Enda Walsh’s Mad Old Ballroom

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11/12/2009 4:30 PM |

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."