Death of a Comedian
Owen McCafferty on his new play at the Lyric Theatre, refusing to dumb down for the big bucks and why we should all give Russell Brand a break
In the Lyric Theatre café on a sunny winter's day, a black and white photograph of Owen McCafferty, arguably Belfast's greatest living playwright, peers down from a poster advertising his new play, Death of a Comedian, on the man himself, flush with colour after walking to 'work' from his nearby home.
McCafferty has approached previous interviews with obvious apprehension – as if anticipating a grilling, or worse, having to spend time dissecting his work with journalists who don't fully understand it – but today he is loquacious and joyously honest; the convivial atmosphere in the Lyric has evidently rubbed off on him.
You will find McCafferty here most days, in fact, occupying the same corner table, scribbling notes on a new version of Dostoyevsky's The Gambler, ruminating on a film script he is set to write for the creative team behind the Terri Hooley biopic Good Vibrations, following the Lagan as it flows by during moments of meditation. He is, quite literally, writer-in-residence. 'I haven't written in public before,' he reveals. 'I didn't think I'd like it, but I do.'
McCafferty's very public approach to the role, which he took up in late 2014, is self-imposed. 'Playwrights can feel detached,' he argues, 'so actually sitting in a theatre writing is no bad thing. When it comes to writing dialogue, I do tend to walk and talk it aloud though, so I'm not sure how that will look in public... But the view from the Lyric is class. Even on a bad day, it's good. It's a good spot.'
Born in Belfast in 1961, McCafferty has written about its inhabitants in many of his finest plays, including Mojo Mickybo, Scenes from the Big Picture and, most recently, Quietly, a three-hander rooted in the quagmire of peace and reconciliation. In 2013, however, he made the decision to stop writing about the Troubles altogether.
Satisfied that he had said all that he wanted to say on the subject, McCafferty has now turned his attention to 'different stories'. Death of a Comedian, then, is the beginning of a new phase in his writing.
'Very simply put,' McCafferty explains, 'it is about the price you have to pay in today's world for being successful. It's a sort of Faustian thing – in order to appeal to a wider audience, the Comedian ends up selling part of his artistic soul.'
Intriguingly structured around four stand-up comedy sets, the play – which premieres in the Lyric Theatre in Belfast on February 7, a co-production between the Abbey Theatre, the Lyric and the Soho Theatre in London – charts the creative evolution of a Comedian (played by Brian Doherty), as he morphs from an ambitious, opinionated comic performing in down and dirty clubs to a darling of the mainstream, with the world and its riches at his feet.
McCafferty allowed the idea for the play to germinate for years before putting pen to paper, and was finally motivated to do so by the tricky technical challenge of subtly amending the Comedian's material over four sets to suit his ever-expanding audience.
'You can see progressively how his material changes,' McCafferty adds. 'There's a bit of his first set in the second set, a bit of the second in the third, a bit of the third in the fourth, but in the end there's none of the first remaining. He starts out edgy, talking about stuff that's important to him, and ends up in the Apollo being bland, making stuff up. There's a shift in what he does, when it comes to selling units – that's all. Should we criticise someone for that? I suppose it depends on what you think the job of a comedian is.'
McCafferty has own idea: for him, comedians should be voices of the people, inventive, confrontational, anything but comfortable. He cites Frankie Boyle, Kim Noble and Stewart Lee as examples of a dying breed of comics who 'genuinely push boundaries', often at the expense of their bank accounts, in bids to stay true to themselves as artists determined to provide audiences with fresh, visceral experiences each and every time, as much for their own sanity, presumably, as the audience's entertainment.
Ultimately, however, McCafferty's Comedian falls victim to his expanding audiences' tastes. While inoffensive comedy vehicles like Live at the Apollo continue to pull in large viewing figures, McCafferty is intrigued to observe how audiences also continue to tune in to reality shows featuring celebrities being routinely humiliated. He finds it difficult to make sense of this strange dichotomy, and believes that the wicked side of the national psyche is likely to win out in future, ultimately influencing servile commissioners to dream up ever more populist ideas in favour of original comedy that challenges the status quo.
'Take I'm A Celebrity Get Me Out of Here,' he proffers. 'It's a very strange notion that the public aren't bored of that by now. Because they're not even genuine celebrities anymore – nobody knows who they are – it'll end up normal punters in the jungle eating sh*t. Isn't that what Takeshi's Castle is all about? In a sense, it is honest about what it is – it is pure entertainment, there's no sentimentality in it, no meaning. When they get voted off I'm A Celebrity, they may as well get everyone to scream 'F*ck off!' as they're going over the bridge. In the future it'll be called F*ck Off To The Jungle or something like that.'
McCafferty laughs, not entirely joking. As all good comics do, he contemplated testing out the Comedian's material himself in a real world setting, but has received laughs from those who have heard him read from the play in the run up to its premiere, and is therefore relatively confident with the finished product. There remains a thrill-seeking part of him, however, that would love to perform stand-up in public, and he is drawn to the likes of Russell Brand as someone who other aspiring comedians might learn from.
'I don't understand why Russell Brand is getting such a hard time,' McCafferty admits. 'Was it Paxman who interviewed him? I don't mind Paxman, but I thought that was ridiculous. "What are you going to replace democracy with?" Everything isn't sorted out, he's just putting forward a notion. And on the other side of it, there's a manic nature to him that I like, which is maybe part of the addict in him. You feel that he could genuinely go anywhere in his comedy. And the fact that he's wealthy doesn't annoy me.'
Not everyone agrees – there is, alternatively, a large camp of commentators that view Brand's reinvention as a political activist cynically as a means of attracting a new audience after failing to impress in Hollywood. McCafferty seems surprised to learn of this, disappointed even.
'OK. That could be true,' he concedes. 'But I think that he's slightly more honest than Phil Collins living in Switzerland writing songs about people living in cardboard boxes. I could be wrong about that and Brand could be laughing all the way to the bank, but so what. He's not starting a war. It feels like he's engaging, and that makes me think that he probably does believe in all that stuff. If nothing else, [his discourse] gives people the opportunity to say that David Cameron is a d*ckhead, and there's not enough of that. Therefore I admire people like Russell Brand. More power to his elbow.'
And perhaps therein lies McCafferty's true opinion of the Comedian's metamorphosis – while he can understand why artists dumb down when coerced by avaricious agents and confronted by endless rewards, if the shoe were on the other foot, it is highly unlikely that McCafferty would follow suit. Like Brand, or Bill Hicks, or Richard Prior, or Andy Kaufman – comedians who refused to deviate from their chosen paths – McCafferty would conceivably go down raging against the dying of the light.
'I don't know any playwrights who think solely in commercial terms,' he concludes. 'Don't get me wrong, I would like my plays to be staged in Wembley Arena, and for as many people as possible to see them, but I don't write them like that. I couldn't... I wouldn't know how to do that.
'You can only write about what you want to write about, and the types of things I write about aren't everybody's cup of tea. I just have to accept that. These things have to be your own vision. If somebody doesn't like them, there's nothing you can do about that. Ultimately, I think you can fail at this when you start writing things that other people want you to write.'
Death of a Comedian runs in the Lyric Theatre, Belfast from February 7 to March 1, before travelling to the Abbey Theatre, Dublin and the Soho Theatre, London. Enter our competition to win two tickets to the Friday, March 6 show.