Irish Extras For Hire

In between writing articles for Astro Magazine and posing with the Dutch Lady fibreglass Friesian cows at Section 14, PJ, the Irish Ambassador found himself submitting to a lunch with me. It wasn’t a light lunch. We were dissecting that tricky word ‘culture’.

“During my childhood,” Dan Mulhall says, “Irish culture meant you only listened to traditional music, only did Irish dancing, only played Irish games. If you liked the Beatles, wore your hair long and played soccer or rugby, you weren’t being Irish. People attempted say it was an either-or situation.”

But we know there is no ‘either-or’. Culture is an increasingly flaky concept these days – its value found mostly in its packaging – thanks largely to the success of Hollywood. This becomes clear in Stones In His Pockets, a critically-acclaimed Irish comedy to be staged at The Actors Studio Bangsar from Tue Apr 27 to Sat May 1. The play looks at the impact of a Hollywood movie being made in a small town in the west of Ireland.

“We have strong political and economic connections with USA,” the ambassador admits, but a “potent resistance…  in the realm of culture.”

“You have two choices,” Dan Mulhall explains, “You can try and cut yourself out from the world. You can build walls of censorship or protection around you – and we know for a fact that doesn’t work, or you can throw yourself open and say anything goes – and that doesn’t work either – so somewhere in the middle, a country has got to decide its destiny, try and come up with a compromise that balances tradition and modernity.”

Stones playwright Marie Jones, gravelly rustic but not too much of a brogue, as one would expect of a playwright, expresses these themes through her characters, the American movie star, the Irish extras and the rest of the town hanging out at the tavern. “It’s about people who have no control of their lives,” she sums up, “Their lives are controlled by outside forces. Then things happen – a catalyst – that make them think about their destiny.”

Embodying all those multifarious destinies are Sean Sloan and Kieran Lagan, the original actors of the play. Marie thinks that the success of the show is largely due to the amazement of the audience watching those two take 17 characters. “The reason I wrote it that way was economics really – most theatre companies are small independent companies with little budget.”

Queries on difficulties for the actors are lobbied with droll candour: “I don’t care about them: they are getting paid! Actors love to show off their talents and playing multiple roles is exciting, challenging, rewarding for them… What other job is there where people clap at your efforts at the end of the day? They are lucky people! When they start complaining, I just give them a mouthful.”

Because the story, she contends, “has good dialogue for actors. Ireland and the Irish have been the backdrop for so many big American movies, yet they are telling our story. So in a way, this play is about the Irish actors being the stars of their own story.”

Which could just as well be Marie’s own story. Marie herself has been an actress in Hollywood movies but sees herself primarily as a playwright, although “I am acting all the time anyway. We all do. All the world’s a stage etcetera.” In a fantastic twist of events in the most lurid Hollywood tradition, Marie will be playing the role of the defendant in a courtroom drama over the authorship of her most successful play. Last month, the BBC reported that Belfast director Pam Brighton and Dubbeljoint Theatre Company are claiming joint copyright ownership of the play and corresponding royalties. Ms Jones, in a move more eloquent than any denial, offered them £1 in damages.

That’s quite a sense of humour. But should we expect the play to be just funny? Marie says that while it is a comedy, Stones has a serious story within.

Stones is tagged a “comedy with a political kick”; it is brought to KL by an instrument of globalisation and politics; it is the story of rural Irish folk struggling through cultural imperialism to develop a sense of their own identity; it is an example of how local arts and culture is relevant to the institutions of government; and it highlights how integration of popular culture – the will of the people – is vital for the forging of a modern day national consciousness.

So, regarding listening to Irish traditional music and the Beatles too, our Dan Mulhall says: “I’m happy we have come to terms with the notion that both are Irish. In other words, we used to regard Irish identity as exclusive; that it meant certain games and literature in Irish. Now we see it as an inclusive thing, we see it as whatever the Irish people are involved in and are passionate about – that’s Irish! I suppose that idea could be compelling for this country as well: that you don’t have to have an exclusive culture, you can have an inclusive culture that takes them all on and blends them in.”

“I could have brought a play what was written a hundred years ago – Beckett or Bernard Shaw or Wilde – but I decided to bring a play about contemporary Ireland that would have some appeal to a Malaysian audience.” Subjugated by the British, divided by religious differences, torn between the structured old and the fluid new, the Irish Renaissance took 20 years of expansive social engineering. How long will the Malaysian Renaissance take?

First Published: 23.04.2004 on Kakiseni

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