IT MAY seem somewhat unusual for a debut play by an Irish writer to premiere in New York rather than here. Yet just such an auspicious beginning was enjoyed by John Paul Murphy’s play, The Prophet of Monto, when it ran off-Broadway in 2010. Murphy’s debut was programmed as part of the first Irish NYC Theatre Festival, an increasingly well-regarded event committed to debuting new Irish material.
A big hit with audiences, The Prophet of Monto was nominated for multiple awards at the festival, with actress Laoisa Sexton picking up the gong for best actress. The play will make its Irish premiere next week when it opens in the Axis Theatre in Ballymun, Dublin.
Coincidentally, it was the fact that Sexton was living and working in New York which helped Murphy get the play produced there. “I sent it to her and she loved it,” he says. “And she became quite instrumental in putting it around over there and getting it funded. It’s fantastic it worked out that way. You couldn’t dream of premiering your debut play in New York.”
The Prophet of Monto is a dark comedy set in inner-city Dublin. “It’s an alternative love story,” says Murphy. “Two of the characters, Liam and Larry, are twin brothers, and a third character, Zoe, is Liam’s girlfriend. She works in a chemist and she’s the ‘prophet’ of the title. When people buy their products from her she constructs these elaborate stories about their lives, some of which turn out to be eerily accurate. Of the twins, one of them is a very innocent, saintly guy, whereas the other is almost the opposite, very cynical.
“The play is about fantasy and reality and the distance between. One of the characters has their eyes opened up, with disastrous results. It’s a story about living in denial and being forced to wake up to it.”
Of course, ‘living in denial’ is almost a perfect expression for the recent naivety that afflicted the Irish nation, with people racking up goods and properties on credit, without paying much heed to where the money was coming from. However, while some viewers of The Prophet of Monto have seen in it a critique of contemporary Ireland, Murphy says that’s anything but the case.
“They say it’s a commentary on modern Ireland. I would say this is a universal story. It could be set anywhere. It’s about people. Modern Ireland just happens to be the backdrop. And I think that’s one of the reasons it did go down well in America, because the characters were universal characters. If it’s a story about living in denial then I think we’re all guilty of that, to an extent. So audiences will recognise something of themselves in it wherever it happens to run.”
Murphy has enjoyed a varied career in film and TV that has taken him from working on the Dublin-based production of popular 1990s cartoon series Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles to gigs working on German animated movies (“They’re mostly just jokes about farts,” he laughs). He has also worked on scripts for Irish television, among them the children’s show Foreign Exchange. In 2004 he wrote and directed the short film Right Now Ladies and Gents.
The foray into theatre came about, he says, because the idea at the centre of The Prophet of Monto suggested itself as a play, largely because he wanted the story to unfold via character monologues. Of course, from the work of Brian Friel to Mark O’Rowe, the monologue play is a form very closely identified with Irish theatre. However, Murphy wasn’t attempting to engage with any national tradition.
“I’ve been going to plays on and off for years,” he says. “A few years ago I would have made an effort and gone to the library, picked up bunches of Irish plays and then read 10 of them in a week. But when I read these Irish plays I really wasn’t aware that the monologue was a particularly Irish thing. It’s only after The Prophet of Monto came out that I realised it. Maybe I’d just looked at so much Irish stuff that I thought the monologue was the standard.”
Having been bitten by the theatre bug, he’s just finished writing his next play. “It’s about gardaí who are on probation for having done some bad things,” he says. “I haven’t got a producer yet but it’s ready to go.”
Perhaps another premiere off-Broadway is on the horizon.
* The Prophet of Monto runs in Axis Theatre, Ballymun, from November 29 to December 3.