Areas of disagreement

Sat, Jan 22, 2005, 00:00

Naoise Nunn, the man who thought up the Leviathan political cabaret, tells Peter Crawley about his war on consensus

A low hum of expectation steadily builds into a hubbub. Here a disbelieving guffaw, a brief flare of temper; there a burst of amused laughter. It is early December, it is the occasion of Leviathan's first birthday, and this monthly night of debate, comedy and music is just getting started.

A "political cabaret" that is never shy of big questions or cheap jokes, Leviathan's discussion topic had been set, rather vaguely, as Ireland's changing relationship with the Church and spirituality, but it posed a more specific question: "Have we thrown the infant out with the holy font water?" In the usual order of public debates, this was a probing angle for a perennially involving subject. And, in the usual order of public debates, most guidelines were roundly ignored.

Instead, a panel including Ivana Bacik, Trevor White, David Quinn and Cilian Fennell divertingly pursued a number of rhetorical routes down a myriad different avenues. An extemporary oration on frictions between Church and State ceded to prepared remarks on the absurdity of religious faith. Metaphorical ruminations on morality moved into glib assertions that wafers and wine offer a refuge from Lillies and lattes.

Equally salient, infuriating and occasionally downright bizarre, the audience volunteered sceptical analysis of creationism, troubling quotes from the scripture, and an unforeseen correlation between secularism and fast food.

"If you look at the [fall] of religion, you can also see the increase in the consumption of junk food," railed one member from the floor. In the darkened catacomb of Dublin's Crawdaddy, host David McWilliams wondered aloud on the transubstantiation of the batter burger, while the bar staff manoeuvred briskly around him - it wasn't always easy to tell whether the compere or the waitress was more effective at lubricating the discussion.

With a stand-up comedian and a live music act still to follow, the event conceived by Naoise Nunn was doing precisely what its organiser most frequently refers to: shaking things up.

"I remember what used to happen on the Late Late Show," Nunn said on a break from his day job as a parliamentary reporter for the Civil Service, a few days later. "Suddenly there'd be a spark in the air, there'd be a whiff of sulphur from somebody on the panel, and the next thing you'd have all this trembling amongst the audience - people choking up because they were so passionate about it, but hadn't the forum to articulate it before."

His Leviathan fills the gap between that lip service paid to a country that apparently loves to talk, and a society now overrun by pubs "where you can't have a conversation". Formerly the promoter of the short-lived Club Absinthe - Nunn was the first person to import the drink into the State - and still manager of Après Match and comedian Dermot Carmody, Nunn presents a cool exterior and an irrepressible spirit.

He has described Leviathan in incendiary terms ("a Molotov cocktail . . . intended to inform and challenge"), yet he insists his role is apolitical. (One condition of his Civil Service job is that he cannot belong to a political party.) Instead, Nunn, who studied politics at Queen's Universit,y Belfast, seems to approach politics like a spectator sport. Whether tracing the neo-conservative movement to Marxist origins, or happily outlining the contradictory political history of a particular journalist, he speaks as one who knows the stats and follows the form, but who ultimately won't support a team.

HE DOESN'T LET this stand in the way of some naked provocation, however, and so he fires an opening salvo at that most worthy, woolly and liberal institution, The Irish Times.

"Really, what [Leviathan] is trying to shake up," he says, "is what I perceive - and what a lot of people of my generation perceive - as a cosy consensus in your own paper and in the liberal intelligentsia broadly. What I identify as a suite of ideas on everything from Palestine to Northern Ireland to family issues to the public service.

"They're all taken as a suite: if you have one view on one issue, it therefore follows that you will have analogous views on a whole range of other issues. I don't see any reason why that should be the case."

Put simply, conformity is the enemy for Nunn. Journalists such as Kevin Myers, Eoghan Harris and John Waters - with whose views, he says, he may not necessarily agree - are nonetheless "very valuable agents provocateur who are shaking the system up and getting people to debate issues that they basically take for granted: feminism, in all its forms, is good; American foreign policy is bad; Palestine good, Israel bad".

At such moments Nunn can often sound like one part Robespierre to two parts Pontius Pilate.

However, Leviathan itself, Nunn concedes, could do with some shaking up of its own. Entertaining as it certainly is, the lengthy and involving debate is a tough act for a stand-up comic to follow. It's equally hard for an audience to adapt to the rhythms of the weird and wired junk-gospel group, White Boy Heaven, and it's a hardy soul that isn't tempted to forsake the final act and catch the last bus.

ALTHOUGH LEVIATHAN HAS featured politicians such as Labour's Pat Rabbitte, Fianna Fáil's Barry Andrews and the Ulster Unionist Party's Steven King on previous panels, one would not hesitate to call Leviathan's more usual suspects members of the media's commentariat - or "hacks", as Nunn puts it more succinctly. However, in David McWilliams, Nunn has found a host who effortlessly smooths out the ruffles in Leviathan's shifting tone.

The economist, journalist and broadcaster has a way with words. Matching a prepossessing confidence with an only occasionally forced, populist turn of phrase, in December McWilliams helpfully explained "the whole vibe of the Pope's gig" while elucidating that "religion is very big with bin Laden and his mates".

Nunn's plans for Leviathan - "to make it the hottest ticket in town" - are likewise bracing, and having already facilitated a live link-up during one show to a satirical improv group in Los Angeles and with plans to work with home-grown Internet-animation satirists, Langerland.com, he has set about conquering various media.

"What I'd love to do," he says, "and what's looking possible, is that I can make this into a television programme." Nunn suggests an edited live show would position itself less as a rival to RTÉ's Questions and Answers and more as a successor to the legendary Nighthawks.

First, though, january's Leviathan will set a panel loose on Michael McDowell's oft-quoted comments of last year, that inequality is actually good for society; a debate it will follow with comedian Ardal O'Hanlon, better known as Dougal from Father Ted and incidentally the son of the Ceann Comhairle of Dáil Éireann, Dr Rory O'Hanlon.

In his philosophical work of 1651, Thomas Hobbes's Leviathan found three reasons for the nature of human quarrels: competition, diffidence and glory. The success of Nunn's Leviathan however has been to find a fourth.

And that's entertainment.

Leviathan presents Reclaiming Father, a public conversation with journalist John Waters and psychotherapist Benig Mauger, in Ormonde Hotel, Kilkenny, on January 24th, and Seven Oaks Hotel, Carlow, on January 25th. Leviathan's Political Cabaret starts at 9 p.m. on January 27th in Crawdaddy, Harcourt Street, Dublin. Its host is David McWilliams and the panel includes Niall Crowley of the Equality Authority and Paul MacDonnell of the Open Republic Institute; plus, comedy from Ardal O'Hanlon and music from White Cholera