Enda Walsh: ‘It should bypass the intellect and go straight to the bones’

He considers himself ‘a profoundly Irish writer’ but this month marks Enda Walsh’s Abbey main stage debut. Andrew Lynch talks to the playwright about this career milestone, losing David Bowie and why he’s not interested in simple, linear narratives.

Enda Walsh has chosen to do this interview while walking his cockapoo Alvin in a London park. As a result, the tape of our conversation is regularly punctuated by his cries of mingled despair and affection: “No, we’re going this way,”, “Please, don’t eat that,” and “Alvin, get out of the pool!” It’s a little distracting, the acclaimed Dublin-born playwright admits, but having a domestic routine is extremely important to him – especially since “I spend about 80pc of the time living inside my head”.

For the next few weeks, sadly, Alvin is going to see a lot less of his master. This month Walsh’s work will be staged at Ireland’s national theatre for the very first time, with an Abbey production of his dystopian drama Arlington to be followed in March by its companion piece Ballyturk. As if that was not enough, February 13 will also see the premiere of his latest play – a site-specific piece called The Same staged at the old Cork Prison and produced by the Corcadorca company where he first made his name.

Ironically, Walsh had once intended 2017 to be a quiet year. He lost his mother, one of his closest friends and his most famous collaborator, David Bowie, in the space of a few months, while recent political events left him feeling that the world is “a complicated and scary place”.

“But instead of sitting back I just kept working, trying to eke out some hope and love,” he muses. “It’s been like having a conversation with myself during a really depressing time.”

Being in the Abbey, he cautiously allows, is an important milestone in his career.

“I’m such a cold fish that I rarely think about these things beforehand, but I probably will when I sit down on opening night. I do consider myself a profoundly Irish writer, like a mixed soup of Tom Murphy, Samuel Beckett, Sean O’Casey and lots of others – although I don’t feel a weight on my shoulders like some people in Britain seem to expect.”

When Walsh was writing his breakthrough play Disco Pigs in the mid-1990s, however, he could not have cared less about Ireland’s theatrical establishment.

“The Abbey seemed staid, conservative, irrelevant,” he recalls. “I still don’t think they’ve produced many great writers or directors over the last 20 years. In Corcadorca there was no need to ‘stick it to the man’ because for us ‘the man’ didn’t exist.”

For this reason, Walsh is particularly excited about being asked to write a new play for Corcadorca’s 25th anniversary. The Same has reunited him with director Pat Kiernan and actress Eileen Walsh, who co-starred in the original Disco Pigs with a then unknown local musician called Cillian Murphy.

“It feels familiar but also incredibly exciting to be in the same room again,” Walsh enthuses.

“Using Cork Prison helps to make the play part of a much larger thing, just like we used to put on shows in nightclubs and all sorts of weird venues. And Cork is a place I’ve always loved – it’s laid out like a natural amphitheatre.”

Walsh is a candid, good-humoured and exceptionally profane interviewee (most of these quotes have expletives deleted). He famously hates being asked what his surreal and dreamlike plays are about, often giving journalists the glib response, “It’s about 80 minutes.

Thankfully, he is willing to supply at least a few more details about The Same, describing it as the story of a woman who arrives in a new city and meets an older version of herself.

“There are two interlocking monologues that eventually become a dialogue,” he explains. “What advice can they give each other and how do they learn to embrace all the failures of their past?”

As this oblique summary suggests, Walsh has no interest in giving his audiences simple linear narratives or neat moral messages. “I used to write plays where you could walk away at the end thinking, ‘Yeah, got it.’ Not any more. Now I want to do more atmospheric work that has a loose shape and allows you to bring your own interpretations. It should bypass the intellect and go straight into your bones.”

Like many people Walsh finds the news “pretty bloody miserable” these days, which helps to explain why his recent dramas all have an overwhelming sense of dread.

Arlington, which was premiered by Landmark Productions at last year’s Galway International Arts Festival, is a futuristic love story with echoes of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and partly influenced by the Brexit campaign (“It showed that Britain has a real inferiority complex.”)

Ballyturk is a giddy romp featuring two young men trapped in a womb-like space, written shortly after Walsh read the Ryan Report on Ireland’s industrial schools.

“I’m never going to comment directly on something like Donald Trump or the Syrian refugee crisis,” he says, “but you can’t avoid being affected by the sense of crisis and terror around us.”

Walsh’s apocalyptic vision may be why David Bowie seems to have seen him as a kindred spirit.

“When I asked him if we could write something like one of his songs, he laughed and said, ‘You’ve been doing that for years, Enda!’ David had absolutely no ego, he just loved making stuff and was constantly Skyping me to discuss new ideas.”

Bowie and Walsh spent 18 months co-creating the musical Lazarus, which opened on Broadway in December 2015 – only a few weeks before the pop icon died of liver cancer.

“Although I knew he was very sick, there was no sense that death was imminent until I saw him on opening night in New York. Then it hit me.

“I really miss him, but I’m so glad that Lazarus turned out the way we wanted – not warm and all-embracing like most musicals but cold like a feverish sort of dream.”

Not surprisingly, sharing a byline with David Bowie has left Walsh more in demand than ever.

“But I don’t have a commercial bone in my body and I constantly fire myself from jobs,” he protests, adding that with his 50th birthday approaching, he is already starting to think about retirement.

“As much as I adore writing, switching off this brain and living quietly in Ireland again sounds like a nice potential future.”

Then he calls Alvin to heel one last time and concludes, “Maybe in two dogs’ time!”

 

Written by Andrew Lynch for The Independent 05.02.17

How We Met: Enda Walsh & Cillian Murphy – The Independent

Cillian Murphy, 38

Following his stage debut in Enda Walsh’s play ‘Disco Pigs’, about the dysfunctional relationship between two Cork teenagers, in 1996, Murphy (right in picture) found fame with the post-apocalyptic zombie film ’28 Days Later’ in 2002. He has since appeared in more than 30 films, including ‘Batman Begins’ and ‘Inception’. He lives in north London with his wife and two children

I was 18, had just left school, and had a vague notion that I wanted to be an actor. Enda was working with [Cork theatre group] Corcadorca at the time. I adored its shows – Clockwork Orange blew my top off. So I started hanging around them and blagged an audition.

Enda was unbelievably warm to me as a young nobody. He told me about this play Disco Pigs that he’d written and he asked me to come and read some lines. We met up in a café in Cork city. He has a Peter Pan-ish quality and back then, this magnificent hair; he looked like a TV presenter. I didn’t understand what Disco Pigs was about, and I had no experience of acting whatsoever but I could sense that it was good – and that we shared the same sense of humour.

We toured that play for 18 months; a small group of us travelling around, messing about and having fun. Me and Enda had one game where we would speak in funny voices, taking the consonants out of every word, and it felt like our exclusive little club; I never noticed the age gap. By the end, we’d become friends for life. That period changed my life more than any other, and it’s influenced all my choices since; Enda put me on the path to acting and gifted me with an early career.

He’s into human behaviour – the struggle of waking up in the morning, putting one foot in front of another and getting through the day – and his stories are all a way of examining the human condition. Enda is a sucker for a stupid gag and so am I; we both like slapstick. But I’m not known for my comedy in films, I don’t get sent those scripts, and Enda knows it. So I get that freeing feeling when we work together.

When I saw his script for Misterman in 2011, I’d not done theatre for six years. But I thought, “That’s it!” I’ll always remember the first preview in Galway. I’d finished this crazy, two-and-a-half hour piece, standing on stage with a set of angel wings on my arms, and there was silence from the audience, for 45 seconds. I thought, “Well that was a waste of five weeks.” Then the first person to clap was Enda and the room erupted into applause.

Though we’re very alike, he’s better at being on his own, I think, a skill that I’ve never acquired; my energy is high, and I need family, friends and colleagues around me. He knows how to be quiet and have Enda time, which is something I should learn, too.

 

Enda Walsh, 46

After writing for the Dublin Youth Theatre, Walsh made his breakthrough with his third play, ‘Disco Pigs’. The award-winning playwright and theatre director has since written 17 stage plays and several screenplays, including Steve McQueen’s acclaimed film ‘Hunger’. He lives in north London with his wife and daughter

People talk a lot about Cillian’s extraordinary eyes, but to be honest I didn’t notice when we first met – for me, it was his sheer physicality; he had a presence, an extraordinary energy.

That first meeting was in 1996. There was an exciting energy about Cork and everyone was trying stuff out – though I was about to fold my [theatre] company as I didn’t know what I was doing. Although I did have this script that I’d written [for Disco Pigs], and I knew that we wanted to get two young actors to play the two main characters.

I thought the play might be shite, but I auditioned Cillian, we read a couple of scenes, and I thought, “Wow, this guy’s making it feel real, not a theatrical exercise.”

We went from being effectively on the dole to performing at festivals around the world. There was a lot of partying, and the play had people buzzing about it. It was the ground zero moment for all of us in the company.

I’m older than him, so it felt a bit like having a younger brother. We joked around a lot and would adopt these characters, pretending to be these ridiculous luvvies who had nothing but anger and bitterness; he’d say, “This five-star hotel is just not good enough for us,” and all that carry on.

He moved to London and in 2006, I followed to the same area – Queen’s Park – with my wife, and we started to see each other again. I was proud that he was making a name for himself in films, and I forgot what an animal he was on the stage until he came to me with the idea of adapting [my play] Misterman.

We had a hilarious time working with one another again on my new play, Ballyturk; we have a similar sense of humour, we’re obsessed with music, and it was great for us to do together. In the wrong hands my text can sound lyrical and flouncy, but he’s got a way of saying it that seems true, while he moves round stage with the shape of a Buster Keaton; he loves the rhyme of a physical gag. Anyone who knows him thinks he’s hilarious, though he tells the worst jokes, using awful plays on words. When he was in [2003 film] Girl with a Pearl Earring, he spent a whole day texting me puns on the title; he’s a bit of nerd in that way.

We had quite a moment between us a few years ago when Cillian’s son Malachy and my daughter Ada were both together in the living room of our child-minder, a woman from Donegal, and we were all sitting down on a couch together. It was beautiful; all those years since we first met and we’ve remained friends – and now we’re looking out for one another’s kids, too.

 

Written by Adam Jacques in The Independent 21.09.14

Enda Walsh: ‘Pure theatre animal’ explores solitude and the void below

The Irish playwright-director, Enda Walsh, would seem to have the world at his feet. His latest play, Ballyturk, was acclaimed in Galway this summer and opened at the Lyttelton on Tuesday with a star cast comprising Cillian Murphy, Mikel Murfi and Stephen Rea. Walsh’s book for the long-running musical Once won him a Tony award on Broadway. And, at the age of 47, Walsh lives a comfortable life in Kilburn with his independently successful wife, who is fashion editor of the Financial Times, and their young daughter.

Yet Walsh, in plays like Bedbound, The Walworth Farce, Misterman and now Ballyturk, persistently deals with solitary, hermetic characters who live in terror of the outside world. How does one explain the apparent contradiction between the man and the work?

“I was talking about this to Cillian in rehearsal the other day,” says Walsh in the course of a telephone interview. “I told him about a ground-zero moment I had some years ago. Just after my play Disco Pigs opened in 1996 and was being picked up everywhere, I was walking over Patrick’s bridge in Cork and I stopped dead still and felt absolutely terrified that I was alive and had to keep on living.

“The moment lasted maybe five seconds and I kept on walking. But it’s a playwright’s job to explore that feeling that, however many good days you may have, you are still ultimately alone and walking around in your own private universe,” he says.

Beckett, whose influence on Walsh is palpable, and Pinter would recognise that idea that beneath the surface of everyday life lays a gaping black hole: indeed Pinter from his youth frequently quoted a phrase of Cardinal Newman that creation is a vast “aboriginal calamity”. But Walsh is very much his own man and creates his own unique world on stage: in Ballyturk the nameless characters may occupy a womb-like space but they pass their days fantasising about life in the imagined Irish town that gives the play its title and engaging in speeded-up comic rituals that remind one of Buster Keaton.

Walsh admits that the play sprang from two specific moments: an image and a conversation. The former came during a technical rehearsal for Misterman in New York: Cillian Murphy, totally wrapped up in his role, was absorbed in talking to the sole character’s mother on a tape-recorder while the production manager, Eamonn Fox, sat a few feet away raptly fixing a table leg. Out of that came the idea that two people can be intimately bound together yet totally solitary.

The other trigger was a moment when Walsh’s daughter, then aged six, started asking him about death and whether one thought about it all the time. “I explained to her,” says Walsh, “that, if you’re lucky, you fall in love and have a family, a job and go on holiday even if death is an ever-present reality. That idea certainly found its way into Ballyturk.”

Paradox

The persistent paradox of Walsh is that his plays are haunted by death and solitude yet his characters are filled with a phenomenal verbal and physical energy. But I suspect the ultimate source of this dichotomy lies in Walsh’s childhood.

“I’m still stuck in my head,” he says, “as a 13-year-old boy in the Ireland of the early 1980s. I grew up in Dublin in a suburban, middle-class family. There were six children and family dinners were always raucous, noisy affairs. I also bonded with my dad over comics like The Three Stooges, whose films were always showing on RTÉ.

“But my dad ran a furniture business, which he lost at the time of the Great Recession before dying of a brain haemorrhage,” he says.

“It was terrible but I’d still say that growing up around a businessman is a great training for a playwright. I look at my dad’s life and see that he constantly had to slip in and out of character and that, beneath the surface bonhomie, there was always a sub-text. I feel that for years my plays were based on my dad’s furniture shop.

“Even when I first walked on to the set of Ballyturk, I recognised images from my own childhood.”

Given his father’s enforced role-playing and the fact that his mother was an actor, it would seem Walsh was destined to be a playwright. But his first impulse was either to form a band or be a film-maker. Studying film, however, in the Ireland of the late 1980s was, Walsh once said, “like studying dentistry in a country with no teeth”. Instead he settled in Cork, where he worked with a new theatre company called Corcadora for which he acted, directed and eventually started writing plays. Out of this came his first big hit, Disco Pigs, a tragedy-laced portrait of a pair of misfit teenagers.

For all the verbal firepower of that and the subsequent plays, it would be misleading to see Walsh as part of a linguistically exuberant, Irish storytelling tradition. What is striking about plays like The New Electric Ballroom (2005), The Walworth Farce (2006) or Penelope (2010) is that Walsh’s characters seem entrapped by their memories or myth-making propensities; at the same time, they display a mesmerising kinetic energy.

“I suspect,” says Walsh’s friend and long-time colleague Mikel Murfi, “that playwriting is for Enda a way of exercising, or possibly exorcising, his private demons. It’s a fact that, when he first came to London, he suffered a form of compulsive-obsessive disorder. But that may help to explain the extraordinary physicality you find in all his work.”

Demands

For Walsh himself the motive for the astonishing demands he makes on his actors in Ballyturk is that he knew he was writing for two highly expressive performers: Murfi tells me that the moment in Ballyturk where he has to embody the imagined town’s population in the space of 30 seconds stems from a promise Walsh once made that he would write him a piece where he had to play 50 different characters. For Walsh, in fact, theatre is all about the immediacy of the living moment.

“Beckett’s not a conscious influence,” claims Walsh, “but he taught us all two great things. One is that he helped free drama from any obligation to be sociological: the other is that he showed us the power of real time. I’m hugely attracted to that and don’t really understand theatre that deals with action over several days. And, although I may have started out being preoccupied by language, I’m now obsessed by form.

“I remember once talking to Sarah Kane and asking her how she was getting on with her new play. She said ‘I haven’t started writing it yet but I can hum it.’ That’s exactly it. You have to find the internal rhythm of a play in order to make it work.”

That obsession with form and the visceral impact of theatre is partly what drives Walsh on. He’s worked in film, writing the screenplay for a movie of Disco Pigs and co-scripting the prize-winning Hunger (2008) – directed bySteve McQueen and dealing with Bobby Sands, the IRA man who starved himself to death in protest over British rule. But you feel that film is a diversion from Walsh’s real task.

It’s significant that Anne Clarke, whose company Landmark Productions co-produced Ballyturk with the Galway International Arts Festival, and Murfi both use exactly the same phrase to describe Walsh: “a pure theatre animal”. And Clarke, who describes Walsh as “a gift to Irish theatre”, is eagerly looking forward to working with him next year on a new chamber opera he has written, Gas, composed by Donnacha Dennehy.

When I ask Murfi how he would describe Walsh to someone who had never met him, he says: “Gentle, mannerly, funny, quiet – although, if pressed, he might sing a Neil Diamond song for you at a party.”

Yet Walsh’s physically explosive characters inhabit a world of enclosed solitude. Murfi comes closest to explaining the contradiction that is Enda Walsh by saying “he gets to divest himself of his anxieties in his work and shows how the darkness within Ireland exists alongside our bonkers attitude to the exhilaration of life.”

Potted profile

Born 1967

Career Started writing plays in Cork in 1993 and has since authored 17 stage plays, two radio plays, three screenplays, the book for a musical and an opera libretto.

High point Winning a Tony award on Broadway for his book for the musical Once, which won in eight categories.

Low point Two years of panic attacks when he first moved to London involving drinking a glass of water at the same time every day or visiting the same cafe for the same lunch.

What he says “You don’t have to understand everything. You’ll get it in the heart.”

What they say “He has an instinctive, visceral understanding of how theatre works”: Garry Hynes, artistic director of Druid Theatre Company.

 

Written by Michael Billington in The Guardian 18.09.14

Ballyturk to take Dublin and Cork audiences by storm – Irish Examiner

As Ballyturk is readied for Dublin and Cork, Enda Walsh is already thinking about his next play, writes Alan O’Riordan.

SINCE opening at the Galway Arts Festival last month, Enda Walsh’s new play, Ballyturk, has been greeted with the customary laudatory reviews the Dublin-born playwright gets. A gloomy existential message leavened by Cillian Murphy’s comic virtuosity, Mikel Murfi’s physical language and Stephen Rea’s urbanity. What more could an audience ask for, or a playwright for that matter?

“Yeah, I knew when I sat down to write it I was writing for them,” says Walsh of Murfi and Murphy. “Michael has great instinct, great fire, a great gut. And Cillian’s exactly the same. They collaborate so freely and so easily. To me they are all comedians. And Stephen Rea as well, they are all very instinctual actors. I had Stephen’s voice my head when I was writing it, so I thought, if we’re lucky enough to get him, that will be 90% done. He’s incredible, his stillness, his outlook — it’s very different to the other two.”

Ballyturk is another of Walsh’s places of dislocation. A fictionalised noplace, it evokes Beckett’s Endgame: two characters confined in a room, constructing rituals to give the illusion of meaning, playing scenes with a cast of characters, passing the time that would have passed anyway — a theatrical demonstration of the brevity of existence.

We all have our moments of reflection on the proximity of our ultimate end, but Ballyturk comes from a very specific prompt, says Walsh. “I was having a conversation with my daughter, who was six at the time, and she said, ‘So people die?’ And I said, yeah, they do. ‘All of them?’ Yeah. We all die, I said, you don’t think about that when you’re living. You have a life, you fall in love, you get a house and a job and you busy yourself. She said, ‘Is it always in the back of your mind?’ And I said, no, no, it’s really far back there. As you get older maybe, but you can live with that.

“So, we had this very formative experience for both of us, and I was looking at my six-year-old daughter thinking, she’s processing this. And I thought, when does innocence end? Does it end at that point? That knowing that we are here only for a certain amount of time? Seeing that slow dawning of understanding, I thought, wow, what happens when you take that moment and dramatise it?”

Ballyturk takes that conversation with a child to its heart in the two childish characters who are ultimately confronted with an end of innocence. But Walsh has always specialised in arrested development. One only has to think of the babble of Pig and Runt in Disco Pigs. So, the play is familiar territory for Walsh, yet, using the word “familiar” about his work seems inadequate. Yes, there is much for us to recognise in Walsh’s dramatic worlds, but there is always a heightened, intense strangeness to them too. He gives us isolated characters desperately seeking meaning in their lives while stuck on a hamster wheel of memories.

The New Electric Ballroom, from 2008, was set in a remote fishing village. But its focus was on an interior landscape, with three cut-off souls, sisters Breda and Clara, in their 60s, and Ada, in her 40s, reliving endlessly the frustrated amorous ambitions which took place at the eponymous dancehall.

Before that, in The Walworth Farce in 2006, a family is shackled to the endless retelling of its own private myths, repeatedly playing out their father’s emigration story.

Does any of this thematic material stem from Walsh’s own emigration? On the face of it, one would think not. Walsh moved to London a decade ago with his wife, Jo Ellison, formerly of the Irish Examiner and now fashion editor at the Financial Times. And he looks like an advertisement for London life — lithe, trim, always on the cusp of laughter, Walsh brims with vitality. He is deftly turned out, in a neat dark T-shirt and narrow jeans, with an expensive-looking haircut and tortoiseshell glasses.

Yet there is something in it, he says. “When I was in Cork I thought, you know, I could just sit back here. And that’s not a good place for a writer or any sort of artist to be. You can still make great work wherever you are, but for me it was important that I isolated myself. You’re trying to find something that’s unique to you and that isolation gets you looking at yourself.

“I was in this city of such size, and I started writing these plays about man and his environment, how that affects you. I think that’s what London has done, it’s put a lot of pressure on character and form. I love the wildness and energy of London, and feeling that small puts a lot of pressure on the page. You feel, right, I’m in this massive city, so I need to try and pour something of myself out onto the page.”

Walsh’s creative enterprise has become a pursuit of the fundamentals of theatre and life. His plays are about both, but easy resolutions and story arcs aren’t his thing. “People think playwriting is about story, about putting characters into certain situations, but it’s not. It’s never about that. Your first instinct is what is the atmosphere of it? What are you trying to make people feel? That’s enough to go on. Then the characters begin to form. You sense that there is something there to write, and you start writing. You’re writing about that feeling.”

Walsh goes on to relate a story about the playwright Sarah Kane. Once, when asked if she was writing a play, she replied, “Yeah, yeah. I haven’t written it, but I can hum it.” Right now, he says, the tune of another play is in his head. “It just sometimes comes in and out of my head. My mother has Alzheimer’s so I wonder what her notion of geography is. Is there a way of constructing a play about someone’s world shifting, someone trying to make sense and navigate that into some kind of clarity. It’s a very abstract notion but that’s enough to go on. It’s something about the nature of people trying to understand where they are.”

Written by Alan O’Riordan in the Irish Examiner 04.08.14

Cillian Murphy returns to the stage – Evening Standard

Cillian Murphy hates spoilers. The clue is in the word, says the 38-year-old actor: to spoil something is to ruin it, and why would you want to ruin someone’s entertainment? So we are at a slight loss, he and I, to describe Ballyturk, the play by his old friend and collaborator Enda Walsh, that has lured the star of Peaky Blinders, Batman Begins and 28 Days Later back to the stage. Not least because Ballyturk defies easy description.

“Well, I’ll tell you what, Nick, it’s not really a what’s-it-about play,” Murphy says, the accent of his native Cork thicker in real life. “The themes it deals with are friendship and loss and I think creative life. It is very kinetic, very visceral theatre, but also very precise. He likes to make actors work — I always say you get tremendously fit doing an Enda Walsh show.”

Indeed. Without giving too much away, I can tell you that Ballyturk features Murphy and Mikel Murfi in a huge room, performing manic comic rituals that seem designed to stave off existential dread, including the summoning or impersonation of various colourful characters from the titular Irish town. There’s a lot of mid-Eighties pop music and physical comedy, and towards the end Stephen Rea ominously turns up. There are echoes of Becket’s Waiting for Godot, just as there were echoes of Krapp’s Last Tape in Walsh’s Misterman, the monologue about a religious man recalling past encounters, that Murphy triumphantly bought from Ireland to the National in 2012.

This is the third collaboration between writer and star: in 1996 Murphy, who comes from a family of educators and was then an aspiring rock musician and law dropout, made his stage debut in Walsh’s tale of two Cork tearaways, Disco Pigs, which became a runaway hit. “I was very lucky to have the standard set so high for me,” says Murphy. “We didn’t know at that time he was a significant writer. He was just a young writer with energy and attitude. And great hair. So I was spoilt. It was a break for me. I just love his sense of humour, the way he smashes comedy up against tragedy. His plays could never work on television or film, they are so purely theatrical. And he is a beautiful wordsmith. For an actor to be given these beautiful speeches is a great gift.”

Rock dreams were forgotten and for the next six years Murphy acted mostly on stage, until fame intervened: Danny Boyle cast him as the lead in his zombie film 28 Days Later, bringing out the steel edge to his delicate beauty, the riveting cornflower eyes.

After small parts in Girl with a Pearl Earring and Cold Mountain he auditioned, without much hope, for the lead role in Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins, and was rewarded instead with the scene-stealing part of the Scarecrow. Then came the thriller Red Eye, the Wind that Shakes the Barley for Ken Loach, a stunning turn as a transsexual in Breakfast on Pluto for Neil Jordan, Boyle’s Sunshine and The Dark Knight and Inception for Nolan.

“Suddenly I hadn’t done a play in six years and I said it’s ridiculous that I haven’t collaborated with my close friend and brilliant writer Enda, so we went and did Misterman,” he says. “I realised how much I had missed [theatre]. Getting to act with your whole body is so liberating for me. I am not really known for my comedy, and Enda’s shows allow me to release the funny bones a bit. If your ambition is to improve as an actor, as mine is, theatre is the form to do it. I love that contact between an audience and a performer — we are all sitting in a darkened room and the potential for things to go wrong is so extraordinarily high. So the goodwill between performer and audience is paramount to the thing’s success. And when live theatre does succeed, there’s nothing like it.”

Murphy is fortunate to be working at a time when theatre in both London and Ireland is strong (Ballyturk, like Misterman, premiered in Galway), and when there is less snobbery and greater fluidity for actors to move between media. He has shrugged off implied criticism for appearing in blockbusters. “You follow the word on the page and if the word on the page is strong, the budget is irrelevant,” he says.

Thus he was happy to act on the shoestring-financed Broken for Rufus Norris, the National’s incoming artistic director, and is happy to be in the megabudget In the Heart of the Sea next year. The film is based on the 1820s account of a Nantucket whaling ship “stoved in by this angry white whale, and how the crew survive, or not” that inspired Moby Dick. “It’s Ron Howard directing and he is such a tremendous storyteller,” adds Murphy. “What I loved about it was that it was such a proper old-fashioned movie: men, sea, the elements and a whale. There’s no chance of a spin-off, no aliens. I think people will really respond to it.”

He thinks that mid-budget, intelligent movie making has collapsed, but that the writers moved to TV, dragging the rest of the industry with them, hence the burgeoning nature of small-screen drama. He has spent most of this year filming series two of Peaky Blinders, Steven Knight’s gripping tale of inter-war Birmingham gangsters, in which he plays ruthless kingpin Tommy Shelby. Again, there are no spoilers.

“It’s common knowledge that the story goes south…” he laughs and stops himself. “Not ‘south’ in that sense, let me rephrase that — that Tommy and the gang go to London, and that’s when they encounter Tom Hardy and other London gangs. The story is expanding. I’ve worked with Tom a couple of times and I just love what he can do: he’s very bold in his choices, always pushing it. It’s a brilliant creation Steve Knight wrote for him, and there should be some very exciting scenes in it.”

He hasn’t worked out yet whether the National’s schedule will enable him to see his Peaky Blinders co-star Helen McCrory in Medea, which is playing in the Olivier while Ballyturk is in the Lyttelton. He says he loves London’s restaurants, galleries and theatres but this very private star is equally happy having a quiet life at home in a villagey part of north-west London with his wife, artist Yvonne McGuinness, and their sons Malachy, nine, and Aran, seven, not far from Walsh and his family.

“There’s a lot of people like us there — what my friend called ‘fathers in media’,” he laughs. He and Walsh both rented there when they first moved from Ireland, then basically stayed. “That happens with London: you stay in the place where you land because it’s so vast. I have friends in south London and never see them: it might as well be another country. The times I do go, I say wow it’s beautiful. But it takes so feckin’ long to get there.” Maybe this new stint on the South Bank will encourage him.

Written by Nick Curtis in The Evening Standard on 01.08.14