Features Published 16 January 2019

Malaprop Theatre: “We didn’t want to make a show that would be One More Thing To Feel Shit About”

Malaprop Theatre's approach mixes big ideas with bags of quirky warmth. They talk politics, Irish theatre, and collaborative working ahead of their stint at Vault.
Rosemary Waugh

‘Jericho’ at the 2018 Edinburgh Fringe. Photo: Carla Rogers

Vault Festival is fast approaching, and this year, there’s a noticeably large number of Irish companies and creatives appearing on the line-up. Malaprop Theatre is among them. And one of the collective, writer Dylan Coburn Gray, is conscious of the lingering stereotypes that can emerge when discussing Irish performers and UK audiences. “I worry, in the UK, about inadvertently contributing to a market that some people will use to confirm their weird/historically questionable/gross/reductive impressions of Ireland and Irish people… It’s not all Catholicism and rashers these days, Dublin is a hypercapitalist hellscape with flat whites and avocados and 10,000 homeless like all the others. Let us show that we are just as pathologically cosmopolitan as the rest of ye!”

The company are bringing Jericho, their show about post-truth journalism and pro-wrestling, to the tunnels under Waterloo from the 6th-10th February. Children of the nineties might remember the WWE craze that temporarily existed back when Dwayne Johnson was known only as The Rock (really, just me?). “We use wrestling because it has binary ideals of good and evil,” explains O’Reilly. “They’re big, larger-than-life, two-dimensional characters that send a very clear message, i.e. ‘love me’ or ‘hate me’. And because of how mainstream media was representing political figures, it just seemed like a really neat fit. Someone was always the good guy and someone was always the bad guy!”

But beyond the broad strokes of politics, as Coburn Gray adds, there’s something more human. “It’s also about a young journalist struggling to get by, writing about things she doesn’t care about and worrying whether writing about things she cared about would be any more meaningful.”

“We’re all nerds in our own way, but we’re also all softies,” he explains. “The gross line I use in applications sometimes is that I aim to write work that is as compassionate as it is cerebral.” Funding application speak aside, it’s not far off the mark in describing what a growing number of fans like about their shows. For the uninitiated, Malaprop make theatre filled to the brim with ideas, concepts, themes – whatever word you find most suitable to basically say: it’s clever shit.

The group made their first appearance at the Dublin Fringe in 2015, followed by the Edinburgh Fringe in 2017 where they performed two shows, Love+ and BlackCatfishMusketeer. Last summer, they returned to Edinburgh with another double bill, this time of Everything Not Saved and Jericho. Perhaps because of their decision to show four shows in two years (a choice director Claire O’Reilly credits producer and performer Breffni Holahan with as “retrospectively genius”), it somehow feels like Malaprop have been around for longer than they actually have.

Jericho was originally conceived at the tail end of 2016 and was first performed after “an initial very hasty process”. Since then, it’s undergone some major reconfigurations. ‘Jericho 2.0’, as Coburn Gray calls is, takes into account the political events of the intervening two years since they started working on it.

“In 2018, Ireland underwent a second historical referendum in three years. We legalised abortion rights and it just seemed really remiss not to include that,” O’Reilly says. “Not in a ‘patting ourselves on the back’ way, but because we are in this place at the moment where we’re proud. I feel proud to be Irish as a result of that referendum and as a result of our referendum on gay marriage equality.”

It hasn’t all been good news. Most recently, a member of Malaprop, Maeve O’Mahony who performs in Jericho, was directly caught up in a now-infamous incident in Dublin involving an English man throwing a severed pigeon head at protesters marching against the city’s housing problems. “We still haven’t found a way of gracefully working that into Jericho – for all that it’s a show about the implausible grotesque theatricality of real life right now.”

“We need to be cautious,” concludes O’Reilly when summing up recent liberalising trends in Ireland. “Acknowledge our recent progress, whilst arming ourselves against what might happen in the future, following other countries’ recent patterns.”

Given than Jericho is a self-consciously political piece of theatre dealing directly with ideas around the production of news, you might well be envisaging a work where the core message is something along the lines of: everything is awful and we’re all going to Hell in a fake news hand cart. In actual fact, Jericho isn’t constructed around anything as simple as that.

“The first impulse was to not make a show that would be One More Thing To Feel Shit About,” Coburn Gray states. This, in turn, meant making a show that was directly about present events, but “came at them obliquely.”

“Oblique meant reaching beyond the frame of the present,” he continues. “I had just read Sapiens [by Yuval Noah Harari] and had a great time resenting its pat narrative about how every step of human history inevitably led to the present which was always going to be this way… so there was an anger there about dangerous myths and what happens when we tell them to ourselves uncritically.”

The myth Coburn Gray is especially interested in interrogating is the one of fake news – not the idea it exists, but the suggestion our current moment was preceded with a gold era of truth and transparency: “The commentary on the #fakenews post-truth era is weirdly ahistorical and nostalgic, as though a time when you could pick between THIS Murdoch rag and THAT Murdoch rag for your news was an unimprovable utopia.”

“Working on Jericho 2.0,” he continues, “I was struck by an amazing quote from Michael Eric Dyson in a Vox piece about his new book: ‘We were post-truth in 1619 when we brought 20 people here from Africa claiming that God had sent us over there to redeem their souls and save them from the savagery of Africa. And we’ve been post-truth ever since.’ Ooft. Says it all, really.”

Along with taking inspiration from books, articles and other sources, each Malaprop show starts out as a conversation between the group’s seven members (Holahan, Coburn Gray, O’Reilly, O’Mahony, Molly O’Cathain, John Dunning and Carla Rogers). ‘We start with something really broad and we kind of find the heart and the interest and invest from there,” explains O’Reilly. “So sometimes it will start with just a word… then everyone pounces in, doing their reading, having conversations, writing lists.”

Bring all those voices together could be tricky, but Coburn Gray, as the writer of the group, claims the collective voice emerges quite naturally. “We all have versions of our loved ones in our heads that chime in with what we think they’d say or do in different scenarios, and our own voice emerges as some blend of those voices… I generally find I wanted to write that line that way because I thought Breffni would relish articulating that thought, or that Maeve would sound really funny saying that line, or that John would laugh and go what the fuck when we ask him to light that moment. I never feel like I’m compromising my voice by writing with everyone, because actually I want to write different things when I’m writing with them rather than on my own.”

Along with Vaults, they’re hoping to bring Everything Not Saved back to the UK in 2019 and already have fixed plans to perform in Paris as a result of winning the Romilly Walton Masters Performance Award. There are also whispers of other touring dates this year, plus the potential to develop a new work in progress titled ‘Where Sat the Lovers’ that, according to O’Reilly is about ‘secrecy, protection and finding meaning where meaning may not otherwise be.”

With interest in the company building outside of Ireland (they also won a Melbourne Fringe Award last year), plus the economic struggles of making theatre in Dublin, would they ever consider permanently relocating elsewhere? “I think if you’ve been working in Irish theatre for about five years, there is some part of your brain that is always thinking, ‘What if I moved to the UK now?’” says Coburn Gray. “We definitely romanticise London ‘Where All The Work Is’… but there’s a distinctly Irish flavour I’d miss if I left Dublin. Gloss of what that flavour is: I often feel British makers start from argument even if they want to do experiential stuff, and Irish makers start from experience even if they want to do argument.”

There’s a chance to experience that distinct difference at the Vaults this year. “Our deadly countrywoman Gill Greer, Head of Theatre and Performance at Vaults, was really pro-active about letting Irish companies know it was there. I think she’s done something really great in encouraging Irish people to engage in the process of UK theatre, to present something new, to think out loud,” explains Coburn Gray. “Gill has also been really vocal about healthy work culture, which is a huge conversation in Ireland right now. We have had our share of dickheads who felt licensed by their ‘genius’ to treat other people instrumentally (i.e. like shit). We still have our share of dickheads, in fact. So a forum where someone is explicitly calling for personal boundaries and considerate conduct is really attractive and refreshing.”

He also sees it as an opportunity to share work and ideas between people in different countries. “There’s a temptation to treat the UK as one big stage: bring your tried and tested show, get some stars, parley those stars into funding back home. But the UK industry isn’t just an instrument for us to play, it’s made of people. And the world right now is full of Nazis! It’s good for us to practise relating to each other as people across borders. In dialogue, not monologue.”

So do they have any recommendations for other Irish shows to see at the festival? Sunday’s Child’s GET RREAL and Sickle Moon Production’s Tryst get mentioned but the unanimous vote from both writer and director goes to Nessa Matthews’ Infinity. “It’s one of those really provocative shows that highlights the difference between intimacy and telling people lots of stuff about yourself,” says Coburn Gray, “It’s also very beautiful and intellectually curious and just super confidently put together with bags of style. Go see it.”

Jericho is on from 6th-10th January, as part of Vault Festival. For more info on 2019’s line-up, visit http://vaultfestival.com/ 

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Rosemary Waugh

Rosemary is a freelance arts and theatre journalist, who regularly writes for Time Out and The Stage.

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