Becoming Carville

Armagh playwright and screenwriter Darragh Carville talks tactics

On a balmy spring night in 1996, the audience in Belfast’s Old Museum Arts Centre buzzed with the kind of excitement that you rarely experience outside of a music gig. From teenagers to twentysomethings, this was no ordinary theatre audience, because this was no ordinary play.

Language Roulette was a slick, street-wise dark comedy about a group of friends who played games with the truth. Set in contemporary Belfast, it didn’t preach and it didn’t pull any punches. The fast-paced, flick-knife sharp script was free from the clichés and stereotypes that littered so many Northern Irish dramas. There was new voice in NI theatre. Daragh Carville had arrived.

Language Roulette, directed by Tim Loane (who went on to write the comedy Teachers for Channel 4 and the satirical plays Caught Red Handed and To Be Sure), wowed critics and audiences in Belfast, London, Edinburgh and a New Hampshire, USA. Carville continued with Dumped, Observatory, Family Plot, various radio dramas and his first feature film, Middletown. The Armagh writer wanted to show a different side to NI.

'Studying in Thatcher’s Britain I thought all plays had to be political. I was trying to write plays about the Greenham Common women and really not knowing anything about Greenham Common. Frankly, not knowing anything about women either.

'When I lived in England and France all of the images of NI on the news were like something from terrible movies. When I moved back home in 1994 I wanted to write something that was like the Northern Ireland that I knew. I’d been reading a comic book by Garth Ennis. It was set here and all the characters spoke with NI accents. That was a breakthrough for me because I realised that it was OK to write the way my family and friends spoke.'

Language Roulette brought Carville the prestigious Stewart Parker Award and a host of fans both at home and abroad. When Dublin's Peacock Theatre commissioned Observatory in 1999, it also premiered to rave reviews. An odd mix of sci-fi and gothic thriller, the play explored the lives of four characters working in the Armagh Observatory in 1799 and 1999.

'I’m from Armagh and I’m very proud of it,' admits Carville. 'It has an amazing heritage. I became interested in a man called Robert Hog who worked in the Armagh observatory at the end of the 18th century. He was a United Irishman who was a Presbyterian Minister and an astronomer. I thought this combination of man of faith, man of science and revolutionary made him remarkably interesting. The Armagh Observatory itself is a beautiful 18th century building with all of its original features, but it’s also a modern observatory with hi-tech equipment. I wanted to capture that duality.'

This duality is part of Carville’s artistic DNA. His plays are rooted in reality but have a strong sense of the surreal, weaving a little weirdness into the dramatic fabric. From the unnerving soap-opera style repetition in Language Roulette and the dizzying temporal jumps in Observatory, to the downright bizarre voices from beyond the grave in Family Plot, these worlds are recognisably our own and yet out of sync with reality.

'I think Joss Whedon is a genius. Harold Pinter is a hero of mine, not only as a writer but as a politically engaged citizen. Honestly, I can be as influenced by Batman as Beckett and I don’t see any problem with that. Beckett was influenced by silent comedy and the music hall, which was the popular culture of his day. It’s what you do with your influences that’s important.'

Carville’s 2001 radio play for the BBC, Regenerations, featured Tom Baker. For someone so interested in sci-fi, did Carville manage to meet Dr Who?

'Not for Regenerations. I’d met him before though. He’s very entertaining. My mate Colin was interviewing him for the BBC and I went along. We heard he likes a drink so we asked him if he’d like to go to The Crown. He produced a large roll of cash, handed us a tenner and said he couldn’t go but that he’d like to buy us a drink. So, Dr Who gave me a tenner. Might have been a nice way of saying 'go away', though!'

In 2005 Carville returned to the theatre with Family Plot, featuring a family for whom death is no hindrance to a good old squabble. With its theme of broken families and long-held grudges, many saw the play as a metaphor for Northern Ireland at large. The same subtext was found the following year in Carville’s screenwriting debut, Middletown.

Set in NI, the film sees warped preacher Gabriel (played by Matthew McFadyen of Pride and Prejudice and Spooks) fighting to control his corrupt community while trying to save his own fractured sanity. There were obvious parallels between the film and Family Plot.

'I wasn’t deliberately commenting on NI or Paisley or anything else, which some journalists suggested. I wanted to tell a Biblical story about two brothers at war with each other, fighting over the heart and soul of their land. It was only afterwards that I realised, wait a minute, that is Northern Ireland.'

The film was another of Carville’s hybrids, a dark fable and a modern western. Its reality gauge was perhaps a little too off-kilter for mainstream audiences. But there's no doubt that cinema needs screenwriters like the genre-splicing Carville, someone who takes risks by defying the conventions which others freely recycle and produces work which is sometimes challenging, often unique and always thought provoking.