Evidence of amorality

 

We are captivated by tales of gruesome deeds - the 'cultured killer' in John Banville's The Book of Evidence inspired Alan Gilsenan to adapt it for the stage, partly, he writes, because he reveals something of our own worst fears. It premières at Kilkenny Arts Festival next month

I first read John Banville's novel The Book of Evidence many years ago as my father lay dying in the next room. Surrounded by tea-chests of memories from a former life, I lay reading in a box room in my parent's home - not unlike, in some way, the prison cell from which the book's narrator speaks.

I'm not sure whether it was the heightened emotion attending my father's imminent departure from this world or the vivid intensity of Banville's language but I read through the night and finished the book in a strange state of elation at 5 a.m. Strange because The Book of Evidence tells a dark tale, illuminated only by its humour and the beauty of its writing.

On publication, the book aroused controversy because it had echoes within it of horrific, and seemingly mindless, crimes that became etched on the mental landscape of our parochial society. Grotesque and bizarre crimes. Murder in the Park. The tragic death of a young nurse sunning herself in the Phoenix Park. The subsequent and oft-forgotten murder of a young farmer. The arrest of the "monster" in the home of the then Attorney General. The hasty and ill-judged departure of that same Attorney General to New York. Questions asked of the Taoiseach, Charles J. Haughey (how suave and assured he seemed then, how broken now). Talk of governments falling. The bow-tied and corduroyed dandy walking hand-cuffed, fearful yet somehow sneeringly defiant, into court. Malcolm MacArthur. The name resonates, even now.

In the book, Freddie Montgomery, our fictional murderer, describes walking out of court to face the baying crowd and realising "for the first time, it was one of theirs I had killed". We, of course, realised that in Malcolm MacArthur it was one of ours that had done the killing. In the Ireland of the early 1980s, the life and crimes of MacArthur seeped into our Dublin 4 consciousness.

At university in Trinity College, one could almost see him striding across Front Square, a junior lecturer perhaps, surrounded by a faint whiff of scandal about his relationships with young undergraduates. Or in the quaintly-termed "watering-holes" of the city: Doheny & Nesbitts, Neary's, Davy Byrnes. Or at dinner parties hosted by loud, overweight barristers on Leeson Park or Orwell Road. Or at weekends in the country, outside Kilkenny or deep in the Wicklow mountains. For the images which we had of MacArthur - garnered from the now fading newspaper photographs and television news of the time - conjure up an attractive chimera. Anglo-Irish, for sure. Academic perhaps. A witty raconteur definitely. Well-bred. Old money. Well versed in the arts. A seductive mix for Ireland's middle-class. Not exactly one of our own, but not exactly not one of our own either.

Either way, we were attracted to men like MacArthur, wanted to appropriate them in some fashion, but there was always a residual suspicion lurking, an almost ancient distrust. So we were probably not too surprised when the news broke.

We always knew there was something odd about him, whoever he may be. But we grew fascinated by the story. Still are. Enjoyed the scandal at Bulloch Harbour. Were divided on the question of the Attorney General's resignation. Baffled by MacArthur's seemingly motiveless crimes, but intrigued (perhaps even a bit envious) of the man's ability, in one fatal moment, to step lightly and forever beyond the pale.

MacArthur became something of a mythical character, absorbed by osmosis into our world. He was not one of the many faceless incomprehensible criminals we read about in the sensible court reports of The Irish Times. He became a real character in the fictive imagination which passes for our reality.

John Banville, presumably, absorbed this tale also. It struck a chord possibly, resonated somewhere deep within his world. Perhaps acted as a catalyst for a fictional journey. Found a new and distinct voice - not MacArthur at all, at all - Frederick Montgomery. The Book of Evidence.

We debated the book as well ("definitely should have won the Booker"). Perhaps even read ourselves into it as characters in the novel. For we were fascinated by this new story too. Still are.

Many years ago, while filming in Arbour Hill prison, I remember catching a glimpse of Malcolm MacArthur. He stood in the workshop clasping some file or copy book to his breast. The mask was very much intact, the iconic bow-tie still in place. He seemed, for all the world, like a vocational teacher wandering among his errant pupils. But there was something lost about him also, or so I fancied, lost in his own thoughts or memories perhaps. There is a monastic feeling to Arbour Hill, far removed from the smash-and-grab boyish exuberance of Mountjoy. Here the murderers and the rapists go about their "life", seemingly in quiet contemplation of their awful crimes. As if each had seen a vision - not of Christ or the Blessed Virgin Mary - but of hellish horrors that will forever set them apart from the rest of us mortals.

But there is something in all this which I know offends the memory of the dead. The murdered. In raking up MacArthur and The Book of Evidence and all, we are re-opening old wounds for the families of the victims. Yet they too are forced eternally into some strange intimate communion with the murderer of their loved ones. Once, one summer evening, while driving around the Bay Area of San Fransisco, a friend, whose young daughter had been raped and murdered, looked wistfully out across the bay to the island of Alcatraz. Without any apparent bitterness she said: "He's out there now. My daughter's killer. I always think of him when I come this way".

We are captivated by tales of gruesome deeds and their perpetrators. Perhaps because they reveal something of ourselves, of our own worst fears, of what we might become. The amorality of it all is somehow liberating and frightening simultaneously. The character of Freddie Montgomery in The Book of Evidence contains all of this and more. He holds us with his articulacy, his self-knowledge, his honest dishonesty, his humanity and, of course, his inhumanity.

All those years ago when I first read the book, I read it as a dramatic monologue, an aria of sorts. More of an opera somehow, perhaps, than a play. Not a film, however, although there have been many attempts. There is something within it, in its portrayal of Freddie's inner world, a glimpse of his dark soul, which is more suited to the theatre. It also made me think immediately of the actor Declan Conlon. I knew well of his growing talent, his restless intelligence, but something mysterious also. Something unknowable. This was a role Conlon could grow into in future years.

When we began to work initially on the play, at the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford in summer, 2000, my first version ran over two hours - far too long to sustain for an audience. We were bereft as we left out passages and scenes that we had come to love. I cut out, then restored, cut out again, rearranged, and cheekily inserted "ands" and "buts". I was aware how reductive this adaptation business was, the renting asunder of a fine novel. But amid the endless reading and re-reading, this pulling apart, this almost violent appropriation, there was an ever-deepening respect for Banville's writing, and for the complex tapestry of the book. Ultimately, the stage adaptation is a distillation, a reading of the novel, an opening of the door into a larger world.

As I write this, the day's rehearsals beckon and I'm late. Kilkenny in midsummer is warmly welcoming and conducive to the work. Once more, we will grapple with the book, and with the testimony of Frederick Charles St John Vanderveld Montgomery. Hopefully, we will edge towards some sort of truthful renditionof it. We will remain unsure of what it all means. Seduced and appalled by its gruesome fascinations, yet curiously moved by it all.

The Book of Evidence, written and directed by Alan Gilsenan and performed by Derek Conlon, is at the Watergate Theatre during the Kilkenny Arts Festival from August 10th to 17th. Booking: 056-52175/www.kilkenny arts.ie