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."