Druid school: the making of a modern playwright

Brian Martin’s first play is about a paedophile priest struggling to suppress his desires. It’s a bit like learning to open up a can of worms with a chainsaw


Everyone has a unique way of listening. The director Oonagh Murphy bows her head in contemplation, but lifts her eyes above the script, as though visualising a new drama. Thomas Conway, the literary manager of Druid Theatre Company, reads along from a laptop, benignly, occasionally letting his eyes close. One of the performers, Roxanna Nic Liam, is as responsive as an opening-night audience member, laughing frequently. And the writer, Brian Martin, is hyper-attentive. A young Dublin man, immaculately groomed, he watches the cast, scans his laptop, and pinches his short beard in thought.

It is the hottest day of the year and all the windows are sealed. Most of the cast and crew for Druid’s rehearsals of Martin’s debut play, Be Infants in Evil, have dressed to keep cool, which makes the actor Marty Rea seem all the more incongruous. He is clad head to toe in priestly blacks, a good indication of a play that is tense with considerations of identity, morality and sexuality in modern Ireland. (Rea had arrived in shorts, then told his director, “It’s ridiculous. I feel as if I’m about to wallpaper my house”, and slipped into something less comfortable.)

The cast read from pristine new copies of the script, while older versions lie curling beneath their chairs. This new version is Martin’s ninth draft of a play he began writing four years ago, while still a theatre student at Trinity College Dublin, where he studied playwriting under Marina Carr.

He returned to it while training to be an actor at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art – he still lives and works in London – and the play secured him a place on the Royal Court’s writers’ group. Before the day was out, however, he would begin his 10th draft. Poems, we know, are never finished, just abandoned. In the era of playwriting courses, training, workshops, programmes and mentorships, plays are never finished, just endlessly processed.

Martin is trying to absorb another significant note, a suggested cut of about five pages. This would remove a speech in which Fr Patrick, struggling with his faith, evangelically outlines the Big Bang theory – a sequence the Royal Court insisted he should never lose. “If I ever had a veto to not change something . . . ” Martin muses. “But I can see where Thomas is coming from.”

He has been here before. When the play received a rehearsed reading as part of Druid’s Debut series last year, a number of suggestions had begun to whittle away at his confidence.

“All you hear about are problematic things. I felt like I should never have written the play in the first place,” he says, laughing. “I was so sorry: ‘Why did I ever put these words down on the page and come to you?’ From a new writer’s perspective, coming in to a professional world, you feel like you should listen to people.”

When the play did meet an audience, however, the revisions paid off. “Only then did it reaffirm that I must have been doing something right,” says Martin. “But ultimately, everyone is there to make the play better.”

Be Infants in Evil reaffirms Druid’s commitment to new writers. Martin is the first new writer to be staged by the company since Lucy Caldwell’s Leaves in 2007. That’s a long absence of new voices for a company famous for beginning the careers of Martin McDonagh and Christian O’Reilly, among others.


Work in progress

Oonagh Murphy, a contemporary of Martin’s since they studied together in Trinity, is aware that playwrights need to see their work in production to truly develop.

“You can only know how a play works when you go through that intensive process: delivering a rehearsal draft, responding to what actors and others find in the work, and holding on to the essence of what you are within it,” she says. “A play isn’t a novel; it’s not finished until someone else responds to it.”

Murphy, who refers to herself as “an emerging artist”, has had comparable training: after university, she co-founded the company Talking Shop Ensemble, served 18 months as the Abbey’s resident assistant director and a stint as resident assistant director at the Donmar Warehouse. Her approach is hands-on and collaborative, which fits with Druid’s ethos.

“It’s the writing, not the writer or the director, that is the focus here. What is the story? That levels the playing field. Everyone is working towards the best possible version of the story.”

In their earliest conversations, Murphy agreed with Druid’s artistic director Garry Hynes that there was a great play in Be Infants in Evil; the job was to find it.

The inspiration for the play can be traced back to a single quote in the Ryan report, the disturbing investigation into child abuse in Irish institutions over several decades. One survivor, from St Joseph’s Industrial School in Artane, gave a conflicted account of one of his abusers. “I had sexual relations with him. That is the way I look at it. I will say the others abused me, but with him I’d be kinder with the words . . . I did love the man. But now I’m 68.”

Even after Lolita, Death in Venice, Mysterious Skin or Blackbird, a sympathetic depiction of a paedophile, struggling to suppress his desire, is like opening up a can of worms with a chainsaw.

The priest at the centre of Be Infants in Evil is tormented to the point of suicide by his attraction to a precocious 12-year-old boy, and, although he has not acted on it, the most controversial part of the play by far is that the boy returns his affections. (For good measure, the play also touches on issues around abortion and Islam.)

Martin is a gentle writer, most comfortable with the verve of comic dialogue, but handling such explosive material requires tact, sensitivity and absolute clarity. Those rewrites begin to acquire a new significance.

It would be a shame to see the play as just so much bait for tabloid outrage, however. Instead, each character seems to be struggling to discover a new model of morality in a world of disintegrating certainties.


The banal meets the saintly

Martin, who was devoutly religious in his youth, has set the play entirely in a church sacristy. “It’s where the banal meets the saintly, the otherworldly,” he says. “The sacristy is where the priest becomes someone who can speak directly to God and change the bread into the body. It’s also a place within the church that you don’t really see. It’s why I think it’s the perfect place for the play to happen.”

Uncertain transformation, then, is Martin’s principal interest: the play’s signature moment comes when a young Dublin woman hurries into the church, wearing a Muslim niqab, and yells, “Jesus, Mary and Joseph, it’s bucketin’ out there.”

“There’s a great Frank Tyger quote,” he says: “ ‘Listening to both sides of a story will convince you that there’s more to a story than both sides.’ ” That is also the logic of his title, taken from St Paul’s Letters to the Corinthians: “Brothers, do not be children in thinking, but be infants in evil, and be complete in thinking.” A request to the audience, in other words, to reserve judgment.

“For me the central story was always this character Noeleen’s,” says Murphy. “She manages to look at all these ideas that are new to her with such insight and humanity. I just thought, what an amazing manifesto for where we are right now. If we could all show that ability to look beyond the limitations of firmly held beliefs and say, ‘Maybe it could be another way’, what would be so wrong with that?”

That a contemporary Irish play should still convene its conflicted characters in a church is revealing. “Each character comes here, for various reasons, to find answers,” says Murphy.

But the arc of Martin’s play is towards finding the best questions: What is our place in a slowly dying universe? Do the best teachings of the Bible work in the worst places? What are the rules of desire and responsibility? The arguments, he knows, will rage on long afterwards. But first we should find our own way to listen.

Be Infants in Evil is at the Mick Lally Theatre, as part of Galway Arts Festival until July 26. Druid will also host rehearsed readings of new work: A Boy Called Ned by Emily Gillmor Murphy (July 22); and Helen and I by Meadhbh McHugh (July 25)

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