'The only mirror I can hold up is the mirror to myself'
Growing up, it never occured to Bernard Farrell that he could be a playwright – but three decades of international success have made him one of our best known, writes SARA KEATING
MY INTERVIEW with Bernard Farrell opens like one of his plays, with causal ease, as if the two of us are already acquaintances, thrust together at some dinner party or supper club. We throw informal banter back and forth, discussing how Ireland’s relationship with coffee was the index of change during the Celtic Tiger years (him); how octopi have the most brutal lives of all sea creatures (me); the unfortunate proposed development of the marina at Greystones, where he lives (mutual indignantion).
Farrell is just about the most affable man I have met in the formal context of a newspaper interview. He is generous, loquacious, quick-witted and delightfully alert, despite the intense schedule of the last few days, as his latest play Bookwormsgoes into its final days of rehearsal. It is only 11am, but I wish someone would pour us a glass of wine and tell us the starters are on the way. As Farrell observes, using coffee this time as an index of changing social behaviour, “you just can’t have a good chat over an espresso.”
Indeed Farrell seems more comfortable shooting the breeze than talking about the theatre. He is modest about his achievements (18 original plays, translated into dozens of languages; his first, I Do Not Like Thee, Dr Fell, written in 1979, is produced internationally on a regular basis). Despite working professionally as a playwright for the last 30 years, he still marvels at his own good fortune. “I did not know playwrights were real,” he confesses. “I thought they were shadow people, not somebody I could be.”
Born in Sandycove in 1939, theatre was an important part of Farrell’s childhood, where “both my parents were extremely passionate about plays”. With that knack he has for turning memory into anecdote, he elaborates: “The real drama was that they had different tastes, and their rows were like something from the theatre; him shouting O’Casey at her, her giving him Shakespeare back. It was like some great play.”
He used to attend Saturday matinees with his mother and sisters, and remembers the embarrassing rustling ritual of sandwiches being unwrapped from greaseproof paper midway through Act One; him and his sisters passing ham and cheese back and forth between them in accordance with preference. “We loved the theatre, but we had no decorum! We must have been known all over Dublin!”
After school at CBC Monkstown and some further education at People’s College Ballsbridge, he settled in to a “job for life” at Sealink. “When I handed in my notice, my senior kept on saying, ‘if you stay here all you have to do to be a manager, and maybe to have your own car, and maybe your own office, is to stay alive’.”
But writing was Farrell’s passion and while clerking by day, he wrote various articles and stories by night for newspapers.
Farrell credits Joe Dowling with invigorating his creativity and ambition, by making room at the Abbey for new writing.
“I had written I Do Not Like Thee, Dr Fell,” Farrell remembers, “and I was going to send it off to the local amateur company, but then on an impulse – a rush of blood to the head – I sent it to the Abbey instead.” Playwright Tom Kilroy was working as play editor at the theatre at that time and Farrell remembers the mentorship of both men fondly. I Do Not Like Thee, Dr Fellwas an enormous critical and commercial success, Dowling commissioned Farrell’s second play, Canaries, and Farrell became one of those shadow people he hadn’t thought existed: he handed in his letter of resignation to Sealink on the same day.
FARRELL’S WORK HAS BEEN consistently commercially popular over the past 30 years, a staple of both the professional and amateur circuit: work such as Dr Fell, which satirised the cult of group therapy in suburban Dublin in the 1970s; or Canaries, which looked at the new phenomenon of package holidays and the relaxed morals of the leisure classes abroad; or Forty-Four Sycamore, in which a pair of upwardly mobile couples reach meltdown at a dinner party; or his latest play Bookworms, which sets recession-struck suburbanites at each other’s throats at a monthly book-club meeting.
In Irish theatre, the adjectives popular and commercial are usually derogatory terms, but Farrell does not mind that measure of success at all. His first impulse as a writer is to himself and then the audience, rather than to those who police the standards of Irish theatre. “Firstly, it has to be the play that I wanted to write,” he explains. “The only mirror I can hold up is the mirror to myself, and I have to satisfy whatever impetus it was that first inspired the play, but after that, all I want is for it to be appreciated by the audience who go in to see it.”
With the audience demographic for theatre in Ireland largely middle-aged and middle-class, it is only natural that Farrell’s work – which reflects his own journey through suburban Dublin life – scores at the box-office, where the small tragedies and travails of everyday life exist in a familiar, recognisable context for mainstream theatre audiences.
“It can be hurtful if the reviews are terrible,” he continues. “It is fantastic when the critics like it, but it is like my old friend Hugh Leonard used to say: ‘it’s the four-day-rule’. He used to say that, whether the critics love it or pan it, whether the audience comes or not, you only have four days to celebrate or be bereaved. Then you’ve got to get back to the desk and start writing again.”
Farrell’s dedication to the work itself is part of the reason he travels so little to the continuing premieres and productions of his repertoire abroad.
“It is just my job to write the play,” he says. “Anyway, I‘m too old for that now. Although I do like to think about the different ways they could be done.
“I would have liked to have seen the productions they did in North Korea or in Vatican City. Imagine: the priests all dressed as women to play the [female] parts!”
For now, though, Farrell’s job is to sit quietly in the rehearsal room, making final edits for Bookworms, which opens on the June 1st; “correcting, you know, all those embarrassing things, spoonerisms, or where someone is saying something and we have already heard it before.”
FARRELL WILL STICK WITH director Jim Culleton and the “fantastic” actors right through until opening night, remaining “a bit anxious, because an audience hasn’t seen it and you never know if it’s really working until they are in.
“But I have my instincts and I hope that they are right; the rest with a bit of luck can be fixed in previews.”
Then he will give himself four days to enjoy the fact that another of his plays has reached the stage, before heading back to Greystones, and the cornfield where he walks his dogs and has the mental conversations that inspire his plays.
“As much as I love a chat,” he admits, drawing our conversation to a close, “I am a bit of a recluse. I think all writers are: they don’t speak very well or know how to articulate themselves. So as much as I love a chat, I am always hoping I don’t meet anyone who might knock the ideas out of my head.”
Bookwormsruns at the Abbey Theatre from June 1 to July 10