If you don't understand just what's going on in Enda Walsh
's The New Electric Ballroom
(at St. Ann's Warehouse through November 22), you're in good company: Neither does the playwright.
Walsh, who also directs, admits actors find that answer frustrating. "They're pulling their hair out and I say I don't know. What's the answer to this?" When they point out "you wrote it," he replies, "yeah but I can't remember writing the fucking thingâ�‚�¦ From my point of view, I get out of the fucking way, and allow these characters to write the play." The playwright, who calls himself a "middle-class man from Dublin," apologizes for his reliance on the f-bomb. "This is Irish exclamation points," he explains, speaking on the telephone from London, where he's in the process of moving house.
It's the story of three sisters who live in a fishing village on the west coast of Ireland (the cavernous set by Sabine Dargent, who also designed costumes, is evocatively edged at the front with mossy stones). The two older sisters, aged about 60, Breda (Rosaleen Linehan) and Clara (Ruth McCabe) spend their days acting out the story of their heart-break by a rock singer at the New Electric Ballroom when they were teenagers in the sixties. Breda ritually begins with the statement "By their nature people are talkers." It's a play about talk, history, and the possibility of human interaction: Breda says that "the womb is a more desirable place than this 'created world'. We don't want to be alone but we're alone."
Breda and Clara put on high heels, the puffy skirts of the period, and reenact what happened on that night, while their much younger sister Ada (Catherine Walsh), who's only about 40, prompts them, participates, and serves as audience. She has a job outside of the house that she talks about; the other two seem never to leave.
Patsy (Mikel Murfi), a nervous, gabbling fishmonger appears periodically, dumping off fish, begging to be allowed to stay, and almost imperceptibly angling for Ada's love.
If characters in a room acting out a trauma, complete with costumes and props, rings a bell, you might have seen Walsh's The Walworth Farce
, which appeared at St. Ann's last season. In that one, a father and two sons comically, manically, reenact a trauma from their past, while living in self-imposed exile in London.
That the characters use theatrical methods to tell their stories is no stranger than having an audience in the theatre in the first place, Walsh suggests. "Theater as a form of expression is just bizarre, everything shouldn't work. It's all fake, the lights, sets, people pretending to be something that they aren'tâ�‚�¦ it's a complete house of cards and yet it sort of works. It only works on the basis of the audience wanting it to work."
So is The New Electric Ballroom
a bit like The Walworth Farce
in drag? Walsh admits he wrote the plays back to back, beginning The New Electric Ballroom
just days after finishing The Walworth Farce
"There are huge similarities. Stylistically, they are completely different type of plays. The New Electric Ballroom
is strangely more cinematic and expansive. The language has its own feel to itâ�‚�¦ it's crueler, bleaker I suppose. Both are piece about theater in a living room. I'm interested in people trying to express something in their living room, in their own sort of space."
When I ask why he uses this trope and say that it seems a bit device-y, the jovial playwright bristles a little. "I don't think it's device-y," he says. "We all lieâ�‚�¦ spin off and tell stories. These characters use a fuller expression of that. They are using stories to entrap and enslaveâ�‚�¦words can liberate or close down situations."
That's the approach of the press release, definitely. Your mileage may vary—mine did. Walsh uses storytelling and looking backward to express something about Irishness—last week, the first PoetryFest at the Irish Arts Center stressed that contemporary poets were not stuck in nostalgia. The fear of being trapped by stories, and by words themselves ("By their nature people are talkers") is at the heart of much Irish literature.
But Walsh is writing plays, not poems, and at times the worlds of his drama are outshone by the words characters speak. The New Electric Ballroom
, like The Walworth Farce
, is situated somewhere between a recognizable world and a poetic one, and that teetering can be off-putting as well as exhilarating. You can't exactly accept the situation as plausible—at one point Patsy dumps a load of fish into a trap door in the apartment—but something keeps it tethered from flying free as poetry either.
That in-the-middle-ness is what Walsh is going for. "When people simplify the play as being metaphor or fantasy my blood just boils. I think it's all sort of theater. I'm unsure of what sort of naturalism isâ�‚�¦ for me it's all one and the same. The notion of being a Beckettian sort of writer, makes me want to vomit." But he wants the situation to feel real. It should feel "enough like a real place so you can sense what the abstraction is, pull you into a stranger place. The emotions need to be realâ�‚�¦ we need to feel that we're documenting their lives." However, he admits, "I don't know anything about what it is to be a woman, let alone an old woman." The idea for the play came, he thinks, from seeing an elderly woman dressed as her 18-year old self. "This play is full of still images. When we worked on it, we thought about that, we thought of it as a series of pictures and snapshots."
There's a lot of sad-making playacting, but Walsh sees this as positive. In The Walworth Farce
, "it's a father wanting to love his sons." In The New Electric Ballroom
, "Breda is trying to keep their little unit together."
But the novelty of watching these women dwell, literally, in the skirts of their youth, wears off quickly, and pretty speech can be soporific. You don't really know what you're waiting for or how long it will go on. It's a play with a lot of monologues, and a mood of stasis—not a great play to go to when tired or emotionally distracted.
When it becomes clear that this play, like The Walworth Farce
, poses as a central question "will the more innocent character escape?", there's tension. Ada dreams of leaving, remembering the girl she used to be "before you taught me these stories." She says to her sisters, "things can never change here, can they?"
It is a familiar arc. When's the last time a lonely, aging woman had the promise of love turn out well in the theater? It doesn't happen in Martin McDonagh's Beauty Queen of Leenane
, or in Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie
, or The Heiress
by Ruth and Augustus Goetz, and it doesn't happen here either.
Walsh's lyricism haunts and chills (although asked whether he reads poetry, Walsh replies, "no, god, no"). Interestingly, Walsh also writes screenplays about historical figures—he's working on one about Dusty Springfield, and his film Hunger
, about Bobby Sands
, won Best First Film at the Cannes Film Festival in 2008. In his plays, the characters use imagistic language, in his films, he places characters "in scenes where the images talk."
However, there are striking stage images, as well as vivid language, in The New Electric Ballroom
. After Ada declares her intent to leave, Breda and Clara change the game, inviting Patsy in and bathing him, like a baby (harking back to Breda's remarks about the womb). They dress him in the garish costume of Roller Royle, the cad of a singer who let them both down. In their odd way, they're trying to be as helpful as the fairy godmothers in Disney's Sleeping Beauty
. Patsy tries to woo Ada with words, but nervousness gets in the way.
But when he grabs the standing mike and goes into "Wondrous Place," the 1960 Billy Fury song both Breda and Clara remember Royle delivering, it's magical. His transformation is exciting and gives off a pulse you can feel. When Ada says "what a difference you are to me suddenly" she describes the mood in the house.
She speaks her love song in answer: "Tone and air changed knowing that you are close to me. It's me and you, you and me. And then it starts as a quiet whisper 'tween two little old ladies who watch us pass by. And it takes to the air."
She concludes "The world knows of our new love. It's love." When Patsy answers "It's love" the audience holds its breath.
Murfi, as Patsy, delivers a tour-de-force monologue that takes him through the exhilaration of love all the way through to the other side, ending with despair and feelings of unworthiness. This and the song raise the play far above the somewhat amusing spectacle of odd sixty-something women reenacting their pasts. Patsy goes from "We're stood at the harbor and watching the horizon and we take to the sea then and the waves take us and the world opens to us further and further and I'm holding your hand. Your hand holding my hope." to "I'm kissing you with a kiss that lasts seconds too less for me but seconds too more for you. It's not you it's not you!... A man whose only companion is fish and now sewn together with another heart?! Fuck it! My own heart's too scarred by days and nights aloneâ�‚�¦." The gorgeousness of the words and Murkel's compelling performance are theatrical enchantment.
He runs out of the house, leaving Ada in shock. The bleak let-down, leaving Ada with a slash of lipstick on her face to show she too will perform the endless performance of "woman jilted by unworthy love," is a bit safe, though logical.
You might think, if you've seen the three Enda Walsh plays produced in New York in the past year (The Walworth Farce
, Disco Pigs
, and The New Electric Ballroom
) that Walsh takes a pessimistic view of life. But he's not so sure.
"The job of the playwright is to allow the characters to express as much as they can. I live my fucking miserable life in brilliant happiness, and anxiety and depression. It's the way I've been since I was a child. I don't get depressed, I get frightened and fearful of the world, but I don't get black or fall apart. Even when the characters, god love them, and Ada has the ending that she has—there's a little turn-away at the end. I see that as the fight continuesâ�‚�¦ you don't get stuck or trapped in whatever the hell your life is, there's always another day."
Asked whether he does believe in the power of love, he answers: "Of course I do. We have to take risks, every moment of the dayâ�‚�¦ it's about reaching out to people. Even with the potential to be turned away at any time, and belittled. For Ada it isn't done yet. I need to think that, even if it's a small thing."
(photo credit: Toni Wilkinson)