Dublin Oldschool is a play that represents a side of Dublin that’s rarely seen in theatres. Nocturnal behaviour till the sun comes up and beyond, yokes as currency, sipping the same can of Dutch for hours. We sent Fiona P. Lonker to find out the buzz.
I caught Dublin Oldschool in a packed theatre tent at Electric Picnic, which might just have been the show’s perfect crowd: despite lingering afternoon hangovers and dead legs from the al fresco seating, it managed to drag the whole lot of us to our feet for a standing ovation at the end. Mainly on word-of-mouth, it then went on to sell out six nights in a row in the fringe. I caught up with writer/actor Emmet Kirwan for a quick chat about it all.
We ended up in the Library Bar, where Kirwan had a coke instead of a coffee because he was “still vibrating” from the five he’d already had that day. He’s easy to talk to: down to earth and very interesting, and has the familiar look of someone I’ve chatted the ear off once at some early-hours session. Which is quite possibly true. That, or maybe I was recognising him from Sarah and Steve, the RTE sitcom he wrote and starred in a few years back. Or Just Sayin’, the short film/long poem by Dave Tynan that started blowing up Facebook walls around Christmas 2012.
That short struck a major chord, coming as it did when Irish people were emigrating at the rate of a thousand a week. Kirwan explained that they hadn’t expected it to take off in the way it did: “Filming, it was only around six or seven of us going around the city at night-time, and then they put it up online and it kind of went viral – I think it has half a million hits on YouTube now. It really tapped into something, especially at that time of year, and three years into the emigration thing.”
There’s a line in it – “Yous all fucked off” – that a few YouTube commenters had a go at, complaining that it placed too much blame on the diaspora instead of looking at the real reasons they had to leave.
Kirwan doesn’t agree: “If people were offended by that line – it wasn’t at them. Yeah, people had to leave, but not because of anything we did. They had to leave because of the catastrophic failure, unimaginative thinking and just the downright fucking crookedness of an entire political class and an entire generation above us.” He explains that the story was drawn from Dave the director’s own experience of emigration. “He was in London, and he was actually one of the people that had to fuck off. So it’s more about him wrestling with whether he has to go himself, and there’s a slight anger at his friends and then he realises: ‘Fuck, I have to do the same thing.’”
Kirwan’s new play seems to have enjoyed similar cult success: its run sold out completely, Kirwan and co-star Ian Lloyd Anderson jointly won best actor at the fringe awards, and the reviewers were absolutely loving it, throwing phrases like “unmissable,” and “incredible theatre” all over the shop. It’s set in a Dublin that isn’t often seen – all the drugs and messing and roll-over sessions that we don’t usually get to read about or see on a stage:
“There’s a Garda raid, the ketamine deal at the beginning, a house party in a big freestanding house in Churchtown […] this big session, and there’s a hilltop rave.”
It’s a side of Dublin a lot of us know very well, so why does Kirwan think it’s so conspicuously absent from our literature and our media?
He pinpoints our Catholic heritage as one of the reasons: “There’s a moral thing that goes with the taking of drugs, that’s informed by Irish Catholic morality. Ireland’s very conservative in that sense. If you make a television programme for RTE there has to be cause and effect. In this play there’s no moralisation about taking drugs, nobody comes to the realisation at the end that their lives are any better or worse for what they’ve done; they don’t learn any lessons…”
His aim, he explains, was just to write “a play that was about Dublin – and Dublin was a character – and about these sorts of people without commenting on their actions.”
We chat a bit about the city, and what else he’d wanted to show of it, and he picks out a line from the play – “It’s not a city; it’s a village” – to help him explain. “Dublin has all these attributes of being a metropolitan, vibrant capital city, but really… it’s small. You kind of know everybody in it, but it’s just big enough as well that amazing things can happen in it, and amazing stories can happen in it. It’s a small town that has epic, big city ideas and big city characters. It’s just tapping into that, and writing about it.”
One thing that struck me watching was how unfamiliar it felt to hear working-class Dublin accents on a stage. I put the question to Kirwan and he describes his own experience:
“I did a TV show a few years ago called Sarah and Steve and I got asked a question about five times: ‘It’s a working-class drama with Dublin people in it – is it like Roddy Doyle?’ I remember just thinking: would you ask the same question to a middle-class writer? ‘Oh, is your book like Sebastian Barry?’ It’s such a weird thing…”
Chatting to him, it’s clear that he believes it’s the privately-educated minority that set the discourse in Dublin. It even plays out in accents, and Dublin’s odious, everyday classism:
“There’s a kind of casual classism that’s okay here, that relates to everything from accent to the welfare state. I mean, there’re still people in this society that genuinely have a beef when a homeless mother with two kids gets a house, who feel – or who will say casually – that certain parts of Dublin should be bombed, homeless people should be rounded up. And they say it without being challenged. The need with this play was to just represent class as it is, and not comment on it. Just to have two brothers that are from a working-class background. I went to great pains as well – like it says in the play, ‘our parents never drank or smoke or cursed’ – [to show that] the majority of people from working-class areas live quite normal, everyday lives; it’s just that they are workers.”
It’s great that voices like Kirwan’s are emerging now, redressing the balance in some way. Dublin Oldschool might not be gone for good; he’s currently investigating a few funding avenues and hopefully it will see the light of day again some time later in the year. In Kirwan’s own words, “Dublin has literally thousands of voices, hundreds of thousands of stories.” Keep an eye out for his.