‘My imagination is Galway-shaped’
Julian Gough talks about his new play The Great Goat Bubble
By Kernan Andrews
IN BALLINASLOE train station two men sit and wait. One is Jude, a London-Irishman who has been involved in wild adventures and outrageous scrapes. Beside him sits a man who may well be his match.
The pair get talking and Jude finds himself in the company of Dr Ibrahim Bihi, a Somali economist and wheeler-dealer, who recently created the largest financial bubble in history - through flooding the market in goats, regardless of whether they were healthy, sick, or lame. Now Dr Bihi is in Ireland, on the lookout for ‘the next big thing’.
This is The Great Goat Bubble, the debut play by Julian Gough, which will receive its world premiere at Druid Theatre this month as part of the Galway Arts Festival.
Jude & Julian
Julian first came to prominence in the late 1980s as the lead singer of Galway indie-rock band Toasted Heretic, with whom he released four albums. Over the last decade he has won considerable acclaim for his imaginative and comic novels Juno & Juliet (2001), Jude: Level 1 (2007), and Jude In London (2011), as well as the collection of poems and lyrics, Free Sex Chocolate (2010).
However The Great Goat Bubble is the first foray into theatre for both Julian and his chief character Jude. Why is Jude someone the author is drawn back to again and again?
Jude sees the world the way I did when I was seven,” Julian tells me. “That’s really handy if you’re writing about modern Ireland. He can be the little boy who points out that the emperor is actually naked.
“If I’ve got something I want to write about, and it’s rather dry and abstract - like, the changes inside the Irish financial system - I know if I throw Jude into the situation, he will have the kind of adventures and cause the kind of chaos that will create an interesting story out of what could have been a boring, static, situation.”
It is no great leap of the imagination to see Jude as a more flamboyant version of his flamboyant creator.
“Oh, Jude is me, but maybe pushed a little further along the autistic spectrum,” says Julian. “Some of Jude’s weirdest adventures are very lightly fictionalised versions of real events in my life. It amuses me when reviewers talk about the wild invention in some particular scene, and I know that it happened. I have photos!”
If Jude is a recurrent character in Julian’s work, so is Galway. Although he was born in London, grew up in Tipperary, and now lives in Berlin, Julian is always happy to acknowledge that it was his years in Galway which moulded and defined him.
“Galway is where I learned to be a writer. And learned to be a grown-up. Obviously, both projects are still ongoing!” he says. “But the first crucial steps were taken in Galway. I arrived as a 17-year-old who knew nothing about anything. I went to university in Galway. I joined a band, wrote my first couple of books. I was on the dole for 10 years in Galway. I sold my first book while still living there. I met my wife there, my daughter was born there. Most of the important events in my life took place in Galway. My imagination is Galway-shaped.”
So what will it mean to Julian to have his debut play staged in Galway city?
“It’s special,” he declares, “and it’s particularly special to be having my world premiere in the Druid Theatre. I used to live just across the street. The first professional theatre I ever saw was in Druid - The Beggar’s Opera by John Gay when I was 18. I saw Vaclav Havel’s The Increased Difficulty of Concentration which expanded my ideas of what you could do in a theatre. If I fell in love with what theatre could do, it was in the dark in Druid. So to have a play opening there...bloody hell. A teenage fantasy come to life.”
Laughing at the chaos
The Great Goat Bubble, centring on a doctor’s reckless trading of goats and inflation of his native country’s market, is a metaphor for the unregulated economic madness that swept through Ireland in the noughties and left the recession, austerity, and crippling debt in its wake. It may seem strange to write a comedy about, but humour is often better equipped to deal with, and be more insightful into, such grim subjects than is stark realism.
“The best books about World War II are probably Catch 22 and Slaughterhouse 5. And they’re both comedies, written by guys who experienced the war at its worst,” says Julian. “Vonnegut was a prisoner of war in Dresden when it was firebombed, and had to pull the dead from the cellars and bury them. Joseph Heller flew dozens of bombing missions and had friends shot down. They died burning, they bled to death in his arms.
“If guys like that decide the best way to write about their experience is over-the-top exaggerated comedy, then you can use comedy for anything. I think comedy is the best way to write about tragedy and disaster. It allows the audience to step back, to get perspective on the disaster they’re caught up in, and on the human folly that caused it. We step back, we see how deeply absurd it is, we laugh. It’s very cathartic.”
Bar Julian’s new play and Galway crime fiction author Ken Bruen’s recent Jack Taylor novels, the recession and its effects on the public is a reality Irish novelists have refused to deal with.
“Ken Bruen is great, he’s been on top of it. And in general, crime writers have been way ahead of the literary writers recently,” says Julian. “I think it takes purely literary writers longer to process history. And longer to write their stuff. Ulysses is set in 1904, Joyce started planning it in 1906, started writing it in 1910, and it didn’t come out ‘till 1922. So I wouldn’t expect a literary response to 2008 just yet.”
In The Great Goat Bubble, Julian was not just taking on a neglected subject, he was also, through the unusual angle he was coming at it from, looking at a way to avoid Irish theatre clichés.
“I’d seen an awful lot of Irish plays that were basically shouting in a kitchen,” he says. “Same shouting, same kitchen, same violent cathartic act at the end, as the underdog clattered the overdog. Oh, and same dark family secret revealed. So I wrote a play where the conflict is very different - it’s between the characters and money, between abstract economic ideas and the solid reality of goats and people.
“I’m wary of the default settings of Irish writing. My play is a guy telling a story to another guy - the standard Irish setting for that is in the pub. So I set it on the railway platform in Ballinasloe, because Irish plays aren’t usually set on railway platforms. That opened up new possibilities - the train becomes a metaphor for the future that’s about to arrive.”
Nuts and bananas
Julian is looking forward to the production of The Great Goat Bubble, but there is no time to sit back and rest as he has plenty of other projects on the go he must attend to.
“It’s been nuts lately. Bananas. Nuts and bananas, it’s been the full banana split,” he says. “There’s going to be a prose version of The Great Goat Bubble out at Christmas, with 15 illustrations. The next novel, Jude in America, is due out in 2013. I’m writing a new kind of computer game, for the iPad, which has me fierce excited. I’ve some short stories. I just finished a film script about Samuel Beckett falling in love, in an alternate universe where he’s a great film maker.
“I’m writing a poem designed to work as a tap-poem on the iPad - you read a bit, tap to reveal more, and you might have a choice of directions. It’s hard to describe, but it’s an interesting new way to read a poem. Oh God, listing all that off, I think I need a lie down.”
The play stars Ciaran O’Brien (Jude) and Wil Johnson (Dr Bihi) and is directed by Mikel Murphy. It runs from July 12 - 16; July 18 - 22; and July 24 - 29 at 8pm, with matinees on July 21 and 28 at 2pm. For tickets see www.galwayartsfestival.com