Subscriber OnlyStage

Jezahel: ‘This is for the generations who have yet to experience that four-four beat banging through their chests’

Malachy Duggan’s play about a rave is a call to action to rehabilitate Ireland’s night-time culture

There’s no strict definition of a rave. In the past the word connoted an underground gathering, usually in a repurposed space – warehouse, skate park, abandoned building – where licensing rules were violated to engineer an alternative reality where ordinary restrictions did not apply. On Culture Night this year, in the Blue Note pub in Galway, this kind of alternative reality was curated by way of Jezahel, a play delving into the energy and memories of a bygone era.

The idea for it came a few years ago, when one of the Blue Note’s owners, the playwright Malachy Duggan, was working late into the night at Massimo, their other bar in the city. “These two young girls tapped me on the shoulder, saying they were taking a picture. And I said, ‘Do you want me to take it?’ And they said, ‘No, you’re in the way: we’re talking a selfie.’ I just laughed and started thinking about all the stories I’ve picked up over 30 years in this world. I wrote them all down and spoke to Emily, who called my bluff,” he says, referring to Emily Aherne, the play’s director. “That was July, and we put on our first show for 25 people in the Blue Note in September.”

The 70-minute play, which is named after the Shirley Bassey song that Public Enemy sampled on their track Harder Than You Think, in 2007, is about just this: an intergenerational coming together of music and dancing, centring on five ageing ravers and six nu-age youth with the joyous optimism Duggan himself shares for the often overlooked night-time economy. “It’s kind of about how they interact – and how we didn’t invent dancing. Back in the showband days Irish people danced until four in the morning; now there are very few places we can dance until 2am.”

Delving deep into nostalgia for the 1990s – “when there were 19 nightclubs in Salthill alone” – Jezahel is a call to action to regenerate an Irish night-time culture that has been dwindling since the turn of the millennium. Duggan admires his business partners, Simon Heaslip and Kevin Healy, for having opened the Blue Note (or Blote, as students affectionately call it, in the same way they abbreviate the Spanish Arch to Sparch).

READ MORE

“They opened the Blue Note in 1994 as a kind of bastion of dance, house and acid-jazz music in the area, as every other bar in Galway was trad at the time. And then after this they set up the GPO nightclub, which was kind of the first nightclub in the city centre to really accept students. It was fabled, an amazing place – Fat Boy Slim played there. And I got a job glass collecting. For a boy from Athlone, I thought it was the most amazing place ever.”

Duggan took over the Blue Note in 2008, giving it a new lease of life. “Students actually think it’s a new spot, because we were closed for two years. The looks on their faces when I tell them it was first opened in 1994.”

Documenting nightlife and its cultural importance is a difficult process. With nightclubs closed, young people and, indeed, ageing ravers have resorted to organising crude, unusual spaces for connection and dance. These underground spaces and the people associated with them tend to prefer to keep their names, and even their existence, under wraps, as openness and freedom are paramount to rave culture; any attention brings legal, social and logistical risk. (All raves worth their salt have a no-photos policy.)

What I want is just for people to come and laugh their heads off and realise that we’re all the same – none of us invented the craic, and the kids are all right. And so are we

This makes it hard to explain to outsiders the importance of rave culture. “There have always been attempts to curb people dancing in Ireland,” says Duggan. “And it just seems at the moment that there are no cultural spaces: they’ve all been turned into hotels. The culture is hanging out with your friends, at that age of 20, 21, 22, in big expansive rooms where you can feel anonymous and like no one’s looking at you. That’s when bonds are made and you start making friends for life.”

Jezahel’s charm lies in its autobiographical element: you get to inhabit Duggan’s sense of liberation. It’s an unusually hopeful depiction of late midlife as a phase of discovery – the older guys save the day in the end – not to mention a portrayal of a nightlife culture fraught with old-fashioned rules and Catholic-era reprimands. “I remember when nightclubs on Saturdays used to have the biggest vats of chilli con carne you’ve ever seen ready to go at midnight – because you weren’t allowed serve alcohol into Sunday, and you had to be able to prove that you could serve 900-plus patrons if the guards showed up,” he says.

Indeed, much of the play is concerned with time itself, with the connection Duggan and his ageing ravers feel with their past selves as they dance, and the much-needed distortion a techno beat can provide to those wound tightly by the system. “What I want is just for people to come and laugh their heads off and realise that we’re all the same – none of us invented the craic, and the kids are all right. And so are we.

“It’s a play in a theatre, but it’s not a piece of theatre. It’s a play for people who love music and craic. And afterwards we stick on a DJ and have a dance. Irish people love dancing. We love that four-four beat banging through our chest. This is for them, and for the future generations who have yet to experience that.”

Jezahel is at the Town Town Theatre, Galway, on Thursday, December 7th