INTERVIEW: Jaki McCarrick

Gothic playwright Jaki McCarrick turns a childhood memory of a brutal murder into an award-winning play

‘Northern Ireland is the in thing in London this year,’ Jaki McCarrick says, balancing her sunglasses on top of her head. Her eyes crinkle cheerfully at the corners when she grins and adds deprecatingly, ‘Well, that’s what they tell me.’

The elegant McCarrick’s new play Leopoldville (read the short that Leopoldville was based on here) is set in Newry. At least the version performed by Accidental Theatre  at Blick Shared Studios will be. The play was originally set in Dundalk, McCarrick’s home town, and based on a brutal murder that she remembered hearing about when she was younger.

‘A gang of boys broke into this pub and killed the landlord. They dropped a gas canister on his head.’ She taps a finger against her temple. ‘I couldn’t get that image out of my mind.’

The reason for the change in location was that Accidental Theatre only had a short time to rehearse, ‘… and you couldn’t ask someone to master a Dundalk accent in that time.’

So they moved the setting up to Newry. It’s still a border town, so McCarrick thinks there are more similarities than differences. Besides, if ‘they’ are right then the move might be a lucky one. ‘I’ve always been lucky,’ McCarrick grins. ‘Sometimes I’ve been very lucky.’

McCarrick has certainly had a lot of good fortune come her way over the years, but it’s not the sort of luck you resent. She worked hard for it. Always a prolific writer – winning prizes for her poetry at school – McCarrick went to London and got a job working as a music journalist.

‘I interviewed The Ramones, The Pogues, Gary Glitter,’ McCarrick remembers. ‘Alvin Stardust too, he took my list of questions off me in the interview.’

With her writing focused on non-fiction, McCarrick satisfied her creative side by getting a degree in the performing arts. ‘I did some acting, some choreography, a bit of directing. I still wasn’t writing anything.’ It wasn’t until McCarrick was directing a prestigious – ‘Mo Mowlam sent her private secretary' – cross-border production of Romeo and Juliet that McCarrick took a stab at playwriting.

Writing in the scant down-time between rehearsals McCarrick started the first draft of The Mushroom-Pickers. Inspired by her father’s new girlfriend, who worked on a mushroom farm, the play again dealt the idea of existing on the border. Vague about what she intended to do with the play McCarrick only decided to pursue it further when she won a coveted place at the National Theatre Studio course and was offered the opportunity to stage a production at the Old Vic.

The original offer was to stage it in the Old Vic’s back room – impressive enough for a first time playwright – but after an offered production at Hay-on-Wye fell through The Mushroom-Pickers made it to the main stage.

On the first night two literary agents who were in the audience came backstage and asked to represent McCarrick. That, admittedly, does verge on the jammy.

Encouraged by her agent to concentrate on her writing McCarrick has done just that over the last eight years. Her poetry has been widely published, her agent has just sent a collection of her short stories to Orion and Leopoldville is being staged in London and Belfast just weeks apart.

‘It was one of those things where everything just came together at the right time,’ McCarrick says. ‘I won the 2010 Papatango New Writing Competition with Leopoldville and heard from Richard [Irvine, of Accidental Theatre] that he wanted it for his Rehearsed Reading series. Since the productions would be so close together Papatango agreed to let Accidental Theatre stage it too.’

With the Papatango production at Tristan Bates Theatre hailed as a ‘fantastic, haunting, terrifying play’ and ‘a superbly dark, taut thriller’ is McCarrick worried the Belfast version won’t be as well received?
‘It’s very different,’ she admits. ‘Coming so soon from one production of it to another you really see how the actors influence the mood and tone of the play. But the cast are all brilliant actors. I’m really excited to be working with Accidental Theatre on this.’

Leaving the bar where the interview had taken place McCarrick pauses on the street outside to slip her sunglasses back on. She does hope that people will realize what she was trying to explore with Leopoldville. The audience isn’t meant to identify with the murderers. McCarrick doesn’t, even though they are her main characters. Her sympathies lie with the bar owner, tied up with his own braces and killed so memorably. What she wants is for the audience to understand them.

‘I could never imagine why those boys did that,’ she says. ‘But when I started doing research I realised that the murder took place at the tail-end of the last big depression in Ireland. Those boys didn’t know it was going to end soon, or that it would ever end. So why not do something terrible?’

Read a short story by Jaki McCarrick here.

The Rehearsed Reading of Leopoldville will take place at Blick Studios on May 13 2010.

Tammy Moore