Kerry theatre maker Dick Walsh goes beyond the conventional, while retaining his comic world view, writes Pádraic Killeen
IF THERE’S one thing that characterises the plays of Dick Walsh, it’s his attentiveness to speech and the workings of language. A character in a Walsh play will often deliver his dialogue in a way that seems somewhat removed from the character’s interior life – as if the words were just using the actor as a vehicle. For the audience, the effect is an estranging one, as the everyday act of speaking suddenly seems quite weird.
Co-produced with Pan Pan Theatre Company, Walsh’s new play, George Bush and Children, which runs at this year’s Dublin Tiger Fringe festival, is a piece that explicitly examines how words work. The play’s dialogue is lifted directly from a range of topical talk-shows. Walsh has woven the waffle into a performance text, with actors now repeating verbal interactions that have been severed from their source.
“It was kind of an exercise in non-writing,” says the Kerry dramatist. “I had become very interested in topical talk-shows and I thought, ‘Why not just use those as scripts?’ The topical talk-show is a kind of theatre that has grown up outside of the theatre space.
“But when you put it in the theatre it operates very well. You see that it has its own language and that it’s very similar to theatre. It has monologues. It addresses the audiences. People speak in a rhetorical way. So that was my starting point.”
The result is a play spliced together from talk-show verbiage, with Walsh alighting on certain themes that suggested themselves.
“There seemed to be an obsession on these shows with death and sex —which Yeats said are the only things that a true artist should be writing about,” says Walsh. “So I found that by arranging the transcripts, I was able to think about mortality and other themes.”
Though Walsh’s plays always shelter political and cultural critiques, the play’s title — George Bush and Children — is itself a bit of a red herring.
“It was kind of a joke,” says Walsh. “With a lot of theatre shows, the meaning of the title becomes clearer as the play goes on. In this one, literally the first line is about George Bush, and they discuss George Bush and children for about 10 seconds, and then the play goes off somewhere totally different.”
Walsh has a busy month in front of him. A revival of his 2015 hit Newcastlewest runs at Smock Alley in late September, and he’s also involved in another show at this year’s Fringe — Jane Deasy’s provocative new piece of music theatre, Kaperlak.
The show, which addresses the human being’s alienation from its natural environment, finds Walsh’s writing brushing shoulders with that of Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath no less.
Often described as ‘postdramatic’, the kind of theatre that Walsh pursues is best understood as experimental, he suggests.
“You’re trying to discover something in the room,” he says. “Maybe a good way of putting it is this: Leonardo Da Vinci was the first guy to call himself an ‘experimental’ artist, but at that time the Italian word for ‘experimental’ also meant ‘experience’. So you’re trying to create an experience that sees the world in a new way, or highlights something new, rather than having a deliberate aim or message that you want to convey.”
By his own account, Walsh tries to disorient his audience, often by exposing them to things that are achingly familiar – the clichés and conventions of everyday speech, for instance.
There’s a droll, somewhat deadpan undercurrent to his work, even if Walsh regards it as secondary to the play itself.
“I’d always sacrifice big laughs for the play,” he says. “I wouldn’t put a laugh before the play. But there is a comic world view there, I suppose.”
George Bush and Children runs at Project Arts Centre, Sep 10-17; Kaperlak runs at the Pearse Centre, Sep 14-17; Newcastlewest runs at Smock Alley, Sep 25-Oct 4
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