Kevin Barry: ‘I love reading my work. I’m 98% ham’
You can’t keep the darkly comic writer from the theatre – hardly surprising for a ‘frustrated actor’. He talks about his play Autumn Royal
Kevin Barry on May and Timothy (Siobhán McSweeney and Shane Casey, above) the protagonists of Autumn Royal: “I really like them. It’s because their situation is so devastating. There is never a solution that’s workable in this kind of situation”
Kevin Barry: “Theatre is the house of anxiety. And I think I’m a f**king natural for that.” Photograph: Cyril Byrne
It’s a bustling afternoon, and in the heave of motion, clink and chatter of a Dublin hotel bar, Kevin Barry is having some difficulty finding a place to sit. We retreat to somewhere just beyond the mill, but he never quite settles.
“My luck as a writer is that my personality is composed largely of hysterical nervous energy,” he says. His conversation is punctuated with frequent, easy laughter. If that restlessness is present in his marvellous literary output – so far, two widely lauded and awarded collections of short stories and two equally well-received novels of dark eccentricity – it’s entirely present in the man, too.
Barry is engaging and immensely personable, and he rarely stops moving, hands raking through his hair while he shifts position in his chair with all the struggle of an escape artist.
We meet just before he is to spend time teaching at Boston College “as a resident Celt”, an engagement that suits a creative and personal life of nomadic drift. Barry was born in Limerick and based himself in umpteen addresses between Cork (where he lived for a while writing in a caravan), California, Barcelona and Liverpool, before finally settling in an old army barracks in Sligo. “I discovered the secret of a writing career is to live cheap in south Co Sligo,” he says. “I can just sort of sit there in the swamp and slowly go nuts.”
He is remarkably pragmatic about conducting a writing life, aware that while ideas and fervour burned bright in his 20s, they didn’t meet a necessary discipline until later. His desk faces the wall, for instance. “You don’t want to get the lyrical view into your prose,” he cautions. “That mistiness can seep in very easily. I’ve noticed the stories are getting closer to the house all the time.”
The solution may be to keep moving. Barry’s first original stage play, Autumn Royal, is a frenetic comedy about people who are hopelessly stuck. It is set in a tiny Cork city home, where the curtains are always twitching at passing neighbours, and follows two neurotic siblings, May and Timmy, as they wonder what to do with their father, a looming and ferocious presence upstairs. Barry describes its tone as that of “a demented sitcom”, and following hints about the father’s incapacity, some will see it more as an absurdist comedy about dealing with dementia.
But whose? May is energetically bleak and catty, conducting her character assassinations through the window like a sniper; Timmy is optimistic, ineffectual and deluded, pining for an Australia he will never see. And while they are circumspect about their mother’s disappearance, long ago, and their father’s condition – referring to a stalled poem, they make it sound like a physical manifestation of writer’s block – they are periodically borne back into the past by the spin cycle of a washing machine, spilling out memories through monologues.
You may see some similarity between this tightly claustrophobic space – licked with absurdity and filled with tightly percussive words – and the earlier plays of Enda Walsh. But while Barry counts Harold Pinter, Brian Friel and, more recently, Simon Stephens among his theatrical influences, he takes more inspiration from Gore Vidal, a writer who has worked widely across disciplines.
“He would be a great hero of mine, because that’s somebody who has worked as an essayist, a story writer, a playwright and a screenwriter. He spoke very interestingly about his fabulous style as an essayist, and he said it came primarily from writing for the stage, in the early 1960s. If you work in one area it can weirdly improve you, and teach you things in another.”
It is something Barry is keen to apply to his own practice. He now writes for theatre (he is also working on a commission for the Abbey), radio, television and film. “I’m definitely restless to move between forms, for the work. I’m always very wary of developing any kind of facility as a writer. You kind of get good at the mechanics and engineering of a short story. And the danger is you end up writing the same thing over and over again.”
Autumn Royal, which takes its name from the nursing home May and Timothy are considering for their father, is not Barry’s first foray into theatre. In 2008 he adapted his first collection of short stories, There Are Little Kingdoms, as a sprawling ensemble piece for Meridian Theatre Company, later turning his short story Burn the Bad Lamp into a performance piece incorporating puppetry in 2010.
“I didn’t realise at the time it was the end of an era in Irish theatre in terms of funding,” he says. (Meridian, now sadly defunct, was one of 11 companies to lose funding in 2010 when State subsidy cratered.) That production had seven performers. “Within weeks of that show finishing, all the funding disappeared. People would say to me, ‘Have you a monologue?’ ”
That can be a disheartening contraction for someone who enjoys theatre as an opportunity to collaborate. “Writing plays for me is quite sociable,” Barry says. “I like to get out of the house.” It’s also a way to establish a more immediate and conspicuous connection than literature generally allows. Barry has referred to himself in the past, only semi-facetiously, as a frustrated actor, and he was surprised to discover how much he relished public readings. “A lot of writers don’t like to read their work. I love it. And I’m 98 per cent ham.”
He also likes to imagine the reader as he writes, considering comedy to be his natural medium. “Everything [I do] is a form of comedy. What I believe it does to the reader, or the audience is that, when you get them laughing – not necessarily falling around the floor, but even a slow ebb of chuckling – that actually opens them up, physically and emotionally. It creates a very nice space for you as a writer. Then you can twist the knife.”
The jokes in Autumn Royal, he realises, which touch on a growing societal problem, might cut deep. As an author, Barry tends to try and outrun his conscious mind, writing swiftly in the early hours “while I’m half-asleep”, then honing the results in sharper light. Autumn Royal was written in about a week: “You have to do it in such a rush so that you don’t get self- conscious. And not ask too much about what queasy lurch of emotion in your own life this is coming from.”
Barry can sound surprised by the results, almost embarrassed. “I laughed all the way through and then, when I’d finished, went, ‘What the f***?’ I look at the stuff that I have written, about the situation – which is in every family, it’s been in my family certainly. Not to any degree I’m going to go into, but it’s there for sure. Then I look at [what I’ve written], and there are all these jokes . . . I wonder, ‘What’s f***ing wrong with me?’ I think for an Irish writer, black comedy seems to be a natural response to the circumstances.”
The kernel for Autum Royal, however, began not with biography, but an image. Barry had been in Cork, where he saw two women in animated conversation on Oliver Plunkett Street. One of them, aghast at something she heard, clutched her own throat with her hand: in the play’s enjoyably conversational stage directions that gesture is described as “the traditional Cork woman’s expression of shock”. From there Barry found the voice for May, wrote her a monologue, decided she had an idle brother, and soon had the play. It is now heavy in his thinking that this play will open in the Everyman Theatre, “150 yards from where it’s set. So that really puts you to the pin of your collar in terms of getting the voice right.”
Barry has other reasons to feel invested. All of his work, he realised recently, involves a double act: John Lennon and his wily driver, Cornelius O’Grady, in Beatlebone, say, or the darker voyage of two deceptive protagonists in Ernestine and Kit. But with Autumn Royal’s May and Timothy he feels a deep rapport. “I really like them. It’s because their situation is so devastating, you know? There is never a solution that’s workable in this kind of situation.”
Barry hardly set out to write an “issue play” – the world he constructs here is, “on the cusp of believability” – but dark comedy has always courted hard truths. He anticipates seeing it all play out finally, with characteristic fidgety apprehension. “There is nothing in any form that I’ve worked in quite as anxiety-inducing as live theatre,” he chuckles. “Theatre is the house of anxiety. And I think I’m a f***ing natural for that.”
Autumn Royal opens at the Everyman, Cork, on January 30th