Cillian Murphy and Eileen Walsh on 'Disco Pigs': 'It was the ignorance of youth’

Twenty years later, Cillian Murphy, Eileen Walsh, Enda Walsh and Pat Kiernan talk about Corcadorca and the hit play that changed everything

 

Twenty years ago a young theatre company in Cork decided to take a gamble. Pat Kiernan, the founder of Corcadorca, had invited Enda Walsh, a Dubliner in exile, to write for the company, later becoming its joint artistic director. Walsh’s second play, written in five days and intended to run for two weeks at Triskel Arts Centre, was unlike anything Corcadorca had done before: a breakneck two-hander, dense with coded language, violent games and vivid nightlife description, in which a pair of frenetic 17-year-olds named Pig and Runt run amok through “Pork Sitty”.

They cast two unknown actors, Eileen Walsh and Cillian Murphy, both still students. The result was Disco Pigs, a propulsive show that travelled the world, launched the careers of its makers and came to influence a new generation in Irish theatre. On the occasion of Corcadorca’s 25th anniversary, and the 20th anniversary of Disco Pigs, Kiernan, Eileen Walsh and Murphy reunited, with Enda Walsh adding to the conversation later from London, to talk about the play that changed everything.

On Cork in 1996

Enda: You never have as much energy as you do in your mid 20s. And in Cork we had terrific support. There wasn’t a home for me in Dublin at the time; everyone making work there seemed to be a generation above me. And there was something in Pat’s work which was really interesting. We were just thrown together out of the energy of wanting to make work together.

Pat: Enda wrote Disco Pigs in order to get us out of Cork: a play for two actors, with two chairs, that could go anywhere. Still, today, it keeps coming up in conversation, which is both a good and a bad thing, because you feel there’s more to the company than that. I remember after a run-through shortly before opening at the Triskel, Enda said to me, “There’s really not much more we can do with this now.” And then, for the next two years, we did nothing except Disco Pigs.

On the play’s genesis

Enda: I first saw Eileen in Danti-Dan, Gina Moxley’s play, and I had never seen a performance like it on stage. Eileen was 17, a long streak of a thing. I thought, I’m going to write a piece for her, but I didn’t know what it was going to be. Disco Pigs is really showy, as first or second plays probably are. It was a young writer’s piece. But Pat brought an incredible force to it.

Pat: The language of the play was Cork through an outsider’s ear: Enda absorbed it and coloured it. I don’t think anybody in Cork could’ve done that, actually. For me, though, the most important thing about the play was the relationship: a metaphor for a couple who are breaking up – which is where it came from for Enda.

Enda: My girlfriend at the time was a twin. And I was sort of fascinated by that, although I’m sure she was quite bored by it, as all twins are. I was splitting up with her at the time, so it was all of that. But also the play is about two 17-year-olds, so it can feel sort of embarrassing for me watching it now. It captures that 17-year-old intensity, I think.

On their first response

Cillian: Pat had come to do a workshop at my school, and I really liked it. Then I went to see Corcadorca’s A Clockwork Orange at Sir Henry’s, and that had a really big effect on me. So I was pestering Pat about doing plays. Eventually, I was Inter-railing in France for the summer, and, however it happened, the script got sent to my tent. That’s where I first read it. It was my very first time reading a play outside school: that’s how theatre illiterate I was. I’d like to say [in a mock pretentious voice], “I sensed there was something great in it.” It felt very dense.

Eileen: Initially, it was very hard to read. But it made sense when you met Enda. It’s his energy. The first read-through was a very stumbling thing: it didn’t make sense until we were able to get a run at it. Then the rhythm came out. You can’t force it: you just have to reveal it.

Enda: It was a very personal piece for all of us. Myself and Pat were nine years older than Eileen and Cillian. So we looked at them like younger siblings, and they looked up to us. It was a great big f***ing love-in. Tonally, it was just really balls out, expressive and fun, a bit complex and weird. And that’s certainly what I remember the city being like.

On making the show

Eileen: In rehearsals there was talk of using loads of props. We were going to be surrounded by shelves of things which we’d use to tell the story. One day one of the props wasn’t there, so we mimed it instead, and Pat went, “Oh, that’s f***in’ it, lads! We have it!”

Cillian: I think there happened to be a pair of baby chairs in the corner. [Murphy and Walsh, who squeezed through the chairs’ frames every performance in a re-enactment of their births, crack up laughing.] Someone said, “Sure look, we’ll just use those.” And Pat and Aedín [Cosgrove, the designer] were, like, “They’re brilliant.”

On the play’s influence

Pat: It put the name Corcadorca on the map, nationally and internationally. But my ambition was always to have the company in Cork.

Eileen: It spoiled me with the opportunity to work with an amazing team, with no other agenda beside the play being as brilliant as we can make it.

Cillian: Everybody knows Disco Pigs changed everything for me. It was the first thing I ever did, and it formed me totally. It’s hard not to be nostalgic about these things. But it really was a brilliant time for me. It was the confidence of youth – or the ignorance of youth. Maybe a combination of both. Trying to get to that level again was a struggle, certainly in terms of theatre work. But you are always kind of reaching towards having that experience again.

Enda: Within two years we travelled the world. I became fascinated with the theatre I started seeing in Germany. After Disco Pigs I knew in my gut that I had to move out of Ireland at some stage and isolate myself away from the company. I think all of us felt that our careers, our lives in theatre, had started at that moment: bang! And that show meant so much to so many people. I still meet people who were affected by it, and these are people who are now running theatres.

On breaking up

Cillian: After it ended we took a break from each other. All of us did.

Eileen: It was such a small, intense group of people that massive things happened for. For me it culminated with a panic attack in the Ark Theatre [in London]. It felt like I was going to black out. In Toronto we were playing to 2,000 people in a huge venue. I remember going to the hotel pool and sitting underneath the water, thinking, I could probably just stay here. At that point, for me, the craic had gone. Disco Pigs was a love story, and I think we all loved each other, but that vicious break-up had to happen with us too. Because you’re playing out the entire thing.

Enda: Yeah, what happened in the play charts exactly what was happening with us over those two years. At that stage myself and Pat were making Misterman, and we had just had enough of one another. I think he had a much bigger energy and drive than I had. Also, I needed to direct something of my own. I needed to direct Bedbound and learn a little bit about why I write the way I write.

On where Pig and Runt might be today

Cillian: Oh he’s dead, I’d say. I think that’s the only way it could work. She succeeds, and he can’t.

Eileen: I think Runt survives, but she probably continues to search and fail. Because I don’t think you can ever reach the intensity of what they felt again. Nobody can ever love you as much as in a teenage love affair with the volume turned up to 100.

Enda: There’s something really romantic about something that is left suspended. And when you go back to those plays you can find more in them. A play like that has just two people in it, but these are two universes, with huge amounts of history, and where everything can change within a second. I love the idea that they’re always there, still at it.

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