I live in Dublin, Ireland. Sometimes. Most times I live in my head, quite unaware of my surroundings – if you know what I mean… If you succeed in tracking Sean Walsh, please let me know, ok? I've been searching for him for years…
ON THE NIGHT OF March 27 at All Hollows, Dublin 9, the curtain came down on the third and last performance of At the Praetorium. (Last but hopefully not final!) Later, Sean Walsh reluctantly agreed to a Press Conference. (He is quite shy, really, hates beating his own drum…)
So there he was, on the rostrum, mineral water to hand, seated before an array of microphones, taking questions from the floor…
Q: (Wexford People) Were you surprised at the turnout?
SEAN: Gobsmacked. I mean, the weather was cat that evening. Snow, sleet, freezing. I began to wonder, who in their right senses would venture out on such a night? As we used to say in another age, “You wouldn’t put out a milk bottle…”
Q: (Limerick Leader) Yet you had a full house?
SEAN: Near enough. 200+! I couldn’t believe it! And what an audience! You could hear a pin drop! And then as the lights went down on the final scene, applause! applause! No holding back! Increasing in volume as the cast came back on to take a bow… Father Martin and the Director, Breffni McGuiness, then stepped out of the shadows for a final word of thanks all round.
Q: (National Catholic Reporter) You will have noticed that the applause increased in volume even further when you were called upon to say a final few words?
SEAN: I was hoping you wouldn’t mention that… Yes, it did, didn’t it?.. Their way of saying, I suppose, they had never witnessed a play quite like it until now.
Q: (The Skibereen Eagle) You would describe your piece as a Passion play – with a difference?
Sean: I dislike the term, I really do. It conjures up holy women, flying angels, celestial shepherds. I have absolutely no interest in writing a morality play in the traditional mould. I set myself the task of writing about ordinary human beings on the horns of a dilemma. Caught in crisis. Having to make a decision. Nothing black and white about it. It is almost – if not quite – incidental that the piece is set against the backdrop of the first Good Friday.
Q: (Der Spiegel) Obviously, your drama did not come to you out of the blue? Can you trace its growth?
SEAN: I reckon the idea began to germinate back in the sixties when I was a visitor in the Big Apple. I found Greenwich Village – as it was then – quite fascinating. There I saw Theatre-in-the-Round for the very first time – I was amazed… Then one evening I went to a cinema quite off Broadway to see a film, The Gospel According to Matthew, directed by a young, relatively unknown Italian, Pier Paulo Pasolini. In black and white. Stark, barren landscapes. A cast of extras, no big names, no stars. So different from the Hollywood treatment of the Christ story. I was blown away… I emerged from that cinema into a humid New York night. And the thought came to me – why not the Passion according to Matthew? That was the start of a long road.
Q: (The Scottish Sunday Post) You’re talking fifty years ago, and more. This has to be the longest germination in history!
SEAN: Well, I was doing other things, had to. But I kept coming back to what I knew was a rich idea – reading, researching, taking notes, asking questions, sketching outlines, scenes. As often as I put the project aside it resurfaced… Then, a few years ago, I met and became friendly with Father Martin Hogan, then a chaplain attached to my own parish of Corpus Christi, Drumcondra, and a lecturer in Sacred Scripture at Mater Dei… He became my mentor, came to my rescue again and again when I got bogged down in exegesis. And when he asked me to write a short play that could be done in our church, I produced a piece about Pilate, his wife, her servant, a centurion – in which the central character does not appear but is constantly referred to…
Q: (Il Tempo) But no prisoners?
SEAN: They were lurking in the background! Let me explain: back in the 80’s I wrote and directed a drama for radio, Three for Calvary. It was broadcast on RTE Radio One. The late Eamon Keane as Barabbas. Three prisoners in a cell in the dungeons beneath the Praetorium, the Roman fortress in Jerusalem, symbol of colonial power and conquest… Who were they? What were they? How did they spend their last night on earth? I had to get in there, sense their despair, smell their sweat, taste their tears, share their confinement. Ending with the release of Barabbas, leaving him in a daze, centre stage, alone with the Roman officer:
– Where will you go?
– Go?.. Why to Golgotha. I want to be near Dismas and Gestas when it gets darker and darker.
– You’ll be near the crosses, I’ll see to it.
– Besides, I…
– I want to look on the man who goes up in my place…
Just last March it began to dawn on me: marry the two plays – a kind of upstairs, downstairs scenario – and you have yourself an hour-long Drama! Call it Learning to Write a Play for Slow Learners… Adapting the radio version for stage was a snip.
Q: (The Guardian) But did they really gel? Or was there something out of kilter?
SEAN: Well, you were there on Wednesday night, saw for yourself! You tell me… Personally I thought it moved along, seamlessly. End of story.
Q: (The Times) Was that the complete chain, then, or was there still a link missing?
SEAN: The original version ended with Pilate’s sudden dismissal of Joseph of Arimathea:
– Enough! You vex me further at your peril! Now go – see to this cadaver. I rule the living – not the dead!..
Crescendo, yes. But more than a whit abruptly. The audience was thrown, they needed more, wanted a smoother landing… I began to mull, as is my wont.
In June, a few years back, my wife and I rented an apartment in Paris. I wanted to view the Rembrant exhibition in the Louvre, his profile of the Christ. I was fascinated by the various sketches the Master made as he tried one thing, then another, searching for a real-life portrait of Jesus. (These were mounted on the walls of the exhibition area.) Fascinated, too, by his modus agendi: it seems he recruited one Jew after another from among the local population in his home town, had them back to his apartment, sit for him while he sketched… And so to the original, the finished work, a portrait of Christ like no other before… A true original that spurned the unreal images of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance… I could only stand in awe and wonderment.
No, let me finish! The next morning I rose early, made tea, sat at the table by the window, reached for paper and pen… That exhibition had triggered something in me and within the hour I had completed the first draft of what was to become – several drafts later – the final scene: Pilate rises, turns to his officer, incredulous –
– Do I hear you aright? They want me to send soldiers under my command to guard a tomb?
A tomb!? Why, I would be the laughing stock of the Empire!.. Go tell them, the Governor of Judaea will not be privy to this folly!.. They have guards of their own, have they not, mercenaries in their pay? Well, then, let them see to it…
Q: (The Limerick Leader) Which brings me neatly to my question: the style of writing differs each time the storyline moves upstairs. Is this deliberate?
SEAN: I would say so, yes. The scenes in the cell, ordinary, everyday dialogue. Upstairs, the dialogue goes up a notch or two. More stylised, a greater emphasis on assonance and alliteration. Without appearing contrived, hopefully… With a respectful nod towards A Man for All Seasons and Murder in the Cathedral, to mention but two sources of inspiration…
SEAN: One more question and I’ll have to call it a day, I’m very tired… Yes? The young lady at the back to my right, thank you:
Q: (Le Figaro) Oh, merci… I would like to ask if you –
SEAN: But of course! Yes! Why not? Love to!……… Have dinner with you..
Sean smiling coyly… the Parisienne confused, blushing… the ladies and gentlemen of the Media breaking up… in good spirits.…