Alone Again, naturally Unfringed Festival 2002
John Breen's Alone it Stands is playing in the West End, and his next play will be about Charles Haughey - but the relief of directing someone else's work for Limerick Unfringed is huge. He talks to Kevin Barry about the blessing of good ideas
Whisht now, as they say in the Wesht, and keep a good firm hold on yourselves, for something lurid and alarming is bubbling dangerously in the fetid brain of John Breen. The young writer and director, flushed from his success in London's West End, is at this moment plotting a play about the life and adventures of Charles J. Haughey.
And why ever not? Look at the raw material. The hawk-eyed alpha-male from Artane, who cast off the shackles of an 'umble background to rule the country with fists of steel! Think of the dramatic possibilities! The scandals! The feuds! The Nuremburg-style party conferences! The women! The greenbacks! The rubber chicken! But how will all of it reduce down and render?
"Okay, this might sound kind of high-falutin'," says Breen, apologetically, for he is a solid, unpretentious type, "but call it the holographic theory. Say you take a hologram, of anything now, a hologram of a horse, say, and you let it shatter into 1,000 pieces. But in every one of those pieces you'll still see the whole of the horse. And I think this is very true with Charles Haughey. In his smallest actions or gestures you can get a sense of the man as a whole."
Breen is buried beneath a small mountain of Haughey tomes, attempting to isolate the most resonant images.
"I'm researching and writing as I go, it's still taking shape. It's about the politics and the money, about how he manipulated his environment. I don't have an axe to grind, I don't have strong feelings about the man one way or the other. I'm just going through as much stuff as I can find and asking myself what's dramatic about this, what's interesting here. You come across gems of stories all the time . . . I think it's fair to say that he had a certain sense of élan. What's hard, really, is figuring what to leave out."
Breen, the Limerick-born artistic director of the Yew Tree Theatre Company in Ballina, expects to start casting by August. (You wouldn't envy him the task. What performer could possibly project such a concentrated essence of sheer ego?) The play will début in the autumn, "possibly in Sligo". Wherever happens, you will hear plenty about it, for not only does the subject matter seem a magnet drag for the punters, but in terms of box office, Breen is himself these days a decidedly warm property.
How so? Well, pause and rewind to the summer of 1999. If at that time you were passing through the countryside outside Ballina, you'd have come across a vaguely eccentric spectacle. Plonked in an armchair in the middle of a field, a young gentleman was leafing through a sheaf of pages and allowing small, modest tuts of approval to issue forth.
"It was kind of a magic moment," recalls Breen, for it was he. "I was living in this cottage and there was a new carpet being put down so all the furniture had to be moved out. And I remember sitting outside in the armchair reading the first draft of the play and trying hard to be objective, but I couldn't help going, Jesus, this is really fairly good".
The play was Alone It Stands, a big-hearted reminiscence of the Munster rugby team's improbable slaughtering of the mighty All-Blacks one fabled day in Limerick in 1978. An unashamedly feel-good piece, niftily staged with a small cast of multi-tasking actors and marbled with a sly shine of side-mouthed Limerick humour, it became one of the great popular successes of Irish theatre in recent years. It brought into arts centres folks who might otherwise require gun-point threats to cross the portals, and it marked Breen out as a writer with an instinct for conjuring broad appeal. Two weeks ago, Alone It Stands opened at the Duchess Theatre in London's West End to generally happy reviews.
"I genuinely never had a notion that the thing would be such a draw," says Breen. "And I never set out to write it as a comedy, it just happened to be sort of funny. I got an incredible land when it went in front of an audience for the first time and I saw the reaction. Being in the West End with it is very strange . . . it's a very, very different experience from seeing the show with an Irish audience. But I still think that people come out of it feeling better about themselves and the world in general."
A fierce man for the hard slog, Breen wrote the play while he was teaching a theatre studies course. "I'd get up at 5 a.m. and write for three hours and then go off to the course. Then I'd get home in the evening and edit the morning's work and eat my dinner." He had lately moved to Ballina to take over at the Yew Tree. "When I arrived first and told people I was a theatre director, I might as well have told them I made baskets. But fortunately Alone It Stands was our first production and the success it had kind of legitimised what I was doing. I also did a lot of workshops and outreach kind of things, I tried to make myself useful around the place." He is now firmly settled. "I married a woman who comes from Ballina, so I suppose that goes down as cultural assimilation."
You get the impression that he is considerably happier bogged down in the muddy ruck and maul of running a small town theatre company than he is in the theatrical Twickenham of the West End.
As a company, Yew Tree is small but ambitious, and Breen is busy cooking up strategic co-productions with other companies such as Hawkswell in Sligo and An Grianán in Donegal. But Yew Tree hasn't received a grant increase this year, a fact that plainly rankles.
"What Yew tries to do, basically, is amplify the voice of the west of Ireland. But down here you can feel like you're a long way from the centre of power." Not an entirely unfamiliar complaint, but no less justified for that.
Yew Tree's latest production is Grand, by the Headford-based writer Max Hafler. A two-hander featuring Billy Traynor and Eamon Ronan, Breen directs ("You wouldn't believe what a relief it is to get away from my own stuff") and the play will launch this year's Unfringed Festival at the Belltable in Limerick.
"I suppose it's a thriller-stroke-psychogical drama, it's about the effects of a malicious letter writer on a small Irish town," says Breen. "I don't want to give too much away because there is a whodunnit element to the thing, but I would say that it's very real, there are stories like this in the press every week. It's about the consequences of a culture of silence in a small town. The old whatever you say, say nothin' thing. And about how sayin' nothing is sometimes the very worst course you could take."
For details of the programme, check the website at www.unfringed02belltable.info or contact the Belltable at 061-319866.
The Unfringed Festival 2002, which runs at the Belltable in Limerick from January 24th to February 7th, enters its fourth year in rude health. Under the direction of Liz Culloty, it has broadened its reach somewhat to feature companies from Germany and Russia, and along with theatre, there'll be stand-up comedy, clowning, puppetry and - steady now - acrobatics.
Opening with Yew Tree's production of Max Hafler's Grand, which runs for three nights from January 24th, it's an eclectic programme with other highlights.
Do Teatr from Russia present Upside Down from January 31st to February 2nd at 8 p.m. A wow at Edinburgh last year, it is a zany, absurd and darkly poetic dollop of physical theatre. (Of course, they wouldn't be Russian if it wasn't darkly poetic.)
Feted German outfit Theatre Trieberk stage a double-header for children, A Friend For Boltan The Lion and Moby Dick, at 10.30a.m. and 12.30p.m. from February 4th to 7th.
Comic Deirdre O'Kane's first solo show features her new character Crystal Hickey, a hair salon tyro before taking to the boards. Staged as a double-bill with O'Kane and Tara Flynn's 'Tis A Pity She's Anonymous revue. January 30th, 8p.m.
Common Currency Theatre Company present Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh, a little-known work about youthful high jinx in urban Scotland. January 28th and 29th, 8pm.