As he settles down to a life of commitment, Enda Walsh tells Mark Fisher how writing and directing New Electric Ballroom helped him explore the longing for a time when everything can change in the space of an hour.
IT'S THE summer of 2007 and I've arranged to interview Enda Walsh in Blue Bar Caf, the restaurant above Edinburgh's Traverse Theatre. Arriving early, I bump into the Irish playwright downstairs in the bar. We say hello and agree to meet in 10 minutes, but when the time is up, he's nowhere to be seen. At least, not in the bar. It turns out he's dutifully headed upstairs to Blue as originally arranged.
"That was typical of me," he says, laughing when I catch up with him. "I was thinking, 'I know he's down there and he knows that I'm down there, but I should actually come up here, otherwise it could all go to pot.' All my plays are about that."
At this point he is thinking of The Walworth Farce, the show that would go on to win a Fringe First and be lauded in the Scotsman as a "mind-blowing combination of Marx Brothers madness and exploded Irish clich". It features a family of Irishmen exiled in London endlessly acting out a ludicrous play within a play. Failing to follow the script, they believe, would risk destroying the order of their lives. Like Walsh and our meeting, everything hangs on sticking to the rules.
A year later, I realise he must also be thinking of New Electric Ballroom, a companion piece to The Walworth Farce which is now getting its English-language premiere in Edinburgh. This play is also set in an intense world with its own rules, one in which two elderly sisters act out their memories of youthful romances while their younger sister plays a tape of sound effects. The retelling of the stories provides a feeling of certainty amid life's unpredictability.
"I've been writing that play forever," says Walsh, who shot to fame with Disco Pigs in 1997. "It's my preoccupation with patterns and routine. Getting up in the morning, living a day and being happy with that pattern, but then having moments where you think, 'I really want to detonate this.'"
Twelve months after our last conversation, he is all set to make a triumphal return to Edinburgh, this time not only as writer, but also director. New Electric Ballroom has already been produced in Munich's Kammerspiele – where it won Theatreheute's Best Foreign Play in 2005 – as well as in a number of other European theatres. Galway's famous Druid company is producing this English-language debut and Walsh says the themes that haunt his work are present once more.
"I bluster through life, sleepwalk through months," he says. "I'm getting older, the years are skipping away and I long for the life-changing afternoons and evenings. I remember in my 20s, all those difficult years, having big conversations, whether I'd split up with someone or fallen out with a friend, and afterwards thinking I'll never be the same person again.
"With all my plays I want the audience to experience characters having life-changing events, afternoons where they're going to be different people."
The parallels between The Walworth Farce, which will play at London's National Theatre this September, and New Electric Ballroom sound obvious, but the playwright is starting to doubt the connection.
"For the past couple of years I've been saying New Electric Ballroom must be a companion piece because I wrote the plays within the same three months," he says. "For ages I thought they must be companion pieces because they are both about theatre happening in a living room, both dealing with people using theatre as a form of torture or weird therapy. But apart from that, their approach is very different." On paper it sounds bewildering, but in practice, Walsh's curious private worlds have an intensity that audiences relish. This one, he feels, was his way of responding to his settling down as a family man and worrying about commitment.
"The play is about the risk of falling in love and whether it's worth it," he says. "I'd just moved to London and it felt my whole life was changing. I wanted to get married and all that type of thing. There was something about looking at these old women become their 18-year-old selves with their ra-ra skirts, pointy bras and massive Dusty Springfield hair and to consider what it is for your heart to dry up or be held or squeezed. This play is much more personal than The Walworth Farce. It is a quieter thing that concentrates on the heart, loss and love." v
New Electric Ballroom, Traverse (0131-228 1404) until August 24, (tomorrow, or August 18), various times www.traverse.co.uk