Playwright Enda Walsh, keeper of Ireland’s storytelling tradition

Enda Walsh gets a good laugh from the misconceptions about him, starting with a first name often mistaken for a woman’s: It’s common enough for men in his native Ireland that he shares it with the nation’s new prime minister, Enda Kenny. But the assumption that prompts the most dismissive reaction is that he’s some sort of maestro of the English language, that his plays are the outlets of a connoisseur of prose.

The look on his face as he reflects on his reputation for syntactical subtlety says: No way. “Couldn’t be further from the truth!” he declares, nursing a fruit-juice drink in a cafe just off Dupont Circle. “I don’t know [expletive] about words. The reason the language comes out that way is, it’s me just trying to get out of the way.”

Walsh is not exactly a household name: Unlike his major-league dramatic brethren, Martin McDonagh and Conor McPherson, who’ve both had multiple plays on Broadway, the 43-year-old playwright has yet to see even one of his dramas produced there (although he is working on the book of a stage musical based on “Once,” the offbeat 2006 Irish movie musical).

And yet, because of the widening admiration he’s garnering in the theater world — an appreciation partly based on, yes, his facility with the mother tongue — Walsh’s renown is on the upswing. Prima facie evidence of that momentum is being introduced at the moment in Washington, where Studio Theatre has undertaken one of the most ambitious surveys of his recent plays occurring anywhere.

Running now through May 1, “New Ireland: The Enda Walsh Festival” represents an important milestone for both the playwright and the host theater. The serving up of Walsh’s highly praised “Penelope,” along with “The New Electric Ballroom” and “The Walworth Farce,” is, as far as the playwright knows, the first time the three pieces have been presented as a set. The offering is a departure, too, for Studio, which only on rare occasions has spotlighted a single dramatist so intensively. And even rarer is the international partnership Studio has formed, inviting the Galway-based Druid Theatre to participate, with its production of “Penelope.”

“Penelope,” in the estimation of some critics and theater people, may be the best play to date to emerge from Walsh’s wild imagination. Inspired by the story in Homer’s “Odyssey” of the suitors for Odysseus’s wife, the 90-minute piece depicts four lumpy middle-aged men in skimpy bathing suits, grilling a meal on the floor of an empty swimming pool and awaiting their dread fates. It’s an absurdist reckoning of the measure of one’s impact on the world at the end of one’s life.

“I love that he is indebted to and inspired by a great dramatic tradition in Ireland and at the same time is willing to smash that tradition to bits,” says David Muse, Studio’s artistic director, who worked with his predecessor, Joy Zinoman to put the festival together. “And I love when you can find a writer who is writing in a non-realistic style but at the core is very human.”

The Studio festival is an acknowledgment of the dazzling effect that a wave of Irish dramatists is having on the world’s stages. McDonagh (who’s actually Anglo-Irish) and McPherson lead a pack that includes, among others, Walsh, Mark O’Rowe and Marina Carr, all of whom have their own distinctive styles but collectively reflect an indigenous storytelling tradition that was earlier popularized in the plays of Dion Boucicault and John Millington Synge.

Garry Hynes, Druid’s artistic director, says she sees in writers such as McDonagh (“The Beauty Queen of Leenane”) and Walsh a kind of innate affinity for playmaking. “My experience of both Martin and Enda is that they have an instinctive and visceral understanding of how the theater process works,” says Hynes, who won a Tony for her direction of “Beauty Queen.” “That means they can bend the forms and shape the theater to fit their own vision.”

McDonagh has been able to translate that vision — a theatrical sensibility drenched in blood and black humor — into works that have an appeal to more than a boutique audience; after hit plays in London and on Broadway, he achieved some film success as writer-director of 2008’s “In Bruges.” It remains to be seen whether Walsh’s work, residing more resolutely in the realm of the surreal, can move beyond art-house status.

Walsh himself professes astonishment that he’s gotten this far. The son of a furniture salesman and a onetime actress, he grew up in Dublin with little experience of the theater. It was after studying film in college and spending some time away from Ireland, in France, that he grew enamored of the idea of finding a niche for himself in stage performance — maybe in a band, or a theater. Given the malnourished condition of the Irish film industry, movie-making did not seem a viable option.

“Studying film in Ireland at that time,” he says, “was like studying dentistry in a country with no teeth.”

The exploration took him to Cork and a life with an upstart theater troupe called Corcadorca. “There was something about it, what it’s like to be a person onstage throwing lines at an audience,” Walsh says. “This huge pretend seemed really exciting.”

By default, he became the company’s writer, as it put on short anarchic works of its own devising, as well as dark adaptations, such as a grotesque version of “A Christmas Carol,” staged in a former women’s jail. After shows, Walsh typically stood before the spectators and canvassed them for what had been done well, or badly. “Even if people didn’t like it, we were trying to analyze what the [expletive] we were trying to communicate,” he says, peppering his discourse regularly with colorful epithets. “We were reckless and young and living on crisps and alcohol. It felt very alive and searching.”

The process helped him develop his own style and in 1996 led to his breakthrough piece, “Disco Pigs,” the tragedy-laced portrait of a pair of misfit teenagers, Pig and Runt. The play was a sensation at fringe theater events, first in Ireland and later across Europe. “There were 49 productions in Germany alone,” Walsh says, adding that suddenly, at the age of 29, he had graduated from starving artist “to living in five-star hotels, opening festivals. It was a shock.” (He now resides in London with his wife, a journalist, and young daughter.)

Washington audiences gained entree to Walsh’s brash stylings through Solas Nua, the outpost of contemporary Irish drama, which mounted productions of “Disco Pigs” and a subsequent work, “Bedbound,” set in a room in which a brutish furniture salesman holds captive his disabled daughter. The father’s account of the rough-and-tumble of his trade sounded as if the play were a swipe at Ireland’s so-called economic miracle. Walsh says while that may be true, he was also writing about himself and his father, with whom he was very close.

“A lot of my characters are saying, ‘Who the [expletive] am I, and where am I going? This is the way I am,’ ” he observes. “There is a lot of ‘proclamation’ in there, which goes back to the tradition of the Irish storyteller, who actually had the job of ‘proclaiming.’ ” He adds that this legacy helps to explain why Irish playwriting remains so potent, so central to the culture: “You’re looking at a country trying to find out who we are, trying to find its identity on the stage.”

“Penelope” was a byproduct of his broadening cachet: A German troupe asked five playwrights for their takes on “The Odyssey,” a work he read on his own when he was 14 because he thought it was an essential text for anyone. It was, in fact, first performed in German, a matter of no great surprise to Walsh, who takes more delight in the unsettling effect of an idea in a script than any of the words in it.

One time, he recounts, he was asked to direct a production of “Bedbound” in Milan — in Italian, a language with which he has no familiarity. He accepted, naturally. And a few days into rehearsal with a cast that did not speak English, he found he didn’t even need a translator to get his points across. The lesson for him was one he hopes audiences will absorb, too: that a play is not meant to be parsed, that there’s no pressure to draw meaning from every precious line.

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

New Ireland: The Enda Walsh Festival

runs through May 1 at Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St. NW. Call 202-332-3300 or visit www.studiotheatre.org.

Peter Marks joined the Washington Post as its chief theater critic in 2002. Prior to that he worked for nine years at the New York Times, on the culture, metropolitan and national desks, and spent about four years as its off-Broadway drama critic.
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