Enda Walsh and Donnacha Dennehy come full circle with final offering in operatic trilogy

Dublin Fringe Festival 2021: The playwright and composer join forces once more on ‘suburban horror’, The First Child

Enda Walsh is trying to describe his latest work without giving away the plot. "The First Child? It's dark," he says, which will come as no surprise to those familiar with his work. "It started with The Last Hotel," he continues, outlining the arc of the operatic trilogy he has written with composer Donnacha Dennehy. "That was dark. Then the Second Violinist… Dark too. This is darker again," he smiles hugely at the thought. "It's got a good start. You're looking at this space. There's entrances. This guy enters. He's got a bag and an anorak…"

As Walsh weaves his words, you’re quickly in the thick of it. Children arrive with bags of presents, it’s a birthday party. “And then they sing to him about death,” he says, his grin underpinned by a darker intensity that combines to provide a key to the themes of his work. “It’s that suburban thing. Where people talk about carpets and the colour of their walls for a long time. Or there’s a couple going on about a baby carrier, and the…” he pauses to find the word, “the banality of that. And the weirdness and loneliness of their lives. But then their obsessions show themselves, they reveal them in different ways.”

So far so cheery. Over the past year and a half, most of us probably have more first-hand knowledge of the psychological horrors that lurk under our thin veneers of domestic calm than we’d care to mention. That doesn’t mean it’s not time for a dose of more. Walsh describes it as “suburban horror”, although it’s not specific to the suburbs, except, perhaps, that the context amplifies the disconnect between the apparent order of the surface and what lies beneath.

Speaking via Zoom, Walsh is at the exhausted level of tired, having also been juggling getting his play Medicine on stage and ready for to be livestreamed at the Galway International Arts Festival. He seems so weary, in fact, that he could almost figure as the subject of one of his plays, in which characters tend to be trapped in endless cycles that are highly unlikely to end well. He has referred in the past to experiences of borderline obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), which are also played out in his dramas. Sometimes I wonder how many ways his characters can be trapped, without starting to feel trapped in a cycle of a Walsh narrative myself: from one of his mini “Rooms”, the ongoing installation series for the Galway arts festival; to something more sprawling such as Misterman (1999), The Walworth Farce (2006) and Ballyturk (2014).


Silent screaming

Walsh has said that he doesn’t like to see “everyday life on stage: it’s boring…” and yet he loves to scratch at the itchy skin of what lurks under a great deal of daily routine – the silent screaming for something different, and the terrorising risk of your compulsions threatening to take over. A few thousand miles away, on a separate call, Donnacha Dennehy is in New Jersey, where he has been a professor at Princeton since 2014. Speaking to both of them, I have a sense of peas in a pod. They’re both dark haired, dark eyes offering intense stares – even via Zoom – and both with a streak of irreverence that belies their astonishing focus and the stellar trajectory of their careers.

The similarities go further, Dennehy says. “We’re almost the same age, and we have the same backgrounds. We both grew up in lower-middle-class Dublin.” And that irreverence? “It’s a characteristic,” Dennehy says. “There’s a dance between lightness and seriousness in our work.” That lightness is also, according to Dennehy, a national trait. “You feel characteristics in each country. I’ve lived in a lot, and I know you can’t fit them exactly, but there’s something in the air.” These, he says, also inflect music. “Contemporary music carries national and local languages. New York, Los Angeles, Dublin, London. They’re all different.”

Words and music also communicate in different ways. The pair had been aware of one another's work, eyeing each other with respect, yet from a distance. "When I started Crash Ensemble I knew there was this play going around called Disco Pigs," recalls Dennehy. "His work sounded so visceral and exciting. I had had an idea of doing an opera for a while, and it wasn't quite working," he says. "This is going back 10 years. I asked him if he'd be interested in writing the libretto." Walsh's initial reply wasn't that positive, but when the two met at an event in London, he sounded Dennehy out to rescore Misterman for the revised version, which premiered a decade ago. "And I thought, if I do this, he might do that…"

Real psychology

“Well, it worked,” says Walsh, when I run that version of events by him. The idea of a trilogy came later, Dennehy says. After rehearsals and over pints. So how different is it collaborating on an opera to writing a play or a piece of music? Opera, says Walsh, is the ideal form for some stories. “My text goes from shockingly boring conversations about nothing, to bleak poetry that you have to tear away at, but it’s his music that is the real psychology.”

Dennehy resists the “suburban horror” idea. “I don’t like the ‘horror’ tag. It’s more psychological than that.” The collaboration, he says, starts with conversations. “But there’s so much unspoken between us now that we just do it. We can almost read each other’s minds.” I wonder how it feels, when Walsh’s libretto pings into Dennehy’s inbox. “I’m super nervous,” he says with a smile that is pretty much a mirror of Walsh’s, when he’s underplaying something that is of emotional importance. “If I’m teaching, I’ll wait till I’m done. Till I can give it time. This time? As they say in America, ‘I was pumped’,” he laughs. “I started leaping round the room. But seriously, I know instantly, even if I don’t know intellectually, I know where he’s at. And he knows where I’m shifting it, if I send something surprising.”

The unspoken connection that is at the heart of Dennehy and Walsh's collaboration spreads out to a regular network. Jamie Vartan again brings his brilliance to the set, Adam Silverman is on lighting. Emma Martin, who choreographed the central act of Walsh's Arlington (2016) is back at work here.

Returning to the thought of characters trapped in their lives, playing out rituals, things not necessarily ending well – it makes me wonder if we haven’t all been living through a version of an Enda Walsh play when it comes to our experience of successive lockdowns. Dennehy laughs. “The libretto was written before it,” he says. “It has that troubling dynamic, that circular dynamic of things coming back to haunt you. All the art that interests me has contradictions – so there’s the feeling of being trapped, and a release. And there’s something in the music that is bursting at the seams to escape the situation. There’s a yearning, a tidal power. Especially in rehearsals, it feels so cathartic.”


Talking about that catharsis, we explore the idea of how much translates from the impulse of making, from the composer’s notes or the author’s words into the audience’s own experiences of a work. An artist may find huge release and relief, getting something out of their own head and into the world, and that work may then leave me irrevocably troubled by what I have found on the page, canvas or in the theatre. So is it a simple question of transference? Walsh is not so sure. “I don’t think it’s cathartic. I find it thrilling, unbelievable. The speed of the music, the tension, the layers – and then this last five minutes have a beauty to them. And no, I don’t think the audience will feel shit. Shook, maybe, moved. And it’s f**king funny. Of the three of them it’s the funniest. I wasn’t aware of that until I was in the room.”

After all that, what's next? Dennehy's new violin concerto, written during lockdown, will premiere in the Netherlands in October, while Walsh is contemplating a break from theatre "for a couple of years [to] figure out what I'm going to do". A change of direction? I suggest a romantic comedy. He laughs and puts on a fey accent, "I keep the romantic comedy for my personal life," he says, smiling. There is a film in the offing (he originally studied film), probably shooting next year, that he can't say more about just yet – although online reports suggest Island of the Aunts, a children's book adaptation; Jules in the City, based on the life and music of Rufus Wainwright; and Into that Darkness, the story of Franz Stangl, SS commandant of the Treblinka extermination camp, as possibilities.

"I never really enjoyed doing movies," he says. "I'm never sure I'm good at them." It's an intriguing thought given his award-winning Hunger, written with Steve McQueen and starring Michael Fassbender as Bobby Sands. Maybe it's the tiredness talking. In a Guardian interview ahead of Medicine, where a Netflix series was also mentioned, he had said "I adore doing the films and musicals too." The point of that, is that both can be true – and they can be true at the same time. We can be both confident and anxious, committed and wary. Dennehy speaks of how the really interesting spaces lie in the thick of that, and of the contradictions and the accidents that are at the heart of life. And perhaps that's the true genius of the pair – that, together, they put it brilliantly into their art.

The First Child, by Landmark Productions with the Irish National Opera, is at the Dublin Theatre Festival from October 2nd-9th, with on-demand streamed showings from October 10th-23rd. dublintheatrefestival.ie