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Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy's Belated Fringe Debut

Philip Fisher meets the Irish playwright at the Edinburgh Fringe.

It was an honour to catch up with the great Irish playwright Tom Murphy in the bar at the Assembly Rooms. He was there on a flying one-day visit to see Gavin McAlinden's revival of The Gigli Concert, which has transferred north from the Finborough, with a new cast.

Tom Murphy has been writing plays for over forty years, but amazingly, despite the appearances of The Wake and Too Late for Logic at the King's Theatre in the International Festival, to the best of his knowledge this is the first ever Festival Fringe production of one of his plays.

After Edinburgh, Murphy's latest work, the Alice Trilogy, has its world premiere at the Royal Court in London in November. This is a real departure for the Irish veteran. "I have tried to start practically everything with the Abbey (in Dublin). I think I'm locked out to a degree now. I'm proud of my record but companies want virgins. On this occasion, I know that the Abbey had heard about this and asked for it".

However, he had other ideas and sent it to a number of London theatres. "This time I wanted to submit it to London and it would get back to the Abbey. The Royal Court came back quickly wanting the rights". Indeed, the theatre's artistic director Ian Rickson was so keen on the play that he will be directing the Alice Trilogy himself.

Murphy's work has appeared at the Royal Court over the years, starting in 1969 when Alan Dobie starred in Famine. Since then, A Whistle in the Dark and the haunting Bailegangaire have both made it to the theatre.

He is excited about having another play produced at the Royal Court. "I lived in London for ten years and Chelsea was one of my haunts". As he sips his white wine, he is quick to add, "I was never a Sloane Ranger though".

The Trilogy consists of three separate plays. "I didn't want to write a two or three act play. The structure of a play can decide how it goes, its evolution and dénouement, if that word is still used".

This departure from his "traditional Aristotelian structure" after forty years was a bid for a kind of freedom. Another that he has used for over half of that period is the use of a female protagonist and in this case the two come together.

"I wanted to write about a woman at 25, I wanted to paint another portrait of her at 40 and again at 50". It was only "later in the process that I thought of using a single actress for all three".

He reminisces, "I saw Peggy Ashcroft doing this in the Wars of the Roses at Stratford when she was about 60 but she still tripped across the stage as a youngster. That was a punctuation mark in my theatregoing".

The desire to use women in key roles was initiated as far back as 1961. When his first play, A Whistle in the Dark, was produced, a lady collared the playwright after the first night and "said that I knew nothing about women" His reaction took a few years but now he is happier working with female protagonists.

"For me, the line of least resistance is the man. Trying to write for the woman's psyche is more creative. It also helps me to conceal the privacies of my life. I write autobiographically and prefer the mask, even though it is more difficult".

After Alice, Murphy wants to write what he calls "a symphony for theatre. The next thing will be a big one. It will take about a year to write," and he bemoans the lack of opportunity for such large scale work in either the theatre or concert hall. "Nobody is writing the symphony, everyone wants chamber music. We need to save the tigers in theatre too".

He recognises that financing is always a problem for large-scale plays. "I've written a few big plays and had the experiences where directors want characters cut". The irony is that when Michael Bogdanov and Michael Penningon wanted to revive The Gigli Concert for the English Shakespeare Company, they couldn't get the funding because there were too few characters.

Tom Murphy may be 70 this year but he clearly has a great deal more writing in him and it is pleasing that fans in Edinburgh and London will get the opportunity to sample his work and see what a great playwright he is.

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©Peter Lathan 2005