Playwright Conor McPherson found fame in his 20s with a work about barflies telling ghost stories, went on to write a Bob Dylan ‘play with music’ and is now adapting Chekhov for the West End. He tells Tim Bano about how the themes of his plays bled into real life, working with Kenneth Branagh on a new film and whether Dylan finally came to see Girl from the North Country
Death, betrayal, alcoholism, regret and the supernatural – that’s how one newspaper characterised the plays of Conor McPherson. The Dublin-based playwright found fame in 1997 when his work The Weir, about a group of barflies exchanging ghost stories, opened at London’s Royal Court, transferred to the West End and won McPherson an Olivier award for best new play.
Troubled men plague his plays, as do ghosts and drinkers. “Uh, maybe,” he says when I ask if he recognises those themes in his plays. “But those things sound a lot like real life to me.” There’s something else McPherson would add to the list: “I’d probably put a few laughs in there. You want the audience to be laughing, that’s how you know it’s working.”
Born in Dublin in 1971, McPherson fell in love with theatre at a young age, partly through his actor cousin Garrett Keogh. He loved seeing Keogh perform and being taken backstage after the shows. “There was a lovely fascination with that which I hadn’t realised, but it did stay with me.”
While studying English and philosophy at University College Dublin, he was introduced to the works of US playwrights such as Arthur Miller, Eugene O’Neill and David Mamet. They made an impression on McPherson, and he wrote a one-act play that he took to the drama society. “They said: ‘Yeah let’s put it on.’ I had to find someone to direct the play, but I didn’t really know anyone involved in drama at college, so I just did it myself. I loved doing it, it was fantastic, and really I never stopped.”
After a couple of small successes, he started writing a play set in an Irish bar, where a group of regulars start telling ghost stories to spook a newcomer.
“When I was 25 and writing The Weir I couldn’t possibly think: ‘I’m going to write a hit play.’ I had no idea. I’d just put plays on in small venues with friends, and I’d managed to get a couple of plays on at the Bush Theatre in London, which at that time was above a pub. That was the extent of any ‘success’ I’d had. A few dozen people seeing my play. And that was great.”
The Weir opened at London’s Royal Court in 1997 directed by Ian Rickson. The theatre itself was closed for renovation, and had decamped to the Ambassadors Theatre, which had been split in two. The Weir was performed in the smaller half, for an audience of around 60.
It was supposed to run for about three weeks, but Rickson kept calling McPherson with news: “ ‘We’re extending it, we’re extending it again, we’re moving to a bigger theatre, we’re extending again, we’re going to have to recast because the original cast are taking it to America.’ It would continue on like that, and the play just took on a life of its own.” It ended up running for eight months at the Ambassadors, then for two years at the West End’s Duke of York’s Theatre.
Professional success clashed with personal problems. McPherson was drinking heavily by his late 20s and in 2001, on his way to the West End premiere of his play Port Authority, the themes of his plays – alcoholism, regret, death – bled into McPherson’s real life. He felt a crippling pain in his stomach and was admitted to intensive care with a ruptured pancreas. Years of heavy drinking had taken their toll. He was told not to drink again and, 18 years later, remains sober.
“The truth is, what I did for a living, and the success of The Weir, really had nothing to do with whatever other problems I had to encounter, which I probably would have encountered anyway. As a young guy in my 20s, I was trying to figure things out and making mistakes and all that kind of stuff. Which I still needed to do, and which happened. And it probably would have happened if I was a teacher or if I was working in another job. So I was one of those people who shouldn’t be drinking. I stopped drinking when I was in my 20s, I turned my back on that, and that’s been the way it is ever since.”
In terms of work, The Night Alive was very warmly received at London’s Donmar Warehouse in 2013, his adaptation of Franz Xaver Koetz’s The Nest slightly less so at the Young Vic in London in 2016.
But 2017 saw a completely new venture for McPherson when Girl from the North Country opened at London’s Old Vic.
Although it weaves selections from Bob Dylan’s back catalogue around a central story, you won’t find the word ‘musical’ anywhere on the marketing material. Instead the show was carefully billed as a “play with music” – although McPherson jokes that it’s more like “music with a play”.
And the story of how it came about is extraordinary, even if you get the sense that McPherson is slightly weary of repeating it.
In 2013, completely out of the blue, he got a call from Dylan’s longtime manager Jeff Rosen. “Would you be interested in using Dylan’s music to make a theatre show?” Rosen asked. McPherson’s answer wasn’t quite a resounding “Yes”.
“It was very strange,” he says. “It sort of felt impossible: first, because I couldn’t see how something like that could work, and second because I didn’t think I was capable of it. I felt – I wouldn’t say dismissive – but certainly pessimistic. I assumed they would be looking for someone who had a lot of experience with musical theatre, which I really didn’t.”
But a few days later, while thinking over the strange proposition, he had an idea. He’d visited Minnesota a couple of times when plays of his had been staged out there, and he knew the bitterness of winters in the Midwest.
“If you set something in the 1930s, a time before Bob Dylan was even born, it would make it very free. You could have any songs you wanted. Then I had this idea of setting it during the Depression, and in Duluth, Minnesota, where Dylan was born. In my mind I was thinking about Eugene O’Neill. His plays often have a house and a family and there’s people coming and going. I felt that a boarding house would allow for that flow of people coming through.”
What was your first non-theatre job?
Working in a shoe shop.
What was your first professional theatre job?
Writing and directing plays at college. Then I had a small theatre company [Fly By Night] with like-minded colleagues, putting on new plays in small venues. So, in a way, my first theatrical job is still the one I am doing today.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
I actually received very memorable advice from Harold Pinter after he saw one of my plays at the Royal Court. He pulled me aside and said: “Listen, don’t let the bastards give you any fucking shit.” Good advice.
What is your next job?
Directing Girl from the North Country on Broadway.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
Probably all the great actors I’ve had the honour of working with. Watching them and hearing what they say is always instructive. The great Irish actor Jim Norton has wonderful phrases like: “Resist the condition” – that’s a brilliant piece of wisdom for any actor or artist. It means never do what is obvious.
What’s your best advice for auditions?
Be yourself. I’m always looking for a performer’s specific, unique energy. I’ll tailor a part to suit somebody interesting. Just be yourself as much as you possibly can – while playing somebody else.
If you hadn’t been a playwright, what would you have done?
I’m really not sure… philosophy?
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
I like when it rains on opening nights.
“I said to my agent: ‘I’m assuming this is not what they want. I’m assuming they want something more obviously commercial.’ He said: ‘Well, just write down what you’re thinking anyway.’ So I wrote a page and a half, not much more than I’ve just described, and very quickly I got a response back saying that Bob Dylan had read the treatment and that he was very keen to continue, and I was free to use whatever songs I wanted.”
Rosen sent him a box set of all of Dylan’s music and McPherson set about listening to it.
“Some of them really got inside, really hooked me. So I would go: ‘Right, I really want to use that.’ The funny thing was, if there was anything that was too on the nose, that had too much to do with what was happening in the story, it never felt correct. It was always better if the song didn’t have anything to do with what was going on, because his music is so universal and poetic.”
I was one of those people who shouldn’t be drinking. I stopped drinking when I was in my 20s, I turned my back on that, and that’s been the way it is ever since
Dylan’s management was involved, but the man himself never gave any notes or imposed any restrictions. McPherson had the reins – to craft the story, to pick the songs, to strip them and mix them with other bits of music, and to direct the production.
“I said to his manager: ‘Do you want me to send you the script? Do you want me to send you what songs we’re going to pick? Do you want to tell us if there’s anything you do or don’t want? Do you want to come to rehearsals or workshops?’ His manager said: ‘No, he just wants you to do exactly what you want to do.’ ”
• You need to feel inspired to write.
• The greatest gift you can give any piece of work is time.
• Plays on the page are a mere shadow, a tiny suggestion, of the reality actors bring to the work, so remember that when you are finished writing a play you have only reached the bottom of the mountain you must climb.
The end result premiered at the Old Vic in 2017, followed by a West End transfer, a run at the Public Theater in New York, two Oliviers, a US tour, another West End run and, this year, a Broadway production – not to mention the rave reviews.
Of around 20 songs, only four are well known – Like a Rolling Stone, Hurricane, Make You Feel My Love and Forever Young. Among the rest are some really obscure choices, such as Tight Connection to My Heart, which original cast member Sheila Atim performed at the Olivier Awards in 2018, reducing most of the audience to tears.
The bouncy album version, with its tambourines and jangling electric guitars, is worlds away from what ended up in the play. How on earth could McPherson hear the bare bones of a beautiful song in that slightly clunky original?
“It was the chord changes,” he says. “Some of the chord changes were beautiful. It was recorded in 1985, and it’s got a very 1980s feel to it, which slightly hides the song in a funny way. I just thought if you freed it from those production ideas and stripped it back you would hear a different song in there.”
Having been in bands as a teenager and still a keen guitar player, McPherson strummed through each song’s chord structures with the show’s musical director, Simon Hale. As they put the show together, each cast member helped develop the melody lines that Dylan’s voice had left undefined in the original versions. They sculpted the songs to suit their voices and their characters.
“When Sheila heard the original she said: ‘I can’t actually hear what the melody is, the way he sings it.’ So we just figured out a way for her to sing it, and there it was. Just absolutely beautiful.”
Since the beginning, McPherson has never had any direct contact with Dylan. There was never any suggestion he would see the show, and throughout the Old Vic and West End runs the cast was pretty convinced he hadn’t been in. After all, this is the man who refused (at first) to pick up his Nobel Prize in person.
So, two years on, has McPherson ever had any word that Dylan has seen the show?
“I have,” he says after a pause, as if wary of demystifying one of music’s great enigmas. “He saw it when it was Off-Broadway. He was playing a show in New York the following night and some of the cast members were going to see him, and he very graciously asked whether they would like to spend some time with him before his concert. They sat with him for an hour before his show and he told them how much he loved it. It was really, really lovely to get that confidence and that warmth. It was lovely to know he was moved by it.”
The whole North Country experience has left McPherson energised about the way music can be used in theatre. “There was always music in theatre, it feels very natural. It’s probably been skewed into a kind of genre – musical theatre – which can be a bit limiting. When we think of musical theatre we sort of think of musical comedy, really, or Andrew Lloyd Webber. That seems somehow locked away from plays without music. But when you’re doing something like Uncle Vanya, you think: ‘You know what, you could have a pop song in the middle of this.’
“There’s no reason why you shouldn’t try it. You could have a song by Foreigner, it could feel right. Audiences would love it. I haven’t set about it in any serious way, but definitely since doing Girl from the North Country I think sometimes: ‘You know what we need here? A song.’ Whereas before I would have been like: ‘That would be awful.’ ”
Uncle Vanya set to a Foreigner soundtrack sounds amazing, but it’s not the approach McPherson is taking for his new adaptation, opening in the West End in January. Rickson asked whether McPherson would be interested in adapting the classic play, and explained that Toby Jones had already been cast as Vanya and Richard Armitage as Astrov. McPherson leapt at the opportunity.
His isn’t a radical re-imagining. The characters remain ghostly – unsurprising for a McPherson work – and it is still set in Russia. “I wanted to open up the emotional world of the characters for people in 2020. That’s all you can do: just be a lens that allows people now to relate to the universality of the characters.”
I didn’t expect The Weir to be as successful as it was, so it wasn’t like I expected anything else to be successful.
The truth is, for playwrights and other writers, if you have an idea for a play or if you’ve got something you’re working on, you are happy. That is when you feel successful.
The only time you don’t feel successful is when you’ve no idea what you’re doing. That’s when you probably feel a bit down. But when I was younger, I was never stuck for ideas.
Even now, there’s usually something going on. What happens as you get older is you don’t feel as connected to your unconscious. The ideas that come from your unconscious are always the most powerful ones.
When you think: ‘Oh I’ve got a really good idea here, people are really going to connect with this’, those ideas usually peter out because they don’t have the fire of inspiration, which is unbidden, and comes like a rush.
As you get older, you realise you have ideas that you’ve done before. I don’t want to repeat myself – it’s not interesting.
One very minor adjustment is to nudge the setting just a few years later. The play was written in 1898, and set roughly in the 1890s, but McPherson felt it was important to edge things slightly into the 20th century to give a sense of a country thundering towards the great upheaval of 1905 and then, of course, 1917. “These characters are going to be swept away, swept up in the storm of history that’s about to descend on them. They have no idea.
“I guess there’s a rule in playwriting that you should always feel like somebody could walk into the room at any moment, so you never want to give characters too much luxury to ruminate and reflect. You always want to feel like someone could be interrupted. You want to keep a little bit of time pressure on the characters.
“In some ways, the whole play felt like that to me. We wanted to put a little bit of time pressure on the whole thing – this is all coming to an end, it’s the end of an era. I wanted that feeling, just to help the dramatic tension of the play.”
The other big project in the pipeline is a film adaptation of Eoin Colfer’s Artemis Fowl books, due for release this year, but exactly what McPherson’s stamp will be on the final film is unclear.
“I turned the book into a screenplay, but they had other writers who came in after me, so I would think there’s probably not much left of what I did. But that’s the way with Hollywood movies, you can’t get too attached to it because there’s probably half a dozen writers working after me. You’re just one part of the process. I’m just happy it was made. I had a lovely time working with Kenneth Branagh who’s directing it, it was great fun. But would I say: ‘That’s my work’? Probably not.”
That film project aside, McPherson is happy to be spending the next few months focusing on Chekhov and the return – on both sides of the Atlantic – of Girl from the North Country.
“The problem is,” he explains, “people always want new stuff. A playwright friend of mine once told me that at opening nights of his plays people come up to him and say: ‘Well done. Are you working on anything new?’ He reckons that at his funeral, when his coffin is being lowered into the ground, someone will say: ‘Was he working on anything new?’ ” As the interview comes to an end, I decide not to ask what projects McPherson is planning next.
Born: 1971, Dublin
Training: English and Philosophy at University College Dublin
• This Lime Tree Bower, Bush Theatre, London (1996)
• The Weir, Royal Court, London (1997)
• Port Authority, Ambassadors Theatre, London (2001)
• Shining City, Royal Court, London (2004)
• The Night Alive, Donmar Warehouse, London (2013)
• Girl from the North Country, Old Vic, London (2017)
• Stewart Parker award for playwriting for The Good Thief (1994)
• Meyer-Whitworth award for This Lime Tree Bower (1997)
• George Devine award for St Nicholas (1997)
• Evening Standard award for best new play for The Weir (1999)
• Critics’ Circle award for most promising playwright for The Weir (1999)
• Olivier award for best new play for The Weir (1999)
• New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for best play for The Night Alive (2014)
Agent: Nick Marston, Curtis Brown
Uncle Vanya runs at the Harold Pinter Theatre, London from January 14 until May 2. Girl from the North Country is at London’s Gielgud Theatre until February 1. Details: haroldpintertheatre.co.uk, gielgudtheatre.co.uk