Composer Donnacha Dennehy and playwright Enda Walsh’s new opera doesn’t dodge darkness, writes Susan Mansfield
IN JANUARY 2002, a woman’s body was found in a rented house in Dublin. Her name was Rosemary Toole, a former bank teller who suffered from depression. An investigation revealed she had been spotted earlier that week welcoming two American guests at Dublin Airport. They were seen drinking and laughing together in a hotel in County Mayo the day before her death. Police later
issued warrants for the arrests of the two Americans – leading pro-euthanasia campaigners – for assisting in her suicide.
The story stayed with Donnacha Dennehy, one of Ireland’s leading contemporary composers; that picture of those three people laughing and drinking together, the sense of the thing they were about to do. It struck him as a potential subject for an opera. And when he worked with playwright Enda Walsh to create the evocative soundscape for Walsh’s 2011 play Misterman, he knew he had found his ideal collaborator.
“For years, I shied away from writing an opera,” he said. “I had to think of the most heightened playwright I could find to write [the libretto]. Opera suits Enda’s writing in a weird way, the text is so heightened in places. That monologue at the beginning of [his play] The New Electric Ballroom is an aria.” Walsh had long admired Dennehy’s work and readily agreed to work on the story. He grins: “It seemed like a logical thing: let’s do a great big f****** opera, why not?”
Which brings us to a rehearsal room in East London, where Dennehy and Walsh are putting the finishing touches to The Last Hotel prior to its premiere at the Edinburgh International Festival. Walsh, who is also directing, is frequently on his feet working with the four performers – singers Claudia Boyle, Robin Adams and Katherine Manley and actor (and long-time Walsh collaborator) Mikel Murfi, playing the hotel porter, a silent but powerful presence in the drama. Conductor André de Ridder marks time with a pencil, while a pianist does his best to conjure the multi-dimensional score which will be played by Crash Ensemble, the 12-strong contemporary music group Dennehy founded in Dublin in 1997.
Walsh admits that, having heard electronic mock-ups, he’s “dying to hear” the ensemble. “It’s an incredible thing to be in the room with Donnacha’s music. I’ve completely lucked out to be here and part of the making of this. I know it’s mine as well, but for the first time I feel like I’m actually directing someone else’s work.”
The story of The Last Hotel is not Rosemary Toole’s. The protagonist is a successful Irish businesswoman who meets an English couple in a hotel. They spend the day together, talk, drink, sing karaoke. But events are driving towards a conclusion: can they go through with what they intend to do? Will there be a death?
When Walsh talks about the story, he shudders. “When Donnacha first came to me with the idea, the fact that three people, strangers, could find themselves in a room about to do what they’re going to do felt shocking to me. I mean, f***, there’s going to be a suicide, they’re going to gas someone, it’s horrifying. I love seeing ordinary people do extreme, terrifying things. I’ve always felt that we’re all moments away from spiralling into some sort of tragedy. We’re not morally judging any of these people, the three of them just feel as if they’re drifting towards this inevitable conclusion.”
Placing the action entirely in a hotel heightens the sense of isolation. Walsh says: “In a hotel you’re displaced, you’re in a transitory place; they are very potent, lonely places. Looking in a strange mirror, a bathroom mirror where thousands of people have looked in before, is a very isolating experience.” But, at the same time, the work is not without moments of lightness.
Dennehy says: “Enda’s libretto is massively funny in places, you almost forget this thing is about to happen. Then we get to the part where they rehearse her killing herself and it’s shocking to watch, you get carried away with the energy of it.”
Walsh rarely dodges darkness in his work. Since his first hit, the Fringe First-winning Disco Pigs in 1997, he has gone on to write hugely successful plays such as The Walworth Farce and Ballyturk, marked by a verbal energy and a willingness to explore dark, isolated characters.
In recent years, he has taken on a broad range of projects, from writing the Tony Award-winning book for the musical Once to the script for Steve McQueen’s Bobby Sands movie Hunger, and an adaptation of Roald Dahl’s The Twits for the Royal Court. His next project is Lazarus, David Bowie’s new musical, which will open in New York in the autumn.
Dennehy, who is one of the leading figures in Irish contemporary music and teaches at Princeton as well as writing for ensembles all over the world, is known for creating music with a modern energy but which is unafraid of lyricism. His highly acclaimed album, Grá agus Bás (Love and Death), combined a post-minimalist aesthetic with elements of traditional Irish music.
He says he was so inspired by reading Walsh’s libretto for The Last Hotel that he sat down and wrote the score “in a blaze”.
“It was just one of those experiences that takes you over. I just really felt it, some days I was doing 12-hour days, it was an intoxicating, addictive thing to do.”
He says the music expresses the collisions between worlds: the abstract and the everyday; the insular world of the hotel room and the world outside; depth and surface; text and subtext. The characters are ordinary people who talk about carpets and kitchen extensions, and find themselves caught up in events bigger than themselves.
“Everyone is protecting themselves with banalities,” Dennehy says. “The best form to show that is opera, the collision between the mundane and this great feeling of yearning against what the world is imposing on them.”
Walsh says he has enjoyed working with the opera form because it offers such rich opportunities for exploring subtext. “I know the direction of my plays in the last few years has been to do with holding back information, dealing with atmosphere and form and avoiding story. Here, the writing is quite spare compared to theatre. You can hold on to moments, dive deeper into the soul of characters, swim around the subtext a lot more. The situation itself seemed so huge, I felt really confident that the audience would stay with that.”
While the characters prevaricate and try to resist their fate, the music becomes like an engine which drives the action along.
“When they feel small, the music is large around them. They are emboldened by the form, when they’ve begun, they can’t really stop. There is a feeling that they must keep on singing, that if they stop they’re going to fall off this terrible precipice. When they enter the hotel lobby and that music starts, the wheels have started moving.”
The Last Hotel is at the Royal Lyceum Theatre, until 12 August, 8pm / listings
Published in The Scotsman on 8 August
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