Living in Exile
The cast of The Kingdom: Gary Liburn, Anthony Delaney and Owen O'Neill
By David Hennessy
A new play by Colin Teevan, the celebrated Dublin playwright of Kafka’s Monkey and The Bee, tells the story of an Irish navvy working in London who can just not escape his home and his past. Using Sophocles’s Oedipus the King as a foundation, Teevan’s new play transfers the Greek myth to a London construction site. Inspired by John Murphy’s obituary, Teevan decided to marry the two very different legends together.
“I read his obituary in The Guardian,” the playwright explains. “I thought it was an extraordinary life so it was in the back of my head when Lucy asked me to do the play. She was interested in a Dickensian version of Oedipus. In the original version, Oedipus Rex, he’s called Oedipus Tyrannus, Oedipus the Tyrant. What they meant by that in Ancient Greece was quite the hard man, the big man and Murphy was that. Murphy was this extraordinary larger than life character. He built a huge empire out of nothing, provided a place for Irish people to work for five decades. I was intrigued by that and I dug into the Murphy story.
“What was interesting was he had these epic fallings out with his brothers, the company was nearly brought down in the seventies by one of the biggest fraud investigations of any company but he survived all these extraordinary ups and downs, then had a daughter when he was in his seventies who was the one who inherited the whole company. If you know the Oedipus myth, it’s interesting. It was a very interesting world to look at and BBC television has since we’re discussing a series based on the same material so we might be seeing more of it on our screens.
“The play is in no way about John Murphy but as a way of providing context and background, I mean there’s a character referred to as the Elephant Sean. I heard so many names from that world, Concrete Mick and strangely it gives it a larger than life feel. He was very much the catalyst but it is in no way a representation of John Murphy.”
The play sees Anthony Delaney, Owen O’Neill and Gary Liburn all playing the same man at different stages of his life. After committing a crime, he leaves home and reinvents himself in the big city. Home and where we make our home is one of the powerful themes: “The thing is Oedipus is notoriously known as a story ultimately about incest and obviously that’s there. It is actually a story about exile. Oedipus runs away from the place he thinks is home because he is told he will kill his father and sleep with his mother. He goes to a where he is a stranger and becomes king by solving the riddle and then actually finds that this is home. Then he is cast out from his true home. I was intrigued by how he is exiled from both his new home and his adopted home. I was looking at that in the context of the Irish in Britain, certainly that generation that came over in the fifties. For another project, I came over an extraordinary statistic: Of the generation that was born in the Republic of Ireland in the 1930s, that’s my parents’ generation, four out of every five emigrated. Likewise at one point, my mother and father had five children that were in four different continents and none of them in Ireland.”
The play poses the question: Once you leave home, can it ever be home in the same way again as you change through your journey? “I think the Irish have a very island mentality. I think to deal with emigration, they block you out as they’ve done their grieving. I think one is never fully English or fully Irish again. That’s also where the Oedipus myth felt very true for this story. These stories don’t belong to one culture, they belong to all culture. I quite like re appropriating the great stories.”
Another question the play asks is: Can one escape the sins of their own past? “In the story, he’s got quite a big sin in his past. Somebody said at the Q and A last night ‘it’s a very fatalistic view. Surely when you emigrate, you can completely reinvent yourself’. Again with Oepidus, whatever he does, he can’t escape his history. You will never fully escape who you are. I suppose in one sense I was very lucky to opt to emigrate when I wanted to. I had the university education and it’s very different to the people that came over in the fifties.
“My kids find it very funny when I called myself a dissident writer when the Celtic Tiger was there because I never believed it and also, I was very shocked by what it did to Irish people and how materialistic the whole society became. My kids find it funny that there’s no ambiguity in my support when Ireland are playing rugby. In one sense, I embrace London, one of the great cities of the world, but on the other hand, I can’t escape where I come from. I was exploring that in the context of the story. However much he calls himself a self-made man, he can never fully escape his past.”
For the full interview see November 10 Irish World