumphant vindication for Corcadorca and the highlight of Cork’s year as City of Culture.

Woyzeck (2007)

Looking back at Corcadorca's influence on theatre in Cork and beyond

Setting off from the quays of Cobh for Haulbowline Island was an unforgettable way to start a night of theatre, if that word could be applied to such an all-encompassing experience. David Pearse lived up to the enviable ask of making his Woyzeck large enough for this larger-than-life production full of sound and fury, carried along by Mel Mercier’s score and a sequence of stunning set pieces.

The Hairy Ape (2008)

Looking back at Corcadorca's influence on theatre in Cork and beyond

Eugene O’Neill’s angry play was elevated to epic proportions by Paul Keogan’s design, turning the old Southern Fruit company warehouse into an inferno of righteous anger. And Pat Kiernan’s expressionistic style married to the setting perfectly to deliver a message not only from the play but also of Corcadorca’s own artistic manifesto.


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