Latest instalment of Rooms can go right to the top

Changing Room explores the inner life of a man verging on change – a timely Covid-19 era work

Paul Fahy and Enda Walsh photo Andrew Downes believe ‘a festival is a great framework for people to be more experimental, and this just fit the bill’. Photograph: Andrew Downes

Paul Fahy and Enda Walsh photo Andrew Downes believe ‘a festival is a great framework for people to be more experimental, and this just fit the bill’. Photograph: Andrew Downes

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Paul Fahy and Enda Walsh have joined me in a Zoom room to discuss the latest installation of Rooms, the serial theatrical project that the pair devised for the Galway International Arts Festival, which launches its seventh iteration this month.

Walsh is speaking from his laundry room, where he sits upon an exercise ball, gently bouncing up and down on the screen. Fahy is sitting at a long desk in the main room of his Co Galway home. It is an unseasonably stormy day outside and building work on John Gerrard’s extraordinary Mirror Pavilion has just been suspended, another complication for this year’s festival.

Festival director Fahy takes the setback in his stride. In the Zoom room, meanwhile, the energy is giddy, as he and Walsh describe their collaboration over the last seven years.

Rooms began in 2013, when Walsh’s play Ballyturk was due to premiere at the festival. The co-production with Landmark Theatre was the festival’s most prestigious event, starring Cillian Murphy. Just before the programme went to print, Fahy remembers: “Enda sent me another piece he had been working on. It was not like anything I had read before. The stage directions were really descriptive and I could literally smell the room where the character was speaking from.

“We have a really strong visual arts programme at the festival and we started talking about what it would be like to offer the piece as a type of installation, to marry the two strands of the programme. A festival is a great framework for people to be more experimental, and this just fit the bill.”

Room 303 was narrated by the voice of a travelling salesman coming to terms with the complexity of Christian morality and his own mortality, and the production juxtaposed the voice of Niall Buggy with a meticulously recreated empty hotel room. Walsh describes the impetus for the unusual piece.

“My dad had a furniture shop,” he explains. “And when the delivery men weren’t available, me and my brother would be drafted in to help. I remember what it felt like to stand in a person’s living room, how these larger worlds could be evoked in just a few seconds. These were places that held whole stories that you would never know anything about. So I felt the idea of an empty room was really theatrical as an idea.

“As I have gotten older I have grown less interested in language than in form. When you distil theatre down to its basics what you are talking about is character and setting and how they inform each other.”

Room 303 gave Fahy the opportunity to flex his own artistic muscles too. “I started off in Art School. So it was nice to be able to roll up my sleeves again.” He took on the role of production designer and as the series evolved he helped create the detailed settings for each of the Rooms, alongside “an amazing team of collaborators. I’m more like an art director. They do most of the work.”

The 2014 production of A Girl’s Bedroom, with the voice of Charlie Murphy in a messy bedroom that holds traces of childhood as well as adolescence, was a particular highlight from the series.

“As with all of the Rooms,” Fahy says, “the audience are invited to explore the space beforehand – to flick through books, open drawers – and I remember during one performance someone picked up the girl’s uniform off the floor and folded it with such care. It was such a compassionate gesture. The works are really intimate in that way, bringing you close to the life of a stranger. ”

Walsh chips in: “That is actually the reason I wanted to work in the theatre. You constantly get to meet and work with strangers, and Rooms is giving that to the audience in a way; you get to spend time this intense time in a stranger’s company. You get to meet them at this extreme point of their life and then you leave.”

Kitchen is part of the Rooms series of immersive theatre installations written and directed by Enda Walsh and designed by Paul Fahy. Photograph: Colm Hogan
Kitchen is part of the Rooms series of immersive theatre installations written and directed by Enda Walsh and designed by Paul Fahy. Photograph: Colm Hogan

The form of Rooms – with its limited audience numbers and ghostly performer – has made it possible to stage at the Galway International Arts Festival’s Autumn Edition, a boutique version of the annual festival, which was cancelled in July. Fahy and Walsh say that they have had to make a few concessions.

Changing Room examines the inner life of a man on the cusp of change, preparing to re-enter the world after choosing to absent himself, so the theme is topical. The installation, meanwhile, will be constructed from easily sanitised surfaces and will lack the explorative ephemera that Fahy describes above. “But really, given the nature of the character and his situation,” he says, “those decisions all feel organic to the production process.”

‘Confinement is a metaphor’

Walsh agrees. “A friend said early on during lockdown, ‘Enda you should have copyright on Covid-19. You could have made a fortune.’ But the thing about my plays – about Rooms especially – is that they are about psychological confinement more than physical confinement. For the most part the isolation is something the characters have chosen. The confinement is a metaphor: the lockdown is in their mind.”

Indeed, Walsh himself “took the whole lockdown, the general upsidedownness of the world, really badly. I worked for the first month and then I just sort of fell into a hole. Going to a gallery or a dance show, all the things that nurture the emotional brain, weren’t available anymore and that was kind of shocking. It is all those artistic stimuli that feed my creativity, creativity in general, so that was hard.

“Art bends perception, shows us life from different angles. So you have to hope that the instinct is still there to turn a feeling into a piece of art that people might plug into when all this is over. And when you think of it, even with the world in a state of crisis as it is, or a state of pause as it was during lockdown, life still goes on. I mean, I am here now in this room,” he gestures dramatically, “looking at out at . . . oh, 11 flats opposite me, and there are stories going on in each and every one of them”.

The opportunity to work on another instalment of Rooms during lockdown, then, was “a bit of a saviour. When Paul called, as he does at the end of March every year, I just thought, yes! If ever there was a year to do [Rooms], it is this year.”

The idea for Changing Room, “a story of transformation, of hope,” was already brewing. “It isn’t about the pandemic really, but about one man’s decision to embrace the world again. There are elliptical references to staying and going out, but what I was really interested in was the idea that, within the scale and pressure of the world, you do have a choice about hope.”

Making a piece of theatre, Walsh concludes, is “the opposite of isolation. When you are making a show, it’s like a family coming together, even if you are meeting them on Zoom”. Going to a live performance, as Rooms many audience members will attest, plugs into that same feeling of communion. 

  • Changing Room runs from September 9th-20th at the Bank of Ireland Theatre, NUI Galway, as part of the Galway International Arts Festival
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