Murphy’s law

TO MANY, Cillian Murphy is the dark horse of Irish cinema, as likely to be seen in modestly budgeted indigenous films as in high-concept Hollywood blockbusters.

His career to date has included roles in two Batman movies — Batman Begins and The Dark Knight — as well as Red Eye and Inception. But he has also starred in the Irish productions Breakfast on Pluto, Intermission and Perrier’s Bounty, and his best role to date was surely that of Old IRA leader Damien O’Donovan in Ken Loach’s The Wind That Shakes The Barley.

Murphy has also maintained a career in the theatre, appearing in Druid’s productions of Sean O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock and JM Synge’s Playboy of the Western World, among others. After a break of six years, he returns to the stage this summer in the one-man show Misterman, which its author, Enda Walsh, will direct at the Galway Arts Festival. The show will be coupled with Request Programme, in which Eileen Walsh will be directed by Pat Kiernan, artistic director of the Cork theatre company Corcadorca.

The double bill will reunite four of the individuals responsible for one of the most successful theatrical productions to ever come out of Cork, Disco Pigs. Written by Enda Walsh, directed by Pat Kiernan, and starring Cillian Murphy and Eileen Walsh, Disco Pigs was, and is, the stuff of legend, a show that transcended its humble beginnings to tour the world and propel all involved into full-time professional careers in theatre and film.

Corcadorca was still a fledgling company when it mounted Disco Pigs in September 1996. This year it celebrates its 20th anniversary. The occasion has been marked by a series of public discussions under the title In Conversation with Corcadorca: Enda Walsh did one in March, Eileen Walsh will do one on June 2, and Cillian Murphy was in Cork for an appearance at Triskel Christchurch last week, just days before turning 35.

When I meet up with the old friends, Murphy and Kiernan can’t help but laugh as they recall the first time they worked together. Murphy was a transition student at Presentation College on the Western Road, and Kiernan, a former student, had returned to lead a drama workshop.

“We thought he was so fucking cool,” says Murphy. “A few of us were really into the drama module; me and a couple of my buddies, we would have been doing sketches all the time. Then Pat came in, and he was quite removed, he wouldn’t have been won over very easily, so we were trying desperately to impress him. We didn’t actually put on a play, just improvs, sketches and a bit of staging and so on, but I thought it was brilliant.”

Murphy was still in school when Corcadorca mounted an adaptation of Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange in December ’95. It was a site-specific production, one that transformed Sir Henry’s nightclub on the Grand Parade into the Korova Milk Bar and had characters on stilts herding the audience around the nightclub’s labyrinth of rooms. “That was a massive experience for me, seeing that,” says Murphy. “Not only was it amazing, all the things you’d want from theatre, but I also thought it was so much fun, and I knew it was something I wanted to do.”

With sound design by Cormac O’Connor, A Clockwork Orange fused music, speech and movement and drew a young audience that might not otherwise have attended the theatre at all. “There was a lot of stuff in the tabloid media at the time about an ecstasy death,” Kiernan recalls. Sir Henry’s was perceived by some as a den of iniquity, “but it was a place that young people were going to and were hanging out in. We had no idea how A Clockwork Orange would look, not to mind how it would catch on.”

Despite the great success of the production, Kiernan was not entirely sure he could forge a career in Cork. He moved to London for a time, and worked in the theatre there. “I thought I might stay on in London; I had the idea I could come back home to direct plays.”

Then Enda Walsh came up with Disco Pigs. He wrote the play in 10 days, and always had Eileen Walsh in mind for the role of Runt. But casting the male role of Pig proved more difficult. “I didn’t so much audition as pester them for it,” Murphy laughs. He was a student of Law in UCC by then, and had gained more confidence in his abilities as an actor, having appeared in a number of Dramat productions.

“There was this thing about the language in Disco Pigs; if it wasn’t some-one from Cork, it wouldn’t work,” says Kiernan. “We tried out some older actors for the part, but I think what impressed us about Cillian was his determination. I was in London, and Enda rang me to say he had seen Cillian and thought he was amazing. But the funny thing was, he said, ‘you know, he looks a bit like a pig!’.”

Murphy first read Disco Pigs while on his summer holidays in France. “Enda sent the script to the campsite. I didn’t understand a word of it; where it said ‘beat’ in the dialogue, I thought that meant a drumbeat or something.” No one involved had any idea of quite how hot a proposition they had on their hands, though Kiernan does recall of the first full run-through of the play at the Granary Theatre: “I was outside afterwards, having a smoke, and I thought, ‘this couldn’t be any better’. I’d never thought that of any of our shows before.”

There was an instant buzz about Disco Pigs when it opened at Triskel Arts Centre. The play was less than an hour long, there were just two characters, with two chairs as the only props, but the frenetic rush of dialogue — by turns violent and tender — coupled with Murphy and Walsh’s almost manic performances, ensured that audiences were left stunned. Over the next few years, the play went on to win rave reviews at the Dublin Theatre Festival, Edinburgh and the West End, London. It then toured to Denmark, Germany, Hungary and Canada. “It was mad,” says Murphy. “I’d never crossed the Atlantic before.”

The success of Disco Pigs convinced Kiernan that his future lay in Cork with Corcadorca. He has since directed some of the most memorable theatre productions the city has seen. Two of his favourites include A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream in Fitzgerald’s Park, and Woyzeck at Haulbowline Naval Base. Some other Corcadorca highlights have included The Trial of Jesus on Patrick’s Hill and The Hairy Ape in the Southern Fruit Warehouse in the Docklands. The company’s reputation is such that it was the obvious choice to run Triskel Arts Centre’s new Theatre Development Centre.

After Disco Pigs, Murphy dropped out of Law and moved to Dublin, where he continued acting on the stage, as well as winning roles in a number of small films. His first big break in the movies came when Kirsten Sheridan cast him in the role of Pig in the film adaptation of Disco Pigs. Asked what he thinks of the film, Murphy is diplomatic. “I think Kirsten Sheridan is a brilliant director, and there’s some great things in it, but I don’t know if it totally succeeded,” he says. “The whole magic of the play was that we created all the characters, we made up the world. The film was different, and I found it tough because Eileen wasn’t in it.”

Murphy lives in London now: Enda Walsh and Eileen Walsh are neighbours, and all three remain great friends. Kiernan and Murphy are committed to working together in Cork again. Kiernan hopes to persuade The Butcher Boy author Pat McCabe to write a stage adaptation of Davis Grubb’s The Night of the Hunter, which Charles Laughton filmed so memorably in 1955, with Robert Mitchum in the lead as the preacher cum killer, Harry Powell. “I can see Cillian in that role,” says Kiernan.

Murphy, for his part, would love a crack at Shakespeare. “I’ve never done classical theatre. I’ve never really had the confidence. But it would be great to do one of those big roles.” What about Hamlet? “The Dane? Oh God. Who knows?” he laughs.

Corcadorca present Franz Koetz’s Request Programme at the Elysian from June 13-25 as part of Cork Midsummer Festival. The play stars Eileen Walsh, who will also be the subject of In Conversation with Corcadorca at Cork City Courthouse on June 2. Information:


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