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There’s been a 10 year break since your last play. Was this because you preferred to focus on fiction which you did to great success during that time?
I did write three or four novels in that time, but I was faithfully waiting for the play to arrive. Jim Culleton of Fishamble theatre company commissioned it in 2007 after we had had a happy time with another play, The Pride of Parnell Street. For a few long years I had only a version of PJ’s first speech on my worktable. It would stare back at me accusingly. Then a little dib of Christie showed up. I had a very clear notion that they had been ‘playfully’ put into the same cell together in Mountjoy, two men who might prefer to kill each other than not, but other than that, I was in the dark. Eventually after five years I suggested to Jim I would give him back the commission because money is so tight in theatre these days, etc. But Jim said, ah no, that’s fine, I’ll wait. Then around the time I was preparing to write Days Without End, there was a shift, and the play began to come. Still, it was that full ten years before I was able to deliver it. My mantra was ‘naturally occurring play only’. That’s what happens if you follow that mantra. Maybe indeed my novel writing allowed me that luxury.
Themes of redemption crop up in your work. Can prison redeem people or is this a concern for you? Can prison rehabilitate people because in recent years many would argue that it constantly fails at it?
It seems to me that redemption comes to us all if we can utter an honest account of ourselves, at close of day. A play can be a struggle towards that final honesty. PJ and Christie have committed terrible crimes that in their own assessment are beyond redemption. But in reaching that understanding, I think they are redeemed, somewhat. As Patrick Kavanagh wrote, ‘nothing whatever is by love debarred.’ They don’t expect judicial redemption, and indeed as we see in the play, ultimately they fear it, as a mechanism that might separate them. We brought the play actually into Mountjoy jail, where it is set, and played it for the real prisoners. We didn’t know what to expect. They listened and watched and reacted like the best audience you could hope for. They called out to the players. Next day, one of the prisoners opined to his teacher that obviously Sebastian had done a stretch in Mountjoy. It was one of the greatest compliments I have had as a playwright.
What was your process of working with Fishamble and how did it come about?
Ah, noble Fishamble. I have worked in many theatres and with many companies but Jim Culleton takes the biscuit for kindness, rigour, and instinct. I think after a dozen plays and after many sorts of experience, and you will have your disasters as well as your successes, I thought that the ambition was at least to have a lovely time in rehearsal, at your ease and at your best, and Jim seems to have the secret of providing that, to all involved. We had a good time with the previous play and part of the gap between them was undoubtedly a determination at the very least to supply him with a play he could give his allegiance to. Then it is a matter of observing his uncanny ability to cast a play as if those decisions had been made at the very birth of the actors. What I think of as ‘celestial casting’, the best sort obviously. Then his forensic and meticulous and yet utterly relaxed direction, the sort of state of being that allows a great tennis play to serve well at Wimbledon! Quite something.
What makes Fishamble special and what do you look for in collaborators in the theatre?
I think the above answers this to some degree. For thirty years Fishamble have been working exclusively with new plays, as my old company Out-of-Joint did in the UK. It is the most perilous but also the most exciting end of playmaking. My mother Joan O’Hara was an Abbey actor and I took the precaution of marrying an actor, Alison Deegan. I do think actors are probably human, but what is that something divine that attends them also? I have worked with, or should I say near, Donal McCann, Sinead Cusack, Clare Bloom, Kathryn Hunter, Eamon Kelly, Jim Norton, Conleth Hill, and dozens of others, and it my notion of time best spent on this earth to sit in consort with such beings. At the same time a play is invisible without the lovely interventions of design and lighting and so on – not to mention the quieter souls who build the set, and the brave adventurers who strive to publicize the production. It is a rare joy to work with people at the top of their professions because then your own game is lifted somewhat.
How did the audience and critical response in New York differ from the one in Dublin? What are your hopes for London?
In different places a play must be entered by different doors by the audience, but once they are in, you might intuit that the response is the same. Here are two men that have cancelled their own tickets for life. They might have almost legitimately been expected, on being put in together, to tear each other to pieces. Yet by dint of something in the human spirit, some grace, some redeeming tincture, they… Well, that is what the play is, and is about. Audiences, whether actually inmates of the very prison, or free types out in the world, or whatever, seem to give these rescinded men their understanding vote. And that is my very large hope for London audiences too.
You have two major names in Irish theatre, Niall Buggy and David Ganly, in the leads, did you have these in mind when writing it? Can you describe what they bring to On Blueberry Hill?
When all the work around them is done, when everyone has gone to the last limit of their ability and strength to help, both play and playmakers, the actors are On Blueberry Hill. It is themselves alone. I couldn’t have written the play for them because in the first instance I am writing it for PJ and Christy. But in Einsteinian time, I feel I did. Was it not always going to be Niall and David playing them? It feels like that. Both have a genius in them. Their very different brands of that genius work, to my mind, perfectly for the characters. How do you cast that? You get Jim Culleton to put his mind to it. Roughly speaking, Niall is intuitive, David is forensic. The perfect detectives for the job.
You're the Laureate of Irish Fiction. What is this?
Indeed! Well, it is an initiative by the Irish Arts Council to honour someone with the title, for three years. You invent your own laureateship. I have made a dozen and more podcasts with fellow writers, asking what the hell/heaven writing is (after 43 years, I still don’t know), and have brought a sort of laureate book-club into hospitals, and organisations for the homeless, for direct provision, and this year, prisons. And taught at University College Dublin, delivered an annual lecture, and attended festivals. Anne Enright was the first laureate and she set a high bar.
On Blueberry Hill is at Trafalgar Studios from March 5 until May 2, 2020.