Marie Mullen, the acclaimed actor, seems to be actually run off her toes. Calling out instructions, she speedy ascends a three-storey wood staircase behind Druid’s practice session space, which would be a vertiginous sight for a traveler even though the steps didn’t stop mid-air, leaving a sheer drop to the ground underneath.
A robust piece of set, that is important each structurally and thematically to the brand new play Epiphany, the steps are wherein Mullen’s person Morkan welcomes her guests in a flurry of goodwill and standard agitation, as each arrives from the floor beneath.
Still clutching her script, Mullen reaches out with her unfastened hand, some 20 toes above the ground, to easy the fringe of the theatre curtain striking at the back of her, whilst her director Garry Hynes reminds her no longer to drop her strains. In the situations, those appear like the most secure matters to drop.
Similarly dauntless on ground degree a couple of minutes later, Mullen makes brief, specific pointers for what’s proving to be a busy bodily performance. When Aaron Monaghan enters the scene, as an unabashedly alcoholic person named Freddy in a faintly comical hat (“Anything to upstage the others,” Hynes teases), Mullen wonders if she may fill his hip-flask in one fluid motion, as though in flight.
Watching attentively from at the back of his computer, a tall, narrow figure responds sceptically. “I simply don’t see a global in which that is possible,” replies the playwright Brian Watkins.
If the arena that his new play constructs for Druid already appears mistily familiar, it’s miles partially as it has been stimulated by way of James Joyce’s novella The Dead (despite the fact that not adapted from it), and in part as it owes something of its fashion, as bodily as it’s far cerebral, to a body of work already associated with the organisation.
You can recognize his scrutiny. For all of the comedian brio of this beginning scene, wherein a motley organization gather in a crumbling Georgian home in Dublin for a party, it appears critical no longer to miss any steps.
When rehearsals smash, Watkins explains the genesis of his play from the floor floor up. A personable, erudite creator, born in Colorado and now based totally in Brooklyn, he has an academic fondness for quotation, citing Simone Weil and Marilyn Robinson.
Refreshingly, although, his play doesn’t endure a hint of postmodern pastiche. Visiting Ireland at the same time as Druid paintings-shopped his previous drama, Wyoming, Watkins began analyzing Dubliners. Two testimonies from Joyce’s series struck him in particular; Grace (which starts with a drunken cave in a staircase) and The Dead, wherein Gabriel, our fretting highbrow, experiences a humbling realisation during the Feast of the Epiphany at the home of his aunts, the Morkan sisters.
The staircase, Watkins says, turned into his very own eureka, “the foremost photograph which guided the complete introduction of the component. The play exists on this liminal space, among imminence and transcendence, among up and down. It’s very a great deal approximately the country of being inbetween things.” In other phrases, this familiar, undying setting, imagined by an American travelling Ireland, is a space this is neither pretty right here nor there.
In a fulfilling way, the play treats The Dead much less as its supply than its scaffold. It holds to a comparable structure, following the route of an night’s festivities, keeping some characters in new variations (Mullen’s neurotic Kate Morkan, keen to restore a subculture with out fully expertise it; Monaghan’s benevolent inebriated Freddy, now an academic), remodeling others (Lily, the caretaker’s daughter, is now Julia McDermott’s woke millennial known as Loren) and introducing others: a musician, a attorney, a psychiatrist.
In a play that seems freighted with absences, the visitor of honour, Gabriel, in no way arrives, but as an alternative sends his speech, its phrases blurred by using snowfall, with an enigmatic emissary. Through the window, that snow is still falling in wellknown, 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, appear to be in a comparable function.
“They are trying to find which means in a world that seems remarkably topsy-turvy,” Watkins is of the same opinion, “and that’s truely a feeling I actually have on this cutting-edge second.” At its heart, he says, is a much simpler query. Why do humans accumulate?
That’s a germane query for the theatre itself, an historic art form, impermanent and enduring, that can appear to be a fascinating anachronism in an separating age of Netflix and Amazon Prime. (Watkins is currently growing a display for the latter streaming provider.)
Although he educated as an actor, Watkins found less chafing and greater pleasure in writing; something “I should do by myself phrases, everyday. There is not anything like seeing some thing come to lifestyles on the stage. That sense of impermanence you mention is immediately torturous and exquisite. Nothing else roots you, so aesthetically, to the moment. And the magic of that usually added me again to theatre.”
While studying playwriting in New York’s renowned Julliard School, Watkins determined Druid, regular site visitors to the town, whose tours brought an ever ascending staircase of Irish playwriting: the grimly humorous 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 sort of kinship. “I don’t suppose I could be a author have been it no longer for Irish writers,” he says.
If Druid discovered echoes of such works in Watkins’s writing, in its witty and cerebral folds, he has discovered in Druid a particular reverence for writing. Hynes, directing her first new play for the business enterprise seeing that 2015 (Tom Murphy’s Brigid) and 2007 before that (Lucy Caldwell’s Leaves), is unerringly aware of dashes within the text, as even though the comedy and motion of the play will only work in the event that they nail the underlying mechanics.
In that regard Watkins’s textual content can seem restrictive at the start stumble upon, regularly written in exactly measured, overlapping conversations. “I really have a feel of what it seems like,” he tells me. “I’ve usually been interested in how rhythm affects meaning.”
In another manner, although, Epiphany is remarkably permissive. Chiming with Druid’s evolving rules – and a current groundswell in Irish theatre towards pluralism – his characters are written to be executed by using actors of any gender or ethnicity. Like the collaboration – or, indeed, the current-day Dublin the play depicts, the nine-man or woman ensemble is a broadly global mix, providing Irish, British and American performers. It makes for a active birthday celebration.
“If Joyce changed into writing Dubliners towards a deeply nationalistic context, I wanted to write down something that become deeply within a globalist context,” Watkins reasons. Not placing strict brackets round characters additionally meant, “we wouldn’t be making use of stereotypes to everyone: all and sundry become on an identical footing as a ways as what makes us human.”
That raises an exciting question: can characterisation happen without particular context? The casting here (“an extended, hard technique”) subtly affects its meaning, where an interracial male couple (performed with the aid of Jude Akiwudike and Marty Rea) indicates a selected cultural context with out ever spelling out their records, or Aran, a individual performed with the aid of African-American display screen celebrity Grace Byers, now considerably takes Gabriel’s crucial position at the celebration (and, for accurate degree, his galoshes.)
“We played with all of those dynamics of race of gender to peer what the right mix felt like,” says Watkins, including that it partially made up for the pressure of his method to rhythm and structure. He smiles. “Which, in overall performance, I desire feels a chunk like a cosy straitjacket.”
To take a look at the staircase once more was to find an almost analogous symbol; a non-negotiable structure taking into consideration a whir of unfastened movement. Epiphany does some thing comparable, inviting its characters through rituals, whether or not meals or birthday celebration pieces, whilst bearing in mind looking exchanges approximately the past, the future, the that means of it all.
Watkins is sluggish to side with any individual’s factor of view, but retreats from restrictive thinking: “Philosophical determinism is to me deeply unsatisfying for an revel in of life that seems so wealthy with deep complications and non-binary things. It’s now not simply black and white. It’s form of gray, or instead this luminosity of it defines all of existence. I’ve usually been some distance more interested in questions in preference to the solutions.”
Another effective image appears in Epiphany comes within the shape of shadows (“What a profound aspect they’re,” one character comments, “conceptually, literally, psychologically . . .”) Indeed, here they ensure absences experience greater conspicuous, at the same time as leaving a lingering hint of preceding generations, and all their lost epiphanies.
Watkins can also have an encouraging courting with such things himself, writing a play that isn’t in Joyce’s shadow, however capable of stand subsequent to it. “Joyce has a stunning dialectic between sincerity and irony,” he says. “Because they’re no longer actually at odds with each other. And I suppose that [approach] is peppered into this play.” Druid, he approves, lean into such attractive contradictions, divining the logic at the back of “the mystery”, little by little. “They include the shadows,” Watkins says, earlier than returning to the birthday party.