We may live in a rational age, but the popularity of Conor McPherson’s plays suggests our fear of the unknown is alive and well. Mark Fisher talks to a writer in tune with the supernatural
THE scene is an ordinary Dublin home on Christmas Eve. There’s a poker game going on and, inevitably, a good deal of drinking. One of the players, Sharky, is a recovering alcoholic; another, his older brother, has been recently blinded. You’d say it was a scene of everyday urban naturalism if it wasn’t for one of the other guests. He’s a stranger called Mr Lockhart and pretty soon it becomes clear he’s the devil himself.
The play is The Seafarer and this week it’s getting its Scottish premiere at Perth Theatre. The author is Conor McPherson, a writer with a penchant for the supernatural. His best-known play, The Weir, has gripped audiences worldwide with its bar-room ghost stories. His one-man play St Nicholas, first performed by Brian Cox, is about a theatre critic who moves in with a group of vampires. Another play, Shining City, starts with a man who is terrified after seeing the ghost of his dead wife.
These are rational times, we like to tell ourselves, but the popularity of McPherson’s plays suggests our fear of the unknown remains. The Dublin-born playwright goes further and suggests it’s a central part of our experience.
“Mystery is the philosophical underpinning of life,” he says. “We don’t understand who we are or where we come from.” The mysterious Mr Lockhart in The Seafarer is engaged in a Faust-like battle for Sharky’s soul. In this game of poker, the stakes are very high indeed. It may sound fanciful, but McPherson is in earnest. It’s as if our lives take place in a little picture, he suggests. Everything beyond the frame is unknown. His job as a playwright is to “bring the characters to the edge of the frame”.
But doesn’t this make his plays less credible? “Ironically, it makes it feel more real to me, because in our everyday lives, we are always dealing with the supernatural,” he says. “Even consciousness, we don’t quite know what it is or where it came from. Is it just an accident or does it mean we’re in touch with something eternal and infinite? It’s a very human feeling, the longing for beyond, for transcendence – and a fear of it too. A fear of the unknown is very exciting on stage. So for me, it’s a very natural thing to do.”
After the play’s success at London’s National Theatre in 2006 and on Broadway, McPherson is pleased to see this co-production with the Lyric Theatre, Belfast playing to audiences in Scotland and Northern Ireland where the Celtic tradition of storytelling is strong. “It’s not to say it’s any less comprehensible to an English audience, but it’s like a tribal thing,” he says. “Underneath the language, underneath the surface, there’s just a feeling that people immediately seem to know who those characters are. With The Seafarer people have said to me that they recognise family members on the stage – they just get it.”
His earliest plays were monologues, great feats of storytelling – what he calls “the most pure moment of theatre” – drawing the audience in. Even though more recent work, such as The Seafarer, has a traditional dramatic form, the characters can’t resist breaking off to spin another yarn. They are helped in this by the amount of alcohol they put away.
Like so many of McPherson’s characters, they are big drinkers. It’s been 12 years since the playwright last had a drink, but he writes from experience.
“I’m just somebody who wasn’t able to drink,” he says. “I tended to use it just to get through life as opposed to using it to enjoy myself from time to time. I don’t ever want to go back to that place, so I’m not even going to experiment. And, to be honest with you, I just don’t need it any more. There was a time when I would have happily sat in a pub for six hours in a row. I certainly wouldn’t drink eight pints of milk or eight pints of water. You realise looking back how crazy and stupid it was and how boring it seems to me now, yet I thought it was exactly where I wanted to be.”
The Seafarer reflects his view of alcohol as a means of escape that turns into a prison. On the other hand, he knows drink can be tremendously entertaining on stage. “I don’t think it’s po-faced, it’s a real celebration of the madness that comes from that place. It makes the play very funny, which is awful when I think about it. I had stopped drinking for about five years by the time I wrote The Seafarer.
“It led me to be very precise about it and to be objective about it and to not pull any punches about it either because I had nothing to hide. There was nothing I was going to be embarrassed about, so it gave me tremendous freedom to look at it.”
• The Seafarer, Perth Theatre, 8–23 February.