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Interview with playwright and director Conor McPherson

18 June 2013 Charlie Kenber

Ahead of the opening of The Night Alive Charlie Kenber speaks to playwright and director Conor McPherson about the play, his process and the supernatural

Conor McPherson seems to be everywhere at the moment. His adaptation of Strindberg’s The Dance of Death played at the Trafalgar Studios at the end of last year starring Kevin McNally, and a revival of his 1999 Olivier Award-winning play The Weir closed recently at the Donmar Warehouse. As if that’s not enough, his latest play The Night Alive is now also on at the Donmar, under his direction. With the previews ending tonight it looks set to be another great success from a playwright well worth keeping an eye on.

London Calling: How did this double bill at the Donmar come about?

Conor McPherson: They were going to do The Weir, it was just as we were chatting about getting ready for that. I happened to say I was working on something and showed it to Josie Rourke [the Artistic Director of the Donmar]. She came back very quickly and said we’d love to do it, maybe even directly after The Weir.

LC: What can you tell us about The Night Alive? What is unique about it?

CM: Well I think it’s quite a strong story – I think really a kind of love story. Ciarán Hinds plays a man living in his uncle’s house: renting a room, he’s split up with his wife. A friend comes by and they have a van they do odd jobs in. One night (this is when the play starts), he brings this girl in, who’s been in a fight in the street. She ends up staying in the house. The story is of what happens – the impact of her visit on the men. Then when her boyfriend comes looking for her the stakes go up really high. There’s fallout for all these people.

I remember someone saying that short stories make good films rather than novels. My last play, The Veil, felt more like a novel. This is more like a short story. The good thing is you can create plenty of space, plenty of room for the characters to develop.

LC: Was that also behind the decision to not have an interval?

CM: Yes, it’s good because this play takes very abrupt changes tonally. It gets very dark at certain points. We don’t let the audience off the hook: we leave them wondering what’s happening, they can’t discuss it.

LC: There’s often an element of the supernatural in your work – why do you think this is?

CM: Often I’m trying to situate them in the context of an awareness of the cosmic situation, of human life, intelligence and consciousness. You have to look at it in the framework of the universe and eternity. That’s where we are, we have no idea how it all works, no idea what time is or space is. We sort of live in a giant mystery we don’t understand. I frame my plays in the darkness of that, and bring the characters to the edge of the frame. I always think that makes the dramatic stakes go up quite high.

I try not to have anybody say it, but sometimes there are supernatural elements. This one tries to stay as prosaic as possible. It is more about the feeling of the eternal.

LC: What is your writing process like? How do you start work on a new play?

CM: The best plays come in one bang. You see a flash of something. It’s like waking up from a dream that you can’t quite shake the next day. When that happens it’s great, there’s a strong driving force trying to get out, and you’re trying to bring it out, trying to help it. I start scribbling notes, form a structure, write a first draft. Really if you try doing it without that initial moment of inspiration it’s impossible. And you can’t control that.

You don’t control where plays come from at all, they sort of just have to come. You have a big responsibility when that happens. You have to write the play, to put it into three dimensions. That’s when the hard work comes. But without that moment of inspiration it’s impossible.

LC: Unusually, you direct a lot of your writing. Why is this?

CM: I just kind of fell into the habit of it initially. When I was a student I had the idea to write a one act play, and I gave it to the drama society in college. They wanted to do it but said “who’s going to direct it?” I didn’t know anyone so I said I’d do it. I stuck up a page saying “auditions” on a notice board and that’s it. Since the age of 18 I’ve been learning on the job. When directing my play it was very convenient. I could change things very quickly, without having to consult anyone. It’s not going to change substantially in rehearsal; it’s lots of little things.

LC: Do you enjoy producing work in London?

CM: London is a great theatre city, the capital of the world. It’s the place to do it if you’re gonna do it. I’ve been very lucky over the years, and of course you’re delighted the Donmar want to do your work.

LC: You’ve also been working on Quirke for BBC One. Is screenwriting something you’d like to do more of?

CM: Yes, hopefully if that turns out well then I can do some more like it.

LC: What else are you currently working on?

CM: At the moment this [The Night Alive] is taking up all of my energy and time. I’ll be as surprised as you will be! You never know exactly what you’re going to be doing.

The Night Alive runs at the Donmar Warehouse until 27th July. Tickets and more information available here.

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