Tana French in conversation

In May I saw Tana French being interviewed by Anna Carey in Smock Alley. The event was part of the International Festival of Literature. I am a huge admirer of her writing but I’d never heard her speak about it before so I was really looking forward to the event. She didn’t disappoint.

Tana French is an award-winning, best-selling Irish crime writer. In 2007, her debut novel In The Woods was published to critical acclaim and became an award-winning best seller. I wasn’t aware of her books until 2012 when I was introduced to her writing by an American friend. French’s novels have spent many weeks on The New York Times bestseller lists and is maybe better known in the US than she is here.

The friend who told me about Tana French was a fellow drama student in Galway. At the end of the school year, when she was getting ready to head back to the States, she mentioned that one of her favourite authors had a new book out that she planned to buy for the flight home. She was saving this book and looking forward to enjoying it during the long trip. A few weeks later I moved home and was stuck in that mild post-graduation depression/identity-crisis when you’re not a student anymore but you haven’t figured out what the next stage of your life looks like yet. I remembered my friend’s enthusiasm for an Irish author I’d never heard of and went looking for Tana French in the library. I found her first novel In The Woods and promptly did nothing but read it for the next few days. I loved it. I kept going, working my way through her books and recommending them to anyone who asked.

Tana French’s crime fiction almost always involves a murder that is investigated by the Dublin Murder Squad. Her books are brilliant whodunits but what makes them so captivating are her characters. French was an actress before she was a writer and she has a wonderful skill of inhabiting characters and bringing them to life. Although her books are all based around the Murder Squad, the main character and narrator of each book is different.

In Smock Alley, she talked about her decision not to write a traditional series centred about a single detective because putting a different character at the centre of each book, allowed her to encounter that character at a major turning point in their lives or working on a case that had a special significance to the character. She felt that this would be hard to do if she always had the same protagonist. One person’s life can only sustain so many major turning points. It also makes for a much more interesting and revelatory reading experience. Her characters might not always be the self-reflective sort, but as a writer she skillfully reveals things about the way they see themselves over the course of the book.

TFrench

Listening to French talk about her work, it’s clear that the characters are always central to the story. She is very articulate and passionate in the way that she talks about her work. One of the most fascinating things I find about her writing process is that she doesn’t plan; she says she doesn’t do any major plotting, she just writes blind. I find this impressive because her books are tightly plotted, as any mystery or crime novel has to be. She says she achieves this by doing lots and lots of rewrites.

Tana French started writing when she got an idea for a story while working part-time at an archaeological dig. She was a jobbing-actor at the time and this was a day-job between acting roles. She realised that she was serious about the book when she started turning down acting work so she could focus on writing her own story instead. That book became In The Woods. Comparing writing to acting, she says that she loves writing because she doesn’t have to wait for someone to give her a job, she can just do it herself. She is very enthusiastic about writing for a living, while still acknowledging that there comes a difficult point in every book when she wants to quit and go back to being a broke actor.

She still has an affinity with actors and the difficulties that they face finding work. This came across when she talked about the upcoming tv adaptation of her first two novels. She seemed genuinely delighted that the show was providing work for Irish actors. The show, Dublin Murders, stars Killian Scott and Sarah Greene, and is written by Sarah Phelps who has a couple of very good Agatha Christie tv adaptations under her belt. (And There Was None and The Witness for the Prosecution.) French said that she decided not to have anything to do with the tv adaptation when it became clear that it was not going to be a straight translation of the books – the 8-part tv series will feature the investigations from In The Woods and The Likeness – and decided to let it be a thing on it’s own.

She also talked about her most recent novel The Wych Elm which is a departure from the previous books because it is not set within the Dublin Murder Squad. Instead it follows Toby, a privileged young man who has been lucky all his life, until one night when he is the victim of a violent crime. Toby is young, male and good looking. He’s charming and intelligent and comes from an upper middle-class background. He’s not a bad guy but he has trouble understanding that not everybody’s life is as charmed or easy as his. He’s a fascinating character. During the Q&A portion of the evening, someone asked a question about a writer’s right to inhabit another gender and to say less than flattering things about that gender. I was very impressed with French’s response as she side-stepped the veiled attack and instead focused on the fact that Toby’s privileges, and by extension his character and short-comings, are only partly about gender, they are much more about class. She said that nobody really wants to talk about that though.

As well as being character-driven, French’s novels also have a very strong sense of place. She talked about her nomadic childhood, that moving around a lot made her feel a bit of an outsider, but was good training for a novelist. She came to Dublin for college in the 1990s and since then it has become her home. She spoke movingly about finding a home in Dublin after moving around so much. Her affection for Dublin and for that feeling of belonging came across strongly in the interview and is also in her fiction. Her characters are very much of the places they’re from. She also creates beautiful buildings in her fiction such as the shared house in The Likeness, the Ivy House in The Wych Elm or the school in The Secret Place. She seems grateful for having a place that feels like home, that she knows so well, and the beautifully created places are almost a thank you to Dublin for giving her that. The books are so rooted in Dublin and Ireland. Despite her international readership her characters tend to speak Hiberno-English. They always feel very Irish and that clear sense of place contributes to the enjoyment I get from her books.

Throughout the interview gives the impression of being a very dedicated, hard-working nerd. She is enthusiastic about her work and clearly enjoys it but it also feels like she knows how lucky she is to get to do it and doesn’t want to mess that up. She does lots of research and lots of rewrites. She wants each book to be different from the last, for her own sake as well as the readers. This dedication to her craft comes across in her writing – as a reader, you feel like you’re in safe hands within her pages.

She plans to continue to challenge herself and wants to write a short book next, something like Donal Ryan’s The Spinning Heart, just to see if she can tell a story in that sort of condensed way. I wish her every success, and I look forward to reading her next book, no matter what size it is!

Friday Five: The Abbey’s Theatre of War

The Abbey have started putting the Theatre of War sessions online. Here are my top five talks/panels/sessions from the three days. It’s was difficult to choose only five because the symposium was full of interesting things. I’ve cheated a little bit because Day 3 hasn’t gone online yet. If it was, I would have had to include Marina Carr’s talk Art, Beauty, War about the women in Greek plays. The talks are about an hour long, the panels are closer to an hour and a half.

1. David Cotterrell, Subjective Documentary. David was commissioned by the Wellcome Trust as a war artist and sent out to capture the war in Afghanistan. His talk covers information about how the public perception of the war is managed, and how difficult (if not impossible) it is to prepare for the horrors of war. And this was in a war hospital/camp, rather than a conflict zone. It is a terrifying insight into those unseen areas and very interesting to hear it from a non-military person.

2. Patrick Cockburn talked about The Rise of the Islamic State and the situation in the Middle East. I found it fascinating to hear someone speaking so knowledgeably about a subject that I only have small, scattered chunks of information about, but very little understanding. It seems like Islamic State have appeared out of nowhere, but Cockburn described how it was really not a complete surprise. It was bubbling for a long time.

3. Artistic Response to Conflict and War. There were so many interesting people on this panel, it’s definitely worth a watch. John Scott talks about his work with survivors of torture, people who have come to Dublin. Hope Azeda talked about making theatre Rwanda and was so incredibly enthusiastic and inspiring! Dijana Milosevic speaks about DAC theatre in Belgrade and Naomi Wallace and Ismail Karim Khalidi read from her play One Short Sleepe.

4. Barriers: Responses and Reactions to Walls, Barriers and Boundaries was a panel discussion that talked about walls and barriers in Belfast and Palestine. (There’s also a great talk on how Palestine is fragmented by Ray Dolphin, if you are interested – The Fragmentation of Palestine)

5. War Correspondents was a performance from Helen Chadwick Song Theatre and it was a lovely way to end the second day. Helen interviewed war correspondents and put those interviews to song. Again, it’s a great insight into the lives and work of those people but it’s also a simple and beautiful performance piece. The songs will stick in your head! It’s not a full performance, more a taste of what the show is like.

Pondling: Interview with Genevieve Hulme-Beaman

Pondling by Genevieve Humle-Beaman
Pondling by Genevieve Humle-Beaman
Pondling returns to Smock Alley Boys’ School next month, the same venue it sold out at last year’s Dublin Fringe Festival. Written and performed by Genevieve Hulme- Beaman, this intense one-hour play is dark and funny. Genevieve won Best Female Performer at the Fringe Awards for her portrayal of the creepy young girl and the play has also been nominated for the Steward Parker Award.

Pondling was first performed as part of the 2013 Collaborations Festival and I asked Genevieve where she got the idea for the show. She said that the first thing that came to her was the image of a little girl in a dramatic pose. This, along with the idea of a child speaking tragic, over-dramatic, French, was her starting point for Pondling.

Genevieve has been working with her Pondling director Paul Meade for many years. He was her assigned mentor when she was a student at the Gaiety School of Acting. After she graduated in 2010, Genevieve played the part of Amber on the international tour of Elaine Murphy’s Little Gem, directed by Meade. The characters in Little Gem are three generations of the same family who tell their story in monologue. Genevieve says that this role really taught her how to perform monologues.

After Pondling‘s success at the Fringe, Genevieve went on to perform at the Gate Theatre, in a version of Pride & Prejudice adapted by James Maxwell and Alan Stanford. She played the youngest Bennett sister Lydia, who she describes as “such a little boldy”. She says it was an amazing part in a big cast, and that it was refreshing to be part of an ensemble for a change. Genevieve says that the nice thing about acting is that it’s always changing.

Genevieve will be spending a week in Tyrone Guthrie Centre in Annaghmakerrig as part of the Stewart Parker nomination and has some ideas of what she’d like to work on while she’s there. Beyond that, she would love for Pondling to have a long life and to perform it around the world. She’d like to see how audiences in other countries react to her psychotic 10-year-old creation.

In the meantime, Dublin audiences will have the pleasure of Madeline Humbel Buttercup’s company in Smock Alley, 31st March – 5th April and in Axis: Ballymun on 17th – 19th April.

Related Post: A very female Fringe

HISTORY: Interview with Louise White

HISTORY

HISTORY, the final part of THEATREclub’s trilogy of work about the social history of Ireland, opens in Project Arts Centre tonight. This final piece is about St. Michael’s Estate in Inchicore, while also examining the history of Ireland over the last 100 years. St. Michael’s Estate is a place with a particularly troubled past. It housed imprisoned 1916 revolutionaries after the Easter Rising and was the site of Ireland’s first social housing in the 1960s. More recently, regeneration has been promised four times in the last 15 years but the former residents of the estate are still waiting. Louise White, HISTORY’s Associate Director says the show is about “acknowledging the things that happened there, some of which are very dark and that poorly reflect The State; but it’s also about showing that there were good people there too and that people are strong, resilient and hopeful and they persevere.”

This ultimately hopeful project that been a long time in the making. It was commissioned by Dublin City Public Art Programme three years ago. Louise White is a recent addition to the HISTORY team. She joined the project in October. Louise is a performer, director and theatre maker. This year she won the Spirit of the Fringe award with Way Back Home, a piece that combined live storytelling, games and dance with beautiful, evocative paintings by visual artist Clare Henderson. She is currently developing a piece of work called Mother You, a big site-specific work for a disused commercial building in Dublin’s city centre. Louise says it is “about the cycle of life and the cyclical nature of the function of buildings. It’s about me wanting to nurture and do something spectacular and positive in a totemic representation of the failures of recent years.”

While her work is very different stylistically to THEATREclub’s, the ideas at the heart of their work are similar. Louise discovered this earlier this year, when she took part in MAKE, a theatre residency programme that is jointly run by Cork Midsummer Festival, Dublin Fringe Festival, Project Arts Centre and Theatre Forum. THEATREclub’s Grace Dyas also participated in the programme and the two got on very well together. Louise says “We had lots of conversations about life and art during that time and were mutually supportive of each other’s process.” Talking about how she became attached to the project, Louise says that “I thought the project was exceptional and important from the way she spoke about it and I felt privileged to be approached.”

Louise describes THEATREclub as “ever growing and incredibly ambitious”. HISTORY is a huge project, both artistically and logistically. Not only does it deal with big stories and themes, there is also a large number of funding bodies involved. The development process includes weekly public art meetings to keep everybody informed. This is a large scale, ambitious project that has been three years in the making. Louise says that THEATREclub have “a great integrity in their work” and their ambition is hopeful and aspirational. According to Louise, they are “Aspirational for those they work with; for the people of St. Michael’s Estate, for themselves and for Ireland. It’s a mad and brilliant energy to be around.”

The cast of HISTORY have all worked with THEATREclub before. Lauren Larkin plays Mother Ireland, Louise Lewis plays the statue of the Virgin Mary and they are joined by Shane Byrne, Gerard Kelly and Barry O’Connor. The tag-line for this show – Will you walk with us? – suggests that the audience are required to do a little bit more that sit quietly in the dark. There’s a full scale trad session each night, as well as a public conversation. THEATREclub want the audience to be involved in this history of Ireland so that they can take responsibility for what happens next.

HISTORY runs from December 18 – 22 at 7.30pm, in the Space Upstairs in Project Arts Centre. Tickets are available here and are only €10 for tonight’s show (December 18). Tickets for the rest of the week are €16/12.

Way to Heaven: An interview with Breffni Holahan

Way to Heaven. Image by Lucy Nuzum
Way to Heaven. Image by Lucy Nuzum

Way to Heaven, the Rough Magic SEEDS showcase production, directed by Rosemary McKenna and set in a concentration camp during WW II sounds like a fairly bleak prospect for the weeks running up to Christmas. However, when I voice these concerns to Breffni Holahan, she reassures me that it is not a depressing piece of theatre. She says there is a lightness to the piece as the members of the fake concentration camp attempt to imitate life and convince the Red Cross that there’s nothing untoward happening, everything is fine here, nothing to worry about. Breffni also attributes some of this lightness to Karl Quinn who plays the Nazi guard. She worked with him during this year’s Dublin Fringe Festival on Collapsing Horse’s Distance to the Event and was happy to see a familiar face when she started rehearsals for this show.

Breffni plays a woman in the concentration camp, only known as She or The Plain One. Her other Jewish prisoners are played by Kieran Roche and Ruairi Heading. They are joined onstage by three violinists and a number of children. On working with children, Breffni said she was told “if a child comes up to you and says I need to go for a wee, find a meaningful way to leave the space”. She says it hasn’t happened yet but if it does, she’ll be ready. Other cast members include Will O’Connell as the Mayor of the Jewish camp and Daniel Reardon as the Red Cross Representative. The play, which is based on a real events that happened in 1944, is written by Juan Mayorga and translated by David Johnson.

Breffni worked with Rough Magic earlier this year, on The Critic which was part of the Dublin Theatre Festival. She was one of the students from the Gaiety School of Acting and DU Players who performed a version of Puff’s The Spanish Armada for the writer (played by another Karl, Karl Shiels) in The Ark. Breffni is currently in her third year at Trinity, studying Drama and English. She says that when she started college, English was her main subject and then she got distracted by Players. She is very enthusiastic about Players as an environment to learn and experiment and says she has learnt to “rig a light, sew a hem, sell tickets, make a poster” and just do whatever’s necessary to get the show up and running. She says that Rough Magic’s Artistic Director Lynn Parker describes Players as being her university and she feels that is an accurate description.

Breffni has had a busy year and right now she’s not thinking too far beyond Christmas essays and enjoying a bit of sleep over the holidays. However, sometime in the future she would like to perform all of Sarah Kane’s plays. She has already started working her way through them with Players and has played Phaedra in Phaedra’s Love and C in Crave. She would also like to perform the Beckett piece Not I. Right now though, she is just enjoying learning as much as she can and working with great people.

Way to Heaven opens tonight in Project Arts Centre at 7pm and runs until December 14th. Tickets are €12 this week and €14/16 next week, available here. It is followed each night by the other Rough Magic SEEDS showcase productions Assassins and I will have an interview with cast member Anthony Kinahan tomorrow.

Erica Murray talks about Tender Napalm

Sugarglass Theatre‘s last show was the sprawling, immersive, three-hour long All Hell Lay Beneath. Based on Herman Hesse’s novel Steppenwolf, it was part of this year’s Dublin Fringe Festival. It played to sold-out audiences and was nominated for ‘Best Off-Site Performance’ as well as the ‘Spirit of the Fringe’ award. Sugarglass return to the Dublin stage later this month with Tender Napalm by Philip Ridley. This is a play about love and intimacy and the devastating affect they can have on people.

Erica Murray in Tender Napalm
I spoke to Erica Murphy, who plays Woman, about the challenges and rewards that this play offers. Erica spent the summer performing The Life and Sort of Death of Eric Argyle, first at the Edinburgh Fringe and then as part of the Absolut Fringe in Dublin. The show was very well received in Edinburgh and was one of the many sold-out shows of the Dublin Fringe. Erica herself was nominated for a Best Actress award at the Absolut Fringe Awards. She was delighted with the nomination and says that two months later, it still hasn’t really sunk in.

Erica describes Tender Napalm as “an abstract play, about the relationship between two people, encompassing their entire relationship.” It also deals with grief and sadness and the fact that they have fallen out of love with each other. Talking about her first encounter with the play, Erica says “the script is a mountain. Reading it for the first time, I didn’t know what to make of it.” When she started studying it she really fell in love with the writing, particularly the fact that not everything is spelt out for the audience. With only two actors on stage (the role of Man is played by Aaron Heffernan, currently in The Picture of Dorian Grey at the Abbey), they both have a lot of responsibility to the script and to each other. It’s a challenge that Erica really seems to relish!

Erica’s first experience on stage was when “a wonderful woman took a chance on me and gave me a part is the school musical.” Even though she’s not particularly interested in musical theatre now, this was the beginning of her interest in performance. Erica is currently in her final year at Trinity College Dublin where she’s studying for a BA in Drama and Theatre Studies. She is very enthusiastic about Dublin because she says “it’s a very exciting place for theatre, there are a lot of great directors working in Dublin and so much original drama being produced.” She is a fan of new writing, particularly Irish playwrights such as Marina Carr, Mark O’Rowe and Enda Walsh. She says that someday she would to like to be listed as an original cast member in the published script of a brand new play.

Tender Napalm is a dark play, that’s maybe not for everybody. As Erica says “it’s not one I’ll invite my granny too.” However, if you like dark, funny plays that are both moving and engaging, go see it.

Tender Napalm is on at the Project Arts Centre from November 27 to December 8. Tickets for the preview on November 27 are two for one and if you book before November 20, you will get 25% off your ticket price so book now!