Interviewed for Sardines Magazine on 6 September 2013
Being named “the finest playwright of his generation” by The New York Times isn’t something that happens overnight. With a career spanning over twenty years, Conor McPherson came to public prominence in 1997 at the age of 26 with standout hits St Nicholas at the Bush Theatre and, perhaps more notably, the Olivier Award-winning The Weir for the Royal Court (recently revived at the Donmar Warehouse). With a taste for the unexplained, in 2009 McPherson tackled the Daphne de Maurier classic short story The Birds, arguably best known for the Hitchcock masterpiece movie of the same name. Following workshops and rewrites in America, a revised version of the play finally made its UK amateur premiere this September at Putney Arts Theatre and I took this timely opportunity to speak with the playwright.
Taking the lead
Set in a Cornish seaside town, Daphne du Maurier’s 1952 novella follows farmhand Nat as he struggles to protect his family from flocks of birds attacking their home, eventually barricading themselves in the farmhouse kitchen. At around 15 pages long, it is a confined tale that ends abruptly or, as Conor described it, as if it were the opening of a much longer narrative: “The funny thing about the story is that it sets up the whole situation of birds attacking people – and then it just ends. It’s almost like the first chapter of a book; it almost invites a little imagination and interpretation”.
And what an imagination! Where some authors might think to take du Maurier’s main protagonist and continue their journey, Conor took a different approach and wanted to explore another point of view. “It was probably a strange thing to do” he told me, “but in the original story, Nat’s wife is quite a minor character – she doesn’t even get a name. I wanted to come at this story and I wanted to write a play which was going to present much more of the female psyche”. An interesting approach that paid huge dividends in the production I saw in Putney. Nat is still present but gone is the reluctant hero of the original, replaced with a man living on the edge in a dangerous new world, with the play opening to Nat shivering under a sleeping bag, a high fever causing nightmares about his ex-wife. Nursing him back to health is Diane, a successful writer estranged from her husband and daughter, with much of the story narrated from Diane’s perspective as she scribbles away in her notebook, her private thoughts and platonic love for Nat developing as the story progresses.
McPherson saw this approach to a female character as a departure from his previous work, explaining that there may have previously been a tendency to idealise women, “which is probably just as insulting as demeaning them”, he said. “Characters in my plays tend to see women as perfect in some way compared to men. But for me, what was interesting was that Diane’s not just flawed, she’s destructive and in some way believes that she is God – I didn’t really know it was going to go into that place. So what does that say about me?” he laughed. “But hopefully at least it’s not boring”.
Boring The Birds certainly is not. McPherson has crafted a taut play with an intimate cast forced to live out their days under one roof, constantly questioning one another’s motives and the cause of the birds’ peculiar behaviour. Nat and Diane’s bizarre new world becomes further confused with the arrival of Julia, a younger woman seeking refuge from violent scavengers she claimed to be travelling with. In one sense, the play is about humans at the mercy of their most basic animal instincts. “We don’t want to identify with them because we don’t want to think that’s what we’re really like” suggested Conor. “For a woman who’s getting older, if a younger woman comes on the scene sniffing around their man, I think that is where you’ll see a really strong instinct kicking in. From the minute Julia appeared I wanted the audience to think ‘this is going to go really badly’”.
Things do indeed go from bad to worse. With Nat and Julia out seeking supplies, Diane is left home alone when she is confronted by Tierney, a loner who had clearly been observing the house for some time and drops a bombshell that leads Diane to make some very dark decisions. Tierney is only on stage for one short scene but it is easily a standout moment in the play, made all the more powerful when realising how short the scene really is. “He was only on the stage for about 8 minutes” Jeff Graves, director of the Putney production, informed me. “But it was a measured performance by Michael Rossi. When he leaves, you feel sorry for him. He’s very honest about what he wants; he’s struggling to survive on his own”. Paired with Penny Weatherall in the intimate studio, it certainly made for mesmerising viewing.
Adapting a classic
I was intrigued to find out more about McPherson’s approach to adapting the story. With the current trend for turning blockbuster movies into West End hits, was there ever an inclination to simply adapt the 1963 classic? Apparently not.
“I was aware of the film and had probably seen it many years before” Conor told me, “but I didn’t go and watch it again because I didn’t want to be led up any paths. The film is the film and there was probably no point in trying to adapt that. But just as Hitchcock’s film went off in its own direction, my play went off in its own direction as well. They both changed a lot of the story but I think what the original story has is a very powerful mythic undertow which allows you to build your own interpretation on”.
I couldn’t help but agree with him. Having read the original story and being a big fan of the Hitchcock film, I had been looking forward to seeing a fresh take on du Maurier’s setup. But maybe there was at least a temptation to borrow from the revered filmmaker? “I remember reading about Hitchcock and making the film” Conor recalled. “The original screenwriter was being interviewed some years later and he said something interesting, that he met up with Hitchcock and said ‘I’m assuming you don’t really want to see the birds, you want to concentrate on the people?’. And Hitchcock said no, it’s absolutely the opposite, I want to do a film that is all about the birds attacking. He wanted to do ground-breaking special effects – that was what he was really interested in. My instinct with the play was to go with what the original screenwriter had been talking about, it’s probably best that we don’t see [the birds] and we just hear them”. A wise move, I said. “My instinct was probably entirely different to Alfred Hitchcock but I suppose that was why he was so successful. I’m not Alfred Hitchcock! So for better or worse my instinct was entirely different”.
This instinct was challenged, however, when the play made its debut at the Gate Theatre in Dublin in 2009. “I made the mistake of allowing myself to be…” Conor began, taking a moment to reflect on the original production. “I wouldn’t say pressurised but the producers really, really wanted to see some birds. I said ‘look, if we’re gonna have them then let’s just at the very end, almost like a curtain falling across the stage’”. A beautiful image, I can only assume. “It worked for the first few previews because I think people had expected never to see them and really it was just for the last few seconds we saw birds flying into the room”. I could sense a ‘but’ coming along… “A theatre is not the right environment for live animals to live in – some of them caught a bird flu virus, so we had to clear them out and disinfect the whole place”. Conor continued by saying the producers wanted to quickly resolve the problem by training new birds. “We’d been training these other birds for weeks”, he laughed. “On the press night we tried it and of course they just flew into the audience, some of them just didn’t do anything, they just sat there – it was more like a joke. So from that point on I realised it was a nice idea but no, it’s so much better not to see them.”
A wise move. But was Jeff Graves tempted to revive the idea for the UK premiere? “We did have the idea of having, as the audience left the studio, these model birds just to continue the experience,” Jeff explained, “but it was literally a five minute chat about it. Instead, we had a few feathers scattered on the seats and the floor just as a suggestion that were birds around. It’s about what you don’t see that should be frightening”. A sentiment shared by McPherson: “The theatre is all about the audience’s imagination, that’s what it has [over film], that’s its only advantage really so you’ve got to use it”.
McPherson was given the opportunity to take the play to Minnesota and workshop it with a new cast and creative team. Normally, Conor explained, he would stay away from this process but felt differently and decided to engage in refining the adaptation. He removed the interval, universalised the setting by transporting it from his native Ireland to a fishing town in America and generally edited the material down to cut an hour from it. “I think the play in its present form has probably benefitted from going through a little bit more production” he added.
I wondered, however, if he ever worried about what happened when complete creative control was handed over to an amateur theatre. “I tend to stay away from productions of my plays because I would get too involved and probably try to take it over” Conor revealed. “I would try and rewrite the play to suit these particular actors”. This came as somewhat of a surprise to me. “It’s almost the opposite of what people think a playwright in the room is,” he explained. “People would think ‘we have to do it exactly the way it’s written’ and I’m coming in going ‘hey, let’s change it!’”. So is McPherson precious with his words? “Not particularly with the words, no, unless it’s something someone keeps saying completely wrong. Usually I like mistakes because there’s something very real about that, something coming from the actor and you can’t fake it. If an actor makes a mistake in rehearsals I’ll try and keep it that way because it’s coming from you – any trick you can use to keep it real, I’ll use it”.
I wanted to turn back to The Birds and asked Jeff Graves what were the challenges of directing it. “The perception of The Birds is obviously the film, of people being chased by birds, and I wanted to give the audience the feeling of being trapped with them in the house, like they couldn’t get out.” In hindsight, was there anything he would do differently? “I’d make it scarier – it wasn’t quite chilling enough”. How about some advice from the playwright himself? “Trust the story,” Conor suggested. “Don’t let the audience off the hook, don’t be afraid – be tough with the play, it doesn’t matter if we like these characters or not”.
“If anyone’s got a small studio space then this is perfect for it” added Jeff. “It’s got two strong female leads and I think it’s quite difficult to find decent roles for females in amateur theatre.” Jeff also highlighted that the benefit of having a small, intimate cast was the opportunity to direct one on one. “Compared to a larger cast of 11 or 12,” Jeff continued, “it gives you more time with each actor and to explore and develop the characters”. Compelling reasons indeed. With an instantly recognisable title, a world-renowned playwright, and the knowledge that Putney Arts Theatre sold out every night (having to add a matinee performance due to popular demand), it wouldn’t be a surprise to see more productions of The Birds taking flight very soon.
What inspires you to write?
“I don’t know and I’m sort of glad I don’t know – when an idea for a play comes, you don’t invent it, you don’t sit there thinking ‘can I write a good play?’. You’ll find the idea will come when you’re doing something entirely different. I usually just see it, I see a character and I just kind of feel it. There are long periods where nothing really comes and there are other periods where you get a few ideas. I don’t really know what it is, who can say.”
Where do you write?
“I have an office at home. We have a little girl who’s three and a half, nearly four, and since she’s been around I find that the best time to get something done is in the evening when she’s asleep because it’s all too easy to end up being pulled into her world. It’s a nice quiet time.”
Do you watch, read or listening to anything in particular when writing?
“Sometimes, if you are writing something and you get to the point in your first draft, it’s when you’re watching a film and the way someone tells a story might give you a way forward. Little things like that might help to sort of keep the thing structurally interesting.”
Is there a tendency to leave certain things to the audience’s imagination?
“I tend not to tie things up. When the play is over, I like to be ahead of the audience, so that when people are coming out, they’re still talking about it, still putting it together. I think sometimes people might find that frustrating but I think actually it’s much more interesting. I think in general a play should be a question not an answer”.
Will someone ever unearth the Unfinished Works of Conor McPherson?
“There’s a few where I’ve written a whole play more or less but it just didn’t have life, it didn’t catch fire and it just didn’t have that thing. And what is it, who knows? But we all know when it’s not there, we’re all experts – anybody can watch a film and know it’s not there. Just as we can all tell good and bad acting, you don’t have to be acting teachers to understand that. You just know when you see Michael Gambon doing something everyone goes ‘wow’ and then Joe Bloggs down the road reads the same thing – no one can say what Joe Bloggs is doing wrong but we all know that it just feels wooden, crap, don’t believe it. What is that, who can say? There’s that indefinable thing that a good play or a good story just has”
What was the last production you went to see?
“I saw Major Barbara by George Bernard Shaw at the Abbey Theatre about two weeks ago. George Bernard Shaw – you’ve got to have your wits about you because it’s coming at you hard and fast, it’s always an intellectual workout. The actors were entirely committed. It’s a very, very good production.”
Do you have a favourite play of all time?
“There are some playwrights who I really admire, some Irish playwrights – Billy Roach is a lovely playwright I admire, and Tom Murphy, they have some great plays. Harold Pinter, of course, has just a number of beautifully mysterious plays that will always stand the test of time. Of course Samuel Beckett is very inspirational to a lot of people.”
What can people expect from your forthcoming episode of new TV series Quirke?
“The books are set in the 1950s in Dublin, they’re about a pathologist and follow his complicated personal life. In each book he ends up getting involved in some kind of intriguing unfinished business that he has to figure out through his work. He’s a natural detective, that tried and tested kind of detective structure. Andrew Davies adapted the first two books and they asked me to do the third one. Gabriel Byrne plays the lead character, Quirke. I’ve seen it, it’s very well put together – beautiful period detail as you’d expect from the BBC. They’re three feature length films and I think they’ll be out in the Autumn.”
Three tips to a budding writer
- “It’s impossible to write something if you’re not inspired, if you’re not feeling that this is coming from so deep inside you that you’re almost powerless to stop it coming. The way I would put it is the play has to write you, you’re not writing the play – you have to feel passionate. It’s almost like a crush, if you’re a teenager or suddenly you have a crush on somebody it’s like that, it’s like this thing that’s on your mind and you’re like ‘what the fuck is this?’. You’ve got to have that feeling.
- Have compassion for yourself because if writing teaches you anything its humility. Be kind and don’t be too hard on yourself, get it done and give yourself a chance – and if it’s not happening, get up from the desk and do something else because that’s when the way forward will become clear.
- The third thing: just have to do it. It is enough that you believe in it, but you have to believe in it. At least one person has to believe in it and if it’s going to be anybody it should be you, and that is enough. Even no one else thinks it’s any good, that shouldn’t matter – it’s that you got something out of it.”