‘I don’t think I would be a writer were it not for Irish writers’
US playwright Brian Watkins takes inspiration from Joyce’s The Dead for his latest work, Epiphany
Brian Watkins: The staircase was his own eureka, ‘the predominant image which guided the whole creation of the thing’
Marie Mullen, the acclaimed actor, appears to be literally run off her feet. Calling out instructions, she quickly ascends a three-storey wooden staircase at the back of Druid’s rehearsal space, which would be a vertiginous sight for a visitor even if the steps didn’t stop mid-air, leaving a sheer drop to the floor below.
A sturdy piece of set, which is important both structurally and thematically to the new play Epiphany, the stairs are where Mullen’s character Morkan welcomes her guests in a flurry of goodwill and general agitation, as each arrives from the floor below.
Still clutching her script, Mullen reaches out with her free hand, some 20 feet above the ground, to smooth the fringe of the theatre curtain hanging behind her, while her director Garry Hynes reminds her not to drop her lines. In the circumstances, these seem like the safest things to drop.
A personable, erudite writer, born in Colorado and now based in Brooklyn, Watkins has an academic fondness for quotation
Similarly dauntless on ground level a few minutes later, Mullen makes quick, precise suggestions for what is proving to be a busy physical performance. When Aaron Monaghan enters the scene, as an unabashedly alcoholic character named Freddy in a faintly comical hat (“Anything to upstage the others,” Hynes teases), Mullen wonders if she might fill his hip-flask in one fluid motion, as though in flight.
Watching attentively from behind his laptop, a tall, slim figure responds sceptically. “I just don’t see a world where that is possible,” replies the playwright Brian Watkins.
If the world that his new play constructs for Druid already seems mistily familiar, it is partly because it has been inspired by James Joyce’s novella The Dead (although not adapted from it), and partly because it owes something of its style, as physical as it is cerebral, to a body of work already associated with the company.
You can understand his scrutiny. For all the comic brio of this opening scene, where a motley group assemble in a crumbling Georgian home in Dublin for a celebration, it seems important not to miss any steps.
When rehearsals break, Watkins explains the genesis of his play from the ground floor up. A personable, erudite writer, born in Colorado and now based in Brooklyn, he has an academic fondness for quotation, citing Simone Weil and Marilyn Robinson.
Refreshingly, though, his play doesn’t bear a trace of postmodern pastiche. Visiting Ireland while Druid work-shopped his previous drama, Wyoming, Watkins began reading Dubliners. Two stories from Joyce’s collection struck him in particular; Grace (which begins with a drunken fall down a staircase) and The Dead, in which Gabriel, our fretting intellectual, experiences a humbling realisation during the Feast of the Epiphany at the home of his aunts, the Morkan sisters.
The staircase, Watkins says, was his own eureka, “the predominant image which guided the whole creation of the thing. The play exists in this liminal space, between imminence and transcendence, between up and down. It’s very much about the state of being inbetween things.” In other words, this familiar, timeless setting, imagined by an American visiting Ireland, is a space that is neither quite here nor there.
In a satisfying way, the play treats The Dead less as its source than its scaffold. It holds to a similar structure, following the course of an evening’s festivities, retaining some characters in new versions (Mullen’s neurotic Kate Morkan, keen to revive a tradition without fully understanding it; Monaghan’s benevolent drunk Freddy, now an academic), transforming others (Lily, the caretaker’s daughter, is now Julia McDermott’s woke millennial called Loren) and introducing others: a musician, a lawyer, a psychiatrist.
In a play that seems freighted with absences, the guest of honour, Gabriel, never arrives, but instead sends his speech, its words blurred by snowfall, with an enigmatic emissary. Through the window, that snow is still falling in general, and faintly through the universe, while the characters, reluctantly parting with their smartphones to fumble through forgotten rituals and conversations that both loosen and deepen with wine, seem to be in a similar position.
“They are searching for meaning in a world that seems remarkably topsy-turvy,” Watkins agrees, “and that’s certainly a feeling I have in this current moment.” At its heart, he says, is a much simpler question. Why do people gather?
That’s a germane question for the theatre itself, an ancient art form, impermanent and enduring, which can seem like a charming anachronism in an isolating age of Netflix and Amazon Prime. (Watkins is currently developing a show for the latter streaming service.)
Although he trained as an actor, Watkins found less chafing and more satisfaction in writing; something “I could do on my own terms, everyday. There is nothing like seeing something come to life on the stage. That sense of impermanence you mention is at once torturous and beautiful. Nothing else roots you, so aesthetically, to the moment. And the magic of that always brought me back to theatre.”
While studying playwriting in New York’s renowned Julliard School, Watkins discovered Druid, regular visitors to the city, whose tours introduced an ever ascending staircase of Irish playwriting: the grimly funny grotesquerie of Martin McDonagh, the painstakingly ludic stories of Enda Walsh, the scuffed spirituality of Tom Murphy, the mordant depths of Samuel Beckett. Watkins felt a kind of kinship. “I don’t think I would be a writer were it not for Irish writers,” he says.
If Druid found echoes of such works in Watkins’s writing, in its witty and cerebral folds, he has found in Druid a particular reverence for writing. Hynes, directing her first new play for the company since 2015 (Tom Murphy’s Brigid) and 2007 before that (Lucy Caldwell’s Leaves), is unerringly attentive to dashes in the text, as though the comedy and motion of the play will only work if they nail the underlying mechanics.
In that regard Watkins’s text can seem restrictive at first encounter, often written in precisely measured, overlapping conversations. “I certainly have a sense of what it sounds like,” he tells me. “I’ve always been fascinated by how rhythm affects meaning.”
In another way, though, Epiphany is remarkably permissive. Chiming with Druid’s evolving policies – and a recent groundswell in Irish theatre towards pluralism – his characters are written to be performed by actors of any gender or ethnicity. Like the collaboration – or, indeed, the modern-day Dublin the play depicts, the nine-person ensemble is a broadly international mix, featuring Irish, British and American performers. It makes for a lively party.
“If Joyce was writing Dubliners against a deeply nationalistic context, I wanted to write something that was deeply within a globalist context,” Watkins reasons. Not putting strict brackets around characters also meant, “we wouldn’t be applying stereotypes to anyone: everyone was on an equal footing as far as what makes us human.”
That raises an interesting question: can characterisation happen without specific context? The casting here (“a long, difficult process”) subtly affects its meaning, where an interracial male couple (played by Jude Akiwudike and Marty Rea) suggests a specific cultural context without ever spelling out their history, or Aran, a character played by African-American screen star Grace Byers, now significantly takes Gabriel’s central position at the celebration (and, for good measure, his galoshes.)
“We played with all of these dynamics of race of gender to see what the right mix felt like,” says Watkins, adding that it partly made up for the rigidity of his approach to rhythm and structure. He smiles. “Which, in performance, I hope feels a bit like a cosy straitjacket.”
Watkins may have an encouraging relationship with such things himself, writing a play that is not in Joyce’s shadow, but able to stand next to it
To look at the staircase again was to find an almost analogous symbol; a non-negotiable structure allowing for a whir of free movement. Epiphany does something similar, inviting its characters through rituals, whether meals or party pieces, while allowing for searching exchanges about the past, the future, the meaning of it all.
Watkins is slow to side with any character’s point of view, yet retreats from restrictive thinking: “Philosophical determinism is to me deeply unsatisfying for an experience of life that seems so rich with deep complications and non-binary things. It’s not just black and white. It’s sort of grey, or rather this luminosity of it defines all of existence. I’ve always been far more interested in questions rather than the answers.”
Another potent symbol appears in Epiphany comes in the form of shadows (“What a profound thing they are,” one character remarks, “conceptually, literally, psychologically . . .”) Indeed, here they make certain absences feel more conspicuous, while leaving a lingering trace of previous generations, and all their lost epiphanies.
Watkins may have an encouraging relationship with such things himself, writing a play that is not in Joyce’s shadow, but able to stand next to it. “Joyce has a beautiful dialectic between sincerity and irony,” he says. “Because they’re not really at odds with each other. And I think that [approach] is peppered into this play.” Druid, he approves, lean into such pleasing contradictions, divining the logic behind “the mystery”, step by step. “They embrace the shadows,” Watkins says, before returning to the party.
Epiphany is at the Pavilion Theatre, Dun Laoghaire, Co Dublin, July 12th-13th and at Town Hall Theatre, Galway, July 17th-27th, as part of the Galway International Arts Festival. giaf.ie