John McManus playright.

Shaving The Barber

On March 27 Ireland went into full lockdown. For the next few weeks people baked bread, engaged in exercise routines and kicked about the idea of that novel they have always been thinking about writing. Or at least talked about such things.

For Ballyconnell playwright John McManus the seismic shift the rest of society was coming to terms with was not that onerous. “It's absolutely no different for me at all, all I ever do is sit at my table by myself writing,” there is a good belly laugh following the statement.

John is in good form as he discusses a new play set to be staged on Culture Night in September. Originally dubbed 'The Battleaxe of Belcoo' John has, at the moment of our conversation, yet to break the news to director Padraic McIntyre there had been a slight shift in the story. And the script. And even the overall direction of the plot. Eeek.

The playwright is not overly anxious about informing the director of the changes to 'The Barber of Belcoo' as he feels the review has sharpened the play. Set to star one of the country's finest female stage actors, Brid Ni Neachtain, the show will debut at an unusual venue; the Cavan Geopark.

The performance also takes advantage of social media platforms on Culture Night to get to a wide audience. The actor was most receptive to the idea of the performance for the first reading. “The script was extremely new when she got it,” John explains, “About a week old. It's a commission from Cavan Arts. Catriona O'Reilly read it and sent it to Padraig. He loved it. He got in touch with Brid who got involved straight away.”

Though not about the pandemic, the work evolved during the lockdown: “Catriona suggested we do something in Dowra for Culture Night. My idea was for an outdoor show in the Cavan Burren where there is loads of space. The only problem is if it rains, but there's a sheltered area or we can use Dowra courthouse if being outside is completely off the cards.”

Inconveniencing the actor was never intentional: “The script Padraig gave to Brid was only a first draft, when I went over it there were a few things that I wanted to iron out – just changing to a few bits and pieces. I am happy with what I have now, but I'm not sure what she is going to say,” he mischievously confesses.

The actor has until the middle of September to prepare for the first outing of the show. When he submitted it to Cavan Arts, John was unsure how it would be presented to audiences: “We were talking about doing it as a reading, but Brid wanted to it as a full performance,” he said.

One woman show

Brid is in Connemara at present going over the original script: “It's a one woman show, when it gets to the rehearsal stage Padraig will go over the directions. Knowing the script is the important thing at this point, though there are a few changes to the script she's learned,” John's chuckle now has a nervous edge to it, “I'm sure she will be okay with that.”

Perhaps it has something to do with the lockdown, but the pace of the work as it transitioned from pen to stage has been quite rapid. Alterations John would have made after stepping away from the work for a while did not take the regular route: “It's unusual that I write a play and it takes off this quickly. I usually have a year to go back and look at it. I take a break, then look at it with fresh eyes and perhaps see a better way to do things.”

John says the last edit of the play pushed things in a different direction: “One of the changes I made was to change the name from The Battleaxe to Barber. The character evolved. She's no longer the perpetrator, but one of the victims. From Fermanagh, she was orphaned as a child and lived in Scotland for 40 years. She has come back to Fermanagh to resolve some childhood issues and works as a barber while trying to get information to find out what happened to her family.

Orphaned

“Basically there was tragedy, she was shipped off to an orphanage in Belfast, she ran off from it and got on the boat to Scotland. A husband and wife took her in and hey let her live in their shop where she trained to be a barber. She stayed there until they retired and now she has returned to Fermanagh to find out about her past,” the playwright gives the synopsis.

John is clearly happy with the piece: “This is a weird one – it went to places I had no idea it was going to go to. They are always the best and most exciting stories. I knew I wanted to set it in the Cavan Burren with a female character from Fermanagh. Cavan and Fermanagh are very close to each other, but the dialect is completely different. I know this because my father is from Fermanagh and I have a good handle on how they speak. Having an older woman as the main character was also important to address some global issues in a local sense.”

The playwright says the choice of the actor to play The Barber was easily made: “Padraig contacted her as she is one of the best actors in Ireland. Because of lockdown very few actors are working and theatres are closed. He said 'why not try and get the best?'. He got on to her straight away. She was very keen to do the play.”

The Culture Night outing is only the first for the show: “I believe Brid sees the potential of bringing it on tour – even with social distancing restrictions. The setting at the dolmens is lovely, but you could also recreate that on stage very easily. The COVID-19 restrictions will make one person shows attractive for venues to stage.”

Planning to stage the play in the Geopark in September is not without risk. Having a plan A, B and C is important: “We hope to do it outside if the weather is right. It's beautiful up there and loads of space. You can fit any amount of people up there two metres apart. If the weather is unsuitable there is a sheltered area there or we can use Dowra courthouse.”

This is not the first play John has been commissioned to create for Culture Night: “I did a show with the late Larry McCluskey a couple of years ago, Lone Wolf in Cootehill. That was really good and Larry was going to bring it Edinburgh, but Larry got sick and that was postponed. Now he is no longer with us, which is terrible,” John recalls.

“I also wrote The Determinator which Aaron Monaghan did a reading of in Townhall about four years ago. That is another play we might bring back at some point,” the tells.

The experience of lockdown is not entirely novel for the Ballyconnell man: “My friend Philip Doherty, the writer from Cavan, text me saying 'They are all copying us now'. I just hope everybody doesn't start writing plays.”

“It may lead to some great work from new writers. Writing is something that not everybody tries, so perhaps by having time on their hands people could explore something new. I suppose it's the perfect time to try it. Personalty I think there are enough playwrights, in Cavan anyway,” he laughs.

Culture Night/Oíche Chultúir returns for its 15th edition on Friday, September 18, 2020.

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