David Hennessy talks to acclaimed Belfast playwright Owen McCafferty about his new play Death of a Comedian which is currently playing at Soho Theatre
Owen McCafferty, well known for plays like Scenes from the Big Picture and last year’s Quietly, explains what inspired him to write his most recent play about a comedian: “I was sort of drawn to the idea that because it’s about immediate gratification in a sense, I was curious to look at the idea of what drives a comedian on, is it the notion of getting more applause or is it what they themselves are saying?”
Death of a Comedian follows Steve Johnston, played by Brian Doherty, on his journey from small comedy club to major arenas, revealing what he sacrifices along the way. Owen himself describes the play as “the story of a man who compromises his art in the pursuit of success, and pays a heavy price for being funny.” Led by a beguiling agent (Shaun Dingwall), Steve’s career takes off but as the stages get bigger, it proves to be at the cost of relationships like the one he has with his loyal girlfriend (Katie McGuinness).
“The further I got into it, for me it wasn’t just about the notion of stand up comedy, it became the idea of looking at art and commercialism and that if you start off with something and you want to be successful in the sense that you want to appeal to more people, in order to do that do you necessarily have to dilute what you’re saying?”
Steve begins wanted to bare his soul until a knowledgeable agent tells him he is going to have to change a few things. In the end, Steve finds his soul was a big thing to change.
Has Owen been conscious of the sacrifices to artistic integrity in order to be successful in theatre? “You can see it happening all the time, I’m not necessarily aware of it in my own career because I wouldn’t consider myself somebody who writes commercial plays so I have never really had to make that decision. So far the plays that I have written don’t seem to have that mass appeal about them so I have never had to confront that but you can see it.”
Owen’s play Scenes from the Big Picture, originally staged at the National Theatre in 2003, earned him the John Whiting Award, the Evening Standard’s Charles Wintour Award for New Playwriting and the Meyer-Whitworth Award. It was the first time any playwright had won all three awards in one year. His last play Quietly, with a theme about reconciliation in Northern Ireland, won a Fringe First in Edinburgh and Best New Play at the Writer’s Guild of Great Britain Awards and was nominated for Best New Play at the Irish Times Theatre Awards.
“In the very first gig, he’s political, raw, very anti-establishment and you can see how he slowly loses that. The agent says to him at one stage, ‘this is the path’ and it’s sort of ‘keep your comedians clean and your politicians dirty’ so the idea I suppose is that, from the agent’s point of view, politicians should be allowed to get on with what they’re doing which is creating conflict and a world of unease and suspicion. Comedians help that by making large amounts of people laugh at things that are bland.”
Newzoids is attempting to pick up the mantle now but does Owen feel the type of satire that Spitting Image used to provide is missing now? “I don’t think it is necessarily gone out of comedy but it doesn’t seem to be as prevalent.
“Even things like Have I Got News for You or Mock the Week make an attempt to be mainstream. Now, that isn’t to say that they aren’t at times anti-establishment or they aren’t at times pointing the finger at somebody but they’re pointing it in a very acceptable way, there’s nothing about that that puts people on edge.
“You can see that with Mock the Week when they got rid of Frankie Boyle, what he was saying was ultimately going to be riskier. Whether he left or he was pushed doesn’t really make any difference. It’s the fact that that show didn’t seem to be able to accommodate someone like him anywhere.
“I don’t know if I’m making a judgement about it or not. I’m just saying that seems to be the way things are going.
“The notion of doing this about stand up comedy is that even if that is true, the comedians are still funny. If you picked a comedian who isn’t political and talks about daily life and talks about bland things, he or she still has the ability to make audiences laugh. It’s that notion. It’s what drives them on, whether it’s laughter or what they’re saying. For some people, it seems to be just the laughter. For other people, it has to be what they say.”
Death of a Comedian plays at Soho Theatre until Saturday May 16, 7.15pm with matinees 3pm and 5pm on Sundays.
For more information, go to www.sohotheatre.com.
Soho Theatre are kindly offering tickets to see Death of a Comedian for £10 to Irish World readers. The usual price is £15-£20. Please quote the code DOACIW when booking to avail of this discount. You will also get 10% off drinks at the Soho Theatre bar. Discount voucher to be issued on collection of tickets, valid for the run of the show until May 16.