'We're haunted by the lives we didn't lead'
Declan Hughes’s new play featuring teenagers in south Dublin in 1977 – and the same people 30 years later – takes a snapshot of an irretrievable past and digs up midlife thoughts of roads not takenSome years ago, as Declan Hughes grappled with the doubts and anxieties that so often beset men in their 40s, the Dublin-born writer did something he once would have considered unthinkable. He went out and bought a clutch of albums by Rush, the Canadian progressive rock band.
As midlife crises go, it was a minor one, “an economical alternative to the blonde or the sports car”, but listening to portentous concept albums was still out of character for someone who, as a punk-loving teenager, had looked down on such music. And like many deeds committed in the midst of middle-aged uncertainty, Hughes’s rash act had wider repercussions.
“I always thought that kind of music was ridiculous, but there was also the sense that it was the path not taken,” he says. “So I was listening to them on the iPod and I got this very strong image of these teenage guys in a lane, in Dalkey or Glenageary, thinking they’re in a band. And that’s all it was for a long time.
“But it was that sense of what music means, expressing your longing and yearning as well as your sense of identity and belonging. It was also about that poignant point at the end of school, when you know your friendships are about to change but they’re also quite precious. Certainly I can remember that.”
This elegiac snapshot of an irretrievable past lies at the heart of Hughes’s new play, The Last Summer, which opens at the Gate tomorrow as part of the Dublin Theatre Festival. Directed by Toby Frow, the play follows the febrile summer experiences of southside Dublin teenagers in 1977. It also catches with their older, if not necessarily wiser, selves as the boom years end 30 years later, with returning émigré Paul (Declan Conlon) reuniting with his old girlfriend (Cathy Belton), now married to his friend Tom (Gary Lydon). “I had a gestalt: that you needed a time change to see what happened to these guys.”
Having spent the past few years establishing himself as one of Ireland’s most successful crime-fiction writers – his Ed Loy novels have earned him acclaim and sales – The Last Summer is Hughes’s first stage play since 2003’s Shiver. It harks back to his past in another way, drawing on the evocative atmosphere of his own adolescence. “Through your 30s you can still feel like you’re the same person, that it’s an unbroken cord, but then something happens,” he says. “To me it was the birth of my children and the death of my parents. By the time the ashes settled on that I thought, it’s a long way back to that time, the bridge is gone now. I really had a strong sense of that. And you write plays out of that.”