Citysong: Epic drama that gets deep into the Dublin groove
The past is always present in the award-winning new play by Dylan Coburn Gray. Told in verse, it’s like a record of the modern city in which the needle jumps around
Director Caitríona McLaughlin and writer Dylan Coburn Gray: ‘I’m always struck by how many people say the city comes through in the play,’ says Coburn Gray. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw for The Irish Times
To begin at the beginning.
For years Dylan Coburn Gray’s father would quote one playfully circuitous line from Under Milk Wood, Dylan Thomas’s transcendent verse drama about a sleepy Welsh town. “Alone until she dies”, the farm labourer Bessie Bighead is described picking daisies for the grave of the man who “kissed her once by the pigsty when she wasn’t looking and never kissed her again though she was looking all the time”.
Coburn Gray admired the sentence, which, he realised, contained “the whole technique of Under Milk Wood – to put enough of a life in a sentence that you can infer much more about the character”. A theatre maker and spoken word artist accustomed to doing more with less, Coburn Gray has now written his own play for voices (to borrow Under Milk Wood’s subtitle). Citysong, a magnificent piece far more inspired than it is indebted, maps out life in a bracingly modern Dublin through absorbing, subtle verse.
“Look,” commands one voice as it describes the city, “the spire’s a spindle or axis and while it’s not vinyl the city is a record of all that has happened to us, is happening, or will.”
Over the course of one day, revolving around the birth of a child, three generations of the same family are depicted in nimble and vivid details: the thirtysomething new parents, both teachers who have watched Ireland change into a multicultural nation; the grandmother whose daily crossword is becoming more of a struggle, and whose mind abounds in memories; the teenage son of separated parents, whose first taste of romance comes, touchingly, while dancing to a song of his mother’s youth.
Written with as much empathy as elegance, Citysong recognises that the past is always present in its refreshingly contemporary vision of the city. It surges forward and loops back between 60 characters, but often in a single thought, as though the needle on the record was lightly hopping.
Out of his time
In person, Coburn Gray can strike you as both a thoroughly modern figure and someone curiously out of his time. A gentle, considered speaker in his mid-20s with close-cropped hair, an elaborate arm tattoo and a moustache, his conversation abounds in references that he easily assimilates. Some writers can be hesitant or circumspect before the premiere of a new work, but Coburn Gray speaks frankly and unabashedly about his own.
He can afford to. The play, begun in 2015 as a modest commission by Dublin’s now defunct Lingo spoken word festival, last year won the Verity Bargate Award at the Soho Theatre in London, which now co-produces Citysong with the Abbey Theatre. Directed by Caitríona McLaughlin – who was named best director at the Irish Times Irish Theatre Awards this year for the Abbey’s lyrical staging of On Raftery’s Hill – the show is already scheduled for back-to-back runs at the Abbey, the Soho and the Galway Arts Festival. Its depictions are local and specific, but its appeal already seems universal.
“I think Citysong is the single play I’ve written which is about everything I’m interested in and in the way that is most characteristic of me,” says Coburn Gray. “It’s a continuation of what’s been hovering in the background of other works.”
First coming to attention in 2013 with Boys and Girls, a dazzling professional debut also somewhere between theatre and spoken word performance, and since establishing himself as writer and collaborator with Malaprop, a company making playful and sharp contemporary theatre with modest means, Coburn Gray had wanted to write a large-scale piece for some time.
“It’s a different skill-set,” he says, “to have voices sit together and work together in different ways.”
Coming of age artistically during straitened times, though, may have taught him to go deeper instead of bigger. Boys and Girls pitched itself as “an aural spectacle” weaving a vast canvas for the imagination through words alone, where rhymes and flow could create “big thoughts in small moments”. Like Emmet Kirwan’s Dublin Oldschool, or Mark O’Rowe’s more fantastical verse writing before him, the approach makes epic substance from ordinary lives in a form as old as storytelling itself.
Coburn Gray’s other influence was the epic poem Metamorphoses. He had worked on an opera adaptation that “completely imploded”, but still hoped to conjure Ovid’s sense of time and loss. “With sole-authored [plays] I find it really freeing to decide which of my heroes I’m going to rip off this time,” he laughs, “because actually that gives you your first stepping-stone.”
I would love to tell you I sat down and did very rigorous research, but my version was much more scattershot
Although Coburn Gray, a music graduate, will talk with critical distance about technique (at one point explaining the structure of the play as two pyramids, where three stories of youth and three stories of adulthood are built up in tiers), it’s the flesh-and-blood concerns of the play, the texture of lived experience, that are more immediately appreciable. I wonder how he found the confidence to write so persuasively for an older woman’s reflections on tragedy and the loss of intimacy in a marriage, a middle-aged woman’s sexual awakenings in the 1990s (“Is no one else scared?”), or a present-day boy, curious about sex, greeted with the positively chilling line, “and the internet told him . . .”
“It’s not so much confidence as ignorance,” Coburn Gray tells me. “If you knew how hard it should be, you never would have tried it.”
Having started the play three years ago, when he was 22, he now sees it as “a young person’s play about ageing”. But, like the character who sees his father on the street, and rushes over to discover his own reflection in a window, anybody could see themselves in it.
“I would love to tell you I sat down and did very rigorous research, but my version was much more scattershot.”
He would begin with his own experiences growing up, say, and wonder about his grandmother’s. “Given that she couldn’t have gone to Centra to buy cans of Devils Bit – not that I would have, I was a sickeningly well-behaved teenager – what would she do?” Often he would simply ask. How would a woman acquire birth control at a time when it was illegal? Such details make a whole society, and its rapid changes, feel palpable, just like the names of school children we hear mentioned: Yetunde Mulcahy, Gabriel Ojelady, Priya Kearney.
“I’m always struck by how many people say the city comes through in the play,” Coburn Gray tells me. “That was never the priority. The city will look after itself; the people are what you worry about.”
This was the preoccupation of the play’s director, Caitríona McLaughlin, as she teased out the voices of her young and diverse ensemble, six performers making their Abbey debut. Coburn Gray’s script makes no prescription for its staging, and his comfort with devising makes him so available to changes that he began to think his director found it maddening.
You could imagine Citysong performed entirely unadorned, delivered from behind lecterns, or given the full imagistic soar and swoop of cinema. “I think it’s somewhere between the two,” is all McLaughlin will allow of her approach, which reconfigures the Abbey auditorium in Sarah Bacon’s design.
For all its heart, or nostalgia, there is real protest in the play. When Coburn Gray was writing it, he had just returned to his parents’ home, broke for the first time in his life.
“Artists are symptoms of the larger climate,” he says, “so you write about things without even meaning to write about them.”
My hope is that there is a charge to Citysong, so that it reflects on how we live, and the terms we accept for living
I notice his large backpack, full of possessions he has been collecting from previous addresses, another sign of the times. “Just reading it now, it’s really interesting that within three years I’ve kind of realised I will never own a house, I will probably never be able to afford children. And those are interesting things. Because I think that’s what the show is really about: belonging somewhere and having a family.”
The dysfunction of the housing crisis, and its implications for maturing generations, now threaten both. “My hope is that there is a charge to Citysong, so that it reflects on how we live, and the terms we accept for living,” he says. “The show should be joyful, but one of the things it sparks can be anger.”
In rehearsals the other day, one cast member reeled from an all-too recognisable beat of parental concern in the play, and asked Coburn Gray if he had children. “I just laughed,” he says, still amused. “I said, This play is my child! This is the closest I get.”
Citysong runs at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin from May 25-Jun 8, transfers to the Soho Theatre, London from Jun 12-Jul 6, and the Black Box Theatre, Galway from Jul 23-27 as part of the Galway Arts Festival