As Ramor Theatre coaxes Everyman Theatre up this end of the country to stage ‘Autumn Royal’ the writer, Kevin Barry, is confident that despite the distance between Cork and Cavan there is more that bind us together.
“The Irish have a dark sense of humour. You know the way people stand outside a dead house and will be cracking jokes and laughing. There is a strain of really dark, black Irish humour that permeates the whole island,” he insists.
There is a bit of a nomad in Barry. His lap of the country saw him reside in Limerick, Cork and a few other locales before settling across the road in south county Sligo.
The author of the wonderful ‘City of Bohan’ and the widely acclaimed ‘Beatlebone’, Barry has been scrabbling his way up that peak of great Irish writers since publishing his first batch of short stories. Lately he seems to have taken a bit of a digression. The summit of great Irish writers has a number of names that co-exist on the slope he’s now climbing.
Something about the Irish psyche has caused us to produced a pile of great playwrights. With his latest artistic endeavour, Barry is looking to set foot on the peak of both mountains. ‘Autumn Royal’ is the story of May, (Siobhán McSweeney), and Timothy (Peter Campion), a pair of siblings who are looking after their father.
Ol’ Papa has taken to the bed and in their efforts to mind the auld fellow the lives of the offspring are somewhat stifled. You don’t have to be lazy to resort to the use of “dark” and “comedy” to describe Barry’s work. It would be an impressive vocabulary that could sum up his works without mentioning his fondness for bleak humour.
Autumn Royal is set on the northside of Cork City, billing itself as “a play about life and death, love and hate, hysterical dependency, jealousy, rage, horror, and homicidal notions – or, in other words, it’s a play about a family”. As with his novels the writer’s fondness for music also seeps out through the characters.
I’m catching him the morning after the official debut in the city where the Shandon bells ring and the play is set. The first and obvious question for someone who has garnered high praise for his first two novels is: why the hell would you change codes?
“You go and see a play and you think - that looks handy enough, it’s just dialogue. Then you sit down to do it and it’s really difficult. You are not just telling a story, you are trying to build a little machine. One that lives in a live setting, a live context. All the parts have to work. It’s fiendishly difficult.”
That description of the work as a machine indicates his understanding of the intricacy of the mechanics of what he does. He’s aware of the different machines and how they operate differently:
“When you write a novel everyone can form their own world in their own mind as they read it. You are presenting a definite version of your story with a stage play. I have written a couple over the last few years. By my nature I am quite a social person, but it’s pretty isolating when you are just writing prose fiction. You’re stuck in a shed, in the rain, in south county Sligo. On a pragmatic level doing a play just means you get out and you have colleagues and I really enjoy that.”
Another difference between the novel and the play is that theatre requires more people to build the machine.
“It changes dramatically when you get it into the reading room. It will be brought to places that you didn’t expect. Your own work can surprise you. I have totally enjoyed it. You have to be prepared to leave your ego at the door, because it is going to change when the actors and the directors start to bring it to life,” the writer says of the process.
He stresses the importance of choosing a collaborator who is sympathetic with the style of the piece. Something very striking about the process is keeping himself in the right frame of mind.
“I am always trying to remind myself when writing anything that it should be fun at my end of the process. The reader, or the audience, are not going to have a good time unless I am having a good time when I am making it.”
The genesis of Autumn Royal was sparked by a chance visual image.
“I was on Oliver Plunket Street and I saw two women talking. One had a particular physical gesture. She had her arm across her chest and her hand was to her throat in an express of shock or outrage. I thought ‘that’s very Cork’ and as soon as I saw it I could hear her voice.
“I originally wrote it as a monologue for this woman May. She is in her 30s, living at home, her father sick in the bed upstairs. We are not sure what is wrong with him, and we never really find out. In the original monologue the brother Timmy is gone off to Australia, but the more I knew about Timmy the more I realised he would never make it to Australia,” the author laughed.
So the play became a two hander with Timmy in the house along with his sister May. “It’s a very ordinary story in a way. A lot of people find themselves in the situation. Do we stay and look after him, do we put him in a nursing home, do we put a pillow over his face? They go through all these possibilities in the course of the evening.”
He’s comfortable with the caption ‘dark comedy’ being attributed to his work.
“If you laugh; that is an emotional reaction. It opens people up. That is when you can really start manipulating their emotions. That is where you put the dark stuff and the more poignant stuff. You can really play with the audiences. I tend to write quite naturally in a comic mode. Underneath that the material may be quite dark.”
In the coming weeks the Cavan audience will get a chance to run the rule over this work. Directed by Caitriona McLaughlin and starring Siobhán McSweeney and Peter Campion, Kevin Barry’s Autumn Royal will be staged in Ramor on May 29. Tickets from the booking office.