'It’s inspired by The Dead and is both like it and not like it'

Marie Mullen on re-imagining James Joyce's short story in Epiphany

Marie Mullen. Photo:- Leon Farrell

Marie Mullen. Photo:- Leon Farrell

2019 IS Druid's year of new writing with all work being world premieres by living writers. As part of the year’s exciting programme, and in association with the Galway International Arts Festival, Druid will next month present, Epiphany, by American writer Brian Watkins.

Marie Mullen leads a blue-chip international cast in a play that signals the arrival of a gifted playwright. As Epiphany opens, snow falls softly on a wintry evening. In an old city house, adrift in a modern world, a cheery host, Morkan (Mullen ) gathers a group of friends to try to reignite a forgotten tradition. However, when the guest of honour, Gabriel, is unusually late, the participants find themselves unmoored and craving answers - and there might not be enough wine, or goose, or time, to fend off some long-neglected anxieties that haunt their souls.

Daringly, Watkins’ script reworks James Joyce’s The Dead with several characters, such as Mullen’s Morkan and the boozy Freddy, carrying the same names and similar traits as their Joycean prototypes. Watkins’ daring is matched however by his writerly gifts so that his play becomes both a homage to Joyce’s classic story and a work that finds its own ground where it stands on its own impressive merits.

“I think it’s just amazing,” Mullen declares in earnest, speaking to me at the end of a day’s rehearsal. “Brian takes The Dead and makes it into something else. It’s inspired by The Dead and both like it and not like it. It is funny and thoughtful, and even farcical, at times. There is never a dull moment. The play is emerging and coming together very well in rehearsals; and I think audiences will enjoy it when we bring it to Galway.”

'Brian magically sets up the typical situation where you go to someone else’s house, and you don’t know who you are going to meet, and you don’t know what’s going to happen'

Mullen’s Morkan has invited a group of friends for a celebratory meal to mark the feast of Epiphany, though it soon transpires that neither she, nor her guests, has any clear grasp of the feast’s history or meaning. As Morkan scattily tries to get the meal ready, comic mishaps and misunderstandings interweave with group chats about life, the universe and everything.

“All the characters have their moments,” Mullen observes. “The philosophical bits are all involved in everyone getting the meal ready so you’re not bombarded with big chunks of philosophy; it comes out of their characters and their lives. Brian magically sets up the typical situation where you go to someone else’s house, and you don’t know who you are going to meet, and you don’t know what’s going to happen.

"You’re trying to be good for the host and watching your manners. It’s like everyone has left their personalities at home and have come here just because Morkan has invited them. They are doing their best for her evening yet they can see her getting more stressed as the evening progresses and asking people to help her out. I’m finding it exciting exploring the play’s world.”

Playwright Brian Watkins

The Brooklyn-based Watkins [pictured] could be described as an emergent writer, with Epiphany being his most high-profile production to date. Mullens summarises his attributes as a writer.

“He’s a very musical author, there are a lot of crossovers and overlaps of lines and there is a musicality about how his lines fit together," she says. "He is a young writer but very smart. I love the characters he has created. We have an international cast from different cultures. I use my own accent in the play but we also have actors who are American, English, older, younger, from Nigeria, the Cayman Islands. We’re all learning from each other and our different way of approaching things. Aran, played by Grace Byers, is a half magical kind of person, her character has a calming quality on the others. It’s lovely seeing all the different elements coming together.”

The multinational Epiphany cast combines Druid stalwarts such as Mullen, Aaron Monaghan, Rory Nolan, and Marty Rea with Tony-Award-winning US actor Bill Irwin, Anglo-Nigerian Jude Akuwudike, Grace Byers from the Cayman Islands, New Yorker Julia McDermott and Kate Kennedy, who has dual US and UK citizenship. The play is directed by Garry Hynes.

Druid Epiphany cast

The cosmopolitanism of the cast creates the sense that the characters in Epiphany are more citizens of the world rather than, as in The Dead, of a specific city –and Watkins’ script locates the action more by the time of year than its co-ordinates on a map.

One of the triumphs of Watkins’ play is that its finale is as emotionally full as Joyce’s story and Morkan, for all her scattiness, has a warm good-naturedness also which enriches her company – both the dinner guests and the play’s audience.

“She is a very interesting person,” Marie Mullen agrees. “She is a bit odd in how she handles things and she frightens her guests a bit at times during the evening. The whole set up is a little strange; she feels she has to do this big meal and gathering but she can’t remember what Epiphany is about as a feast. Yet everyone gets coloured by her attitude throughout the play. She wants the evening to be uplifting; she admits to things she did wrong in the past which is part of her healing and being able to get on with her life. I’m dying to see what Galway people will think of the play!”

Druid epiphany brian bourke sketch

Galway audiences are doubtless just as keen to see the play. During its run at the Town Hall, Stage Left, an exhibition of Epiphany rehearsal sketches by Brian Bourke will be on display in the venue [a detail from one such sketch is above].

Epiphany runs at the Town Hall Theatre from July 17 to 27 at 8pm (except July 21 when there is no show ). There are 2.30pm matinees on July 20 and 27. Tickets are available via from www.giaf.ie

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