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Liam McCarthy: ‘Theatre is weird. The problem is that it’s all about public humiliation’

Playwright nervously awaits the opening of Jilly Morgan’s Birthday Party, his reimagining of a Chekhov story now set in Limerick

Jilly Morgan's Birthday Party: Georgina Miller and Pat Ryan in Liam McCarthy's new play at the Lime Tree Theatre in Limerick. Photograph: Maurice Gunning

In the run-up to the opening of his new play, Liam McCarthy finds himself in a quandary he has never encountered before. He’s trying to decide where to position himself in the building on the night. “Standing in the foyer would be a nightmare. Will I just sit in the audience and be nervous? Usually I’m operating the sound desk or doing something backstage,” he says.

The Belltable’s programming of McCarthy’s play Jilly Morgan’s Birthday Party, a reimagining of a Chekhov short story transposed to Limerick city, should be a heartening tale for the industry. After a decade as a playwright, and deciding time and again to take on the demanding business of producing his plays himself, McCarthy is able to welcome an institution with resources on board. A constellation of events, from attracting the interest of a venue to securing funding, has perfectly aligned at last.

“In terms of support and personnel, it is a huge difference. Suddenly, there’s questions of hiring a photographer for the poster. It’s not me at three o’clock in the morning, ringing my friend who studied graphic design to tell me how to change a font,” he says. That contrasts with his experiences of producing his plays himself, which made him responsible for just about everything, from getting a cast and creative team together to booking a venue, finding somewhere for rehearsals and marketing the play. During one tour to Brighton Fringe festival, he found himself cleaning the toilets minutes before doors opened. (“No one else is going to do it,” he says.)

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Some of those early works, which he calls apprentice plays, tended to focus on surreal encounters between strangers. A Talent for Lying, from 2014, saw two writers – one preparing to emigrate from recession-era Ireland, the other planning to stay – meet in a cafe, before beginning to imagine their separate futures. Network Diagnostics, from 2017, followed the shape-shifting relationship between two people who meet on social media. In both plays, characters walk away entertaining certain fantasies – an idea that Jilly Morgan’s Birthday Party seems to elaborate on.


He praises the people who worked on those two early plays but sounds ready to leave the works behind: “They’re like bad exes – I try not to remember them,” he says. “Theatre is weird. The problem is that it’s all about public humiliation. I wish I could write poetry or a book that someone you love might read and delicately tell you, What the f*** is that? The thing about plays is that it has to be a public event. It’s really exposing,” he says.

The day before we speak, McCarthy attended a reading of another playwright’s script; he was amazed by how impossibly calm they were, sitting at a desk, listening and taking notes. He considers himself far more prone to nerves. “You have the ambition to put on a play, but it’s always coupled with doubt and insecurity. It’s that weird paradox.”

Liam McCarthy on the play: 'He’s a bit stalkery, and follows her a bit, and it’s all on the edge of what’s acceptable.' Photograph: Maurice Gunning

In 2016 McCarthy was selected as a participant in Fuel, Druid theatre company’s artist-residency programme, and started to apply for schemes and bursaries to enhance a playscript and, potentially, attract a production company via invited readings. Many of these development programmes were associated with reputable companies: a place on a writing scheme with Edinburgh’s Traverse Theatre followed, as did chances to create new work as part of Branar’s Meitheal programme and to take up a residency at the Irish Cultural Centre in Paris.

That approach to being a playwright seems to have given McCarthy an appreciation for the long game. “Maybe one regret back then is that I was quick to produce things. I knew from making shows at home – from getting a cast and a venue – that skill of making an event happen, as opposed to maybe taking a few months to go away and write, and come back to do a one-week workshop. They’re living things that need time to develop. When I was 21 I’d think you could write a play in two days and you’d be f***ing great. That’s the big difference.”

McCarthy acknowledges that other playwrights were capable of creating excellent, profound plays in their 20s. He singles out the Royal Court Theatre, in London, as a venue for which the likes of Lucy Kirkwood, Simon Stephens, Lucy Prebble and Sarah Kane wrote extraordinary plays while infuriatingly young. On the other hand, he has seen work by young, ambitious people that just wasn’t convincing. “Writing about regret and life choices when you’re 21, and all the cast are beautiful – maybe that doesn’t pack as much of a punch as you think it does.”

In Chekhov’s story, it emerges that the kiss may be a misunderstanding and that the woman had mistaken the soldier for someone else. It’s less clear in McCarthy’s play

When McCarthy mentions the playscript he is most proud of, it is not the complete finished product of a play but “20 minutes” of his script for Alya: Falling, a tragicomedy that premiered in 2015, and which he later reworked as part of the programme at the Traverse. “It wasn’t the full play; it was these little nuggets. It’s not like a clear trajectory of things getting better. It’s more a loop-the-loop.”

A few years ago he began to worry that the plays he was writing as part of those programmes and residencies wouldn’t get staged. “You can get caught in a development cycle. You can workshop something to death. You can constantly have readings. There comes a point where you just need to get it up,” he says. The play he hoped would break the pattern was Mam and Love and Woo, a family drama set against Limerick’s sobering suicide rate. It was due to be produced by Lime Tree Theatre, and had a big director workshopping it – “I asked if they could get Annabelle Comyn, as if I might as well say Martin Scorsese – but, despite that, the Arts Council rejected the funding application. I was pissed.”

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But he soon began writing a new playscript, with some funding secured by the local arts office. During an exchange year at the University of California, Berkeley, McCarthy took a class with the Russian-literature expert Anna Muza during which he encountered Chekhov’s short story The Kiss, an absorbing tale of an insecure solider who, feeling shut out of sex and intimacy, receives a kiss from a mystery woman – and lives with a fantasy about her afterwards. (“Neurologically, you’re crazy when you fancy someone,” says McCarthy.) He and the director Joan Sheehy held a reading of the playscript for Jilly Morgan’s Birthday Party, and the Lime Tree’s staff were impressed. To McCarthy’s amazement, a subsequent funding application to the Arts Council was successful. Everything fell into place.

The play is anchored in the events at a party in Limerick in 1983, when a man and woman kiss in the darkness of an electricity outage. In Chekhov’s story, it emerges that the kiss may be a misunderstanding and that the woman had mistaken the soldier for someone else. It’s less clear in McCarthy’s play, which is a complex exploration of romantic fixation. “Everyone probably has a Jilly Morgan,” he says. “Maybe they turned into your partner, or they were your obsession during a little irrational moment. I see it as a really relatable, honest way into talking about problematic male behaviour.”

The short story is set over a couple of months, at the end of which the soldier has a realisation that shatters his fantasy; the play takes place over four decades, with the man, Jack – played by Pat Ryan – oblivious to the epiphany that Chekhov’s soldier has. There is also a character named Kate (Georgina Miller), who seems to contradict Jack’s version of events, and who provides a contrasting approach to adult relationships.

That suggests a reality more complicated than fantasy. “What I’m getting at is how we allow that behaviour,” says McCarthy. “He’s a bit stalkery, and follows her a bit, and it’s all on the edge of what’s acceptable. In terms of male violence to women – and I’m very aware I’m a man talking about this – the level for police to interfere has to be incredibly serious.”

Jilly Morgan’s Birthday Party is at the Belltable, Limerick, from Thursday, May 2nd, until Saturday, May 11th