Enda Walsh didn't break it to his daughter gently. "I can still remember her little face and that incredulous look on it," says the playwright, in a tone somewhere between empathy and amusement. The six-year-old had just asked her father about death, and Walsh, the maverick dramatist, decided to level with her. "Yeah, yeah, yeah – we do, we die. Seriously. We die."
His voice takes on the calm persuasiveness of the customer-service line when there's nothing more they can do for you. "But," he added, "we don't think about that every day. We fall in love and we plan out things and we go to work and we go on holiday and we live a life." But you carry the certainty of death around with you, she persisted. "Yeah, we do," he said, "and as we get older, maybe that thought gets bigger, but you can't think about it all the time."
Listening to Walsh's story, told with his customary spry intensity, it isn't clear exactly whom he was trying to persuade. For the playwright, the realisation of mortality set something in motion, and it chimed with another memory: when he watched the actor Cillian Murphy rehearsing for Landmark's recent production of Walsh's Misterman in New York, at the full tilt of his magnetic performance, while their production manager, standing less than a metre away, worked on, quietly indifferent.
"Of course. That's what we are as people," thought Walsh. "We just sort of exist, very simply, in our own little universes." Slowly, an idea for a play began to take form. How can people live a regular life if they know they are just a heartbeat away from oblivion? And what would happen if two adult friends, played by Cillian Murphy and Mikel Murfi, experienced his daughter's dramatic realisation? How would they go on?
There has always been something boyish about Walsh, still slender-framed, uninhibited and given to such runaway enthusiasm that his words sometimes barely keep pace with his thoughts. That spirit has helped to define his theatre: ferociously comic, madly affecting, where characters tend to seal themselves within claustrophobic spaces – pigpens, beds, disintegrating flats – or behind thickets of playful, distorted language. You might look for Walsh’s signature in his syntax alone, where words multiply, tumble and shatter, but he is more focused on a bracing approach to form.
“I want to hold people,” he tells me. “I don’t want to bamboozle them. I want to kinetically move them. After years of making work, the ambition is still to keep theatre alive, dangerous, unknowable and dreadfully f**king exciting for an audience.”
Walsh gives little away about Ballyturk, his first original play in four years, which he is also directing for Landmark and Galway Arts Festival. "I'm still looking at it and going, 'Yes, but what does it mean, and where is it?' " he says. "But I know that it's probably a play about friendship. It's about putting a real, loving, deeply caring friendship under extreme pressure and seeing what's going to happen to it."
The casting is not incidental; Cillian Murphy and Mikel Murfi are frequent collaborators and close friends. "Although we're supposedly artists, we're still men, so we wouldn't ordinarily have conversations about what our friendships are. At least in the rehearsal room we can work that out through these characters." The third character, played by Stephen Rea, is a stranger making a precipitous visit. "I love those characters who arrive in," says Walsh. "It's a very Irish thing: the person at the door."
Just like the characters, the audience for Ballyturk must try to figure things out – the challenge and reward of Walsh's plays are to learn their logic. "It asks that fundamental question we always ask in theatre, as soon as we sit down: 'Where are we?' It really examines that. The characters seem to be asking that and not knowing; both the physical state and the mental state."
Initially, Walsh had wanted to give their search a firmer foundation by basing Ballyturk on a real place. "I thought, yeah, Ballyturk is the most central town in Ireland. Then I thought, I must check that, actually." He was delighted to discover that it didn't exist on any map. "My God, that's even better. I've just imagined a whole town."
Walsh, unlike other Irish playwrights with international careers, chooses to premiere his works in Ireland before they tour internationally. “With something like this, I want to talk first of all to Irish people before I go out there and talk to other people.”
There is something intrinsically Irish, he thinks, in his form. “The shape of the plays often begins realistically,” he says, “like we do as Irish people on a night out. And then drink is taken, and the edges are smashed off, then, two o’clock in the morning, the whiskey’s out and really strong existential questions begin, veering on the maudlin, and then it becomes chaotic.”
Ballyturk may be different, he thinks, led by simple questions while taking huge risks and, just as he previously regarded The Walworth Farce as a personal breakthrough, "the mothership of many plays to come", he feels the same of this new work.
He takes a particular pride in the fact that even his most brusque and abstract plays have never tried to alienate the audience. “It’s just that the form of theatre, for me, needs to be arresting and strange and odd and ‘What the . . . ?’ You know, [theatre] is not a mirror,” he says, dismantling the cliche with relish. “It’s not a mirror . . . It’s a bin lid.”
Ballyturk has sold out at Galway International Arts Festival, where it runs from July 10th to 27th. It will then tour to Dublin, Cork and London