Features Published 11 August 2014

Three’s Company

Irish playwright Mark Cantan discusses his new comedy, Jezebel, which opens this week at Soho Theatre, and his work with Dublin company Rough Magic.
Mary Halton

Mark Cantan’s Jezebel is the result of an affair. “[Another writer said] ‘Always have two scripts on the go at the one time, because you’re always going to be cheating on the script you’re supposed to be writing, so it’s better to be cheating on it with another script’, so I ended up writing Jezebel when I was supposed to be writing [an]other show, which never got written.”

It was a love of farce that originally led Cantan to write the play, a comedy about a couple, Alan and Robin, embarking on a threesome to rejuvenate their sex life; “the idea of taking a couple and adding a third person to it just introduces that extra line of communication and that extra layer of misunderstandings and misreadings”, which prompted him to explore the idea of trying to have a threesome in a modern relationship. Although set in modern day Ireland, he doesn’t feel that the play has a particularly Irish identity – “it just so happens that it is set in Ireland and the dialogue is Irish in flavour.” We discuss the prevalence of comedies like London Irish and Mrs. Brown’s Boys, which he isn’t a fan of, and pause to wonder why it is that more modern Irish comedy doesn’t make it to UK shores. Cantan is equally baffled as to why “someone drowns in a bog” in a lot of the Irish work we see on UK stages: “I don’t know why it [Irish comedy] wouldn’t travel. There can be maybe a stereotype of what you’re seeing and so that’s what people are expecting.”

I point out that Jezebel is quite a loaded term, certainly from my memories of growing up in Ireland, and wonder why it was that he chose this name for the woman that Alan and Robin encounter at a nightclub and choose to bring home. “Actually Jezebel is completely the opposite of a Jezebel. She was given this name at birth and she was almost fated to have exactly the opposite fate; she has never been lucky in love and even if she wanted to, she couldn’t sleep around.  It’s maybe an ironic name to call her Jezebel.”

So an ironic and possibly ill-fated farce about a couple who go seeking another party for a threesome, and end up with someone who doesn’t sound particularly sexually adventurous – is there a moral message beneath the comedy? Cantan is certain that there isn’t; “I’m not really into [anti-heroes]. So they’re all good people and they’re all trying to get along, they’re just going about it the wrong way.”

Cantan wrote and pitched Jezebel while taking part in Irish production company Rough Magic’s SEEDS initiative (a multidisciplinary development programme for emerging theatremakers), in place of the proposed piece that had initially won him his place on the scheme. Developing Jezebel with the company was, Cantan felt, very beneficial to his practice as a writer “[SEEDS] really focuses you and gets you to think about different ways of approaching things and explore different ways of telling a narrative, so there’s some interesting editing in Jezebel. It’s not your standard one long scene kind of show, even though some of those can be great, but it’s got really fast cuts and it kind of jumps from this place to that.“

He’s philosophical overall about the current landscape of theatre in Ireland, and the breadth and scope of work being made, despite large scale proposed changes to the Arts Council and the financial crisis for which the Irish people are still paying off a staggering debt. There emerges instead a characteristically wry assessment of Irish governance that makes our affinity for farce frankly unsurprising: “A few years ago, it was ‘We have far, far, FAR too many houses, and the country is ruined because of it. Now: ‘Oh, we need those houses back. What did we do with those houses? I can’t remember.’” If it all sounds a bit Father Ted, you wouldn’t be far wrong…

Cantan is, however, thoroughly optimistic about the role that his mathematics degree played in his writing career; as he happily tells his parents “4 years of college was a perfectly good idea – look at all the maths jokes in this show!”

Jezebel will run at the Soho Theatre, London, from Aug 12th – 31st

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Mary Halton

Mary is a writer and critic, interested in performance, science and popular culture. By day, she works in radio drama, by night she studies planetary science at Birkbeck, and by dusk and dawn she writes Exeunt's science blog Strangeness + Charm. For Christmas, she would like a timeturner.

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