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‘Brechtian seanchaí punk’

Little John Nee told David Hennessy about bringing his show Nettle Horse, which contains a dystopian future but some matters and messages for the present day, to London for its UK premiere at the Irish Cultural Centre.

Award- winning writer, actor and musician Little John Nee brings his lauded show Nettle Horse to London for its UK premiere at the Irish Cultural Centre in Hammersmith next month.

Based in the west of Ireland Little John Nee is an award-winning writer, performer and musician. He has developed a unique style of musical storytelling theatre that can be simultaneously hilarious and heart-breaking, winning him both national and international recognition.

Little John has been commissioned to write plays for Barabbas Theatre Company, Axis Ballymun, Scottish Touring Theatre Consortium, An Grianán Theatre, Earagail Arts Festival, Donegal Co. Council, Leitrim Co. Council, and Galway Arts Festival.

A prolific creator of work for Irish theatre, in recognition of his contribution to Irish arts, Little John Nee was elected to Aosdána, (the distinguished group of artists whose work has been deemed by the Government of Ireland, to have made an outstanding contribution to the creative arts in Ireland).

The well known Irish ballad singer Mary Coughlan said: “Everyone needs to see this and experience the magic that is John Nee! I’ve had the great pleasure of working with him and knowing him for more than thirty years. Book your tickets!”

Nettle Horse comes straight from it’s recent sell- out Irish tour.

Little John Nee told The Irish World: “I am so delighted to be coming to London with Nettle Horse.

“London is my alma mater.

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“I went there when I was 17.

“When I left Donegal, I went to London and it was 1977 so it was a really exciting time to be there.

“I’m just so excited to be able to bring this show there.”

Did you enjoy your time in London? “It was really fantastic.

“It was the time of squats so I was squatting in Islington and Stoke Newington and I was a very good age for it. I was 17 and I stayed there until I was 22 so I experienced the whole punk thing and seen all the great bands.

“I used to be down to the Marquee a lot then as well but also that led into the alternative cabaret scene up in Dalston junction.

“That had a tremendous effect on me.

“It was the time as well for performance poetry.

“Coming from Ireland, you’re used to all the great dead poets but to be able to see John Cooper Clarke and  Linton Kwesi Johnson was really inspirational.

“When I came back to Ireland in 1982, I started off doing a character called The Zen McGonagal, inspired by the poet McGonagall that Spike Milligan often refers to.

“It was a mixture of street theatre and poetry.

“It’s inspired an awful lot and informed by an awful lot of what would have been happening in the London years.

“As a teenager in Donegal the name Hammersmith would have meant something to me just because of Bowie.

“I also worked a lot on the building sites in London so I’m looking forward to going seeing if there’s some buildings still standing.”

The show is described as a magical, unforgettable night of storytelling, musical theatre and a theatrical odyssey set in the future.

The story is set in a future where hundreds of dispossessed families travel west after winning a lottery orchestrated by an unscrupulous local councillor at the behest of Dandelion Ní Houlihan, a mysterious 103 year Bostonian benefactor seeking beatification.

All roads lead to Gortnapuca where gangs of carpenters sleep ten to a tent in anticipation of a building frenzy, Mink Devine is selling edible beetles, and a small boy finds solace amidst the chaos by befriending a horse in a circus field.

I have read the comments by everyone from Mary Coughlan to various outlets and heard audience members say it is ‘joyful’, ‘uplifting’ and ‘invigorating’.

But what comes up again and again is that it is hard to describe...

“I don’t know how to describe it.

“I’d say it’s magical, it’s fun.

“I think that it was really difficult trying to get money off the Arts Council for it- Which I didn’t- Because I couldn’t describe it.

“Someone did describe it as a children’s show for adults.

“I describe my work as gentle punk.

“I suppose it would be coming from the tradition of storytelling Irish seanchaí  style but it’s not immersed in the past.

“Although the music might not be what we would consider the punk genre, the attitude is very much like that.

“It’s hard to describe.

“There’s a lot of comedy and satire.

“There’s a lot of references to contemporary things and because it’s set in the future, we can play a bit with that.

“I would say it’s coming from a cabaret tradition as well.

“I suppose Brechtian seanchaí punk, influenced by Motown as well.

“It’s all those elements.

“I’m 64 years old now so it’s all the things that have ever influenced me from music hall to punk and wherever, Lou Reed makes a ghostly guest appearance there as well.

“People seem to love it. That’s the joy of it.

“It’s very playful.

“There’s audience participation but I don’t coerce people into participating.

“People just seem to want to sing along with the songs and things like that.”

The story centres around an American heiress who is told she’s going to die.

She decides she wants to be cryogenically preserved and resolves to do charitable deeds first but her priority is really her own interest.

To this end she gives away 5,000 acres of land in Ireland to homeless people who live in their cars.

She also builds a pyramid in the West of Ireland so she can stay there with all her wealth while she’s waiting for medicine to bring her back to health.

A local politician gets involved exploits a new law that if you have a horse for your farm, you can build a stable without planning permission.

With no planning permission required, people are promised the chance of living in a stable which is better than what they have.

So it all leads to a horse fair and all the people will get their land that they’ve won in a lottery with all the carpenters and builders standing by to build these stables.

“It is dystopian.

“There’s a strong Grapes of Wrath influence referencing that whole image of okies going west, displaced people moving west to the promise of a brighter future and being exploited by greedy politicians. That’s an element of it as well but I wanted it to be very light.

“In dark times, it’s humour that really carries us through.
“I really wanted to load the show with humour and a lightness to it and to have some really positive aspects.

“That’s why the horse comes into it very much as well.

“They’re incredible beasts.

“One of the ways that the future could be a brighter and better place to be was if there was more horses.

“There’s referential stuff to trauma as well, there’s this little boy whose mother’s an addict so he’s a bit abandoned and she’s struggling with addiction.

“My character Mink Divine, who’s inspired by Mink DeVille, sees this young boy.

“He remembers meeting a horse when he was a child and how his life was influenced by being with the horse and the temperament of horses, that elemental side of ourselves that responds to being with horses or being with nature and the hope that’s in that.

“It leads into this dream.

“The message of the show is that we need to dream.

“The bad guys are all dreaming all the time.

“They’re dreaming up stuff and their dreams are coming true and we need to dream harder ourselves.

“It is the very real power of dreams, you know?

“And the example of that is the greedy people with their greedy dreams, how they managed to manifest them.

“It’s up to the more altruistic people ourselves to dream as well and to dream hard for a better world.

“I had done a series of futuristic shows set in the west of Ireland.

“I think the human spirit needs work that gives us courage.

“I think that no matter how dark we get the work, in some way, should inspire courage in audiences and some sense of hope.

“Particularly as I’ve done a few, when I got to this one, I thought I’d be more playful.

“It’s very much a joyful and optimistic show.

“It’s about the beauty of people as well. Very much it’s about the beauty of people.

“It is about a man selling edible beetles at a horse fair.

“With that as a backdrop, there’s so many absurd situations arise.

“Beckett would be a big influence as well.

“Flann O’Brien would be a big influence.

“2028 and 2035 are the two main periods.

“There’s a line, ‘On the whims of the wealthy, the poor’s are sustained’.

“There is that issue about homelessness and people living in their cars which is relevant in Ireland as I’m sure it is in the UK at the moment.

“That is referenced strongly and partly intertwined with the imagery of the grapes of wrath and people living in their cars with lots of everything on top.

“It’s families on the move looking for a place to set up a home.

“That’s one of the strong images with it and also the the narcissism of the wealthy and the power of the wealthy relating to this Boston heiress who wants to be fondly remembered so she’s doing altruistic deeds.

“Within that you’ve got an exploitative Irish politician- which is almost cliche in the sense of it’s so common: The corrupt county councillor who wrangles planning permission.

“That’s a common thing in Ireland, hopefully not as much as it was.

“But he’s exploiting.

“You’ve got this woman who wants to be altruistic just for purely narcissistic reasons and you’ve got the Vatican getting involved in that kind of advising her, and then you’ve got this politician character who’s exploiting this for his own ends.

“Then you’ve got these vulnerable people who are just beautiful, ordinary creative people who are just trying to make the most out of life.

“Whether it be the woman who runs stall selling the beetles or the musician who has just returned from America where there is a civil war. There’s not much reference made to that except for the fact that his girlfriend dumped him for a vegan greengrocer with an AK 47.

“Something I feel very strongly as well is that for so long our politicians In Ireland have referred to ‘the American dream’ as something that we should all aspire to.

“We see conditions in America are quite grotesque really.

“The UK led the world with the NHS and the intention of those times, a time in the world when the welfare of people, hard won rights like education and health and housing inspired the world, I think.

“It definitely had an influence in Ireland as well that these things were something that a society should aspire to.

“Whereas now basically any social advantages or any social situations that are created to benefit poor people tend to be really ultimately for the benefit of opportunist capitalists, like housing: The way that so many people in direct provision are put up in hotels or places where people can make money out of it. Cronyism and all this.

“That kind of comes into it. It’s more referred to or alluded to. It’s part of it. I don’t feel the need to dwell, to delve too deeply into these things because they’re really obvious in the thing and I think people can see for themselves and know what’s referred to here the fact that people are sleeping in their cars.”

This will also be the first time Little John has ever brought a show to London.

“I’ve been looking forward to going to London.

“For me to actually go over and do a show is a real thrill and a treat for me and a dream come true to tell you the truth and particularly this show because when I first thought I’d be going I thought, ‘What show will I bring?’

“I thought maybe this show is a bit too far out and I said, ‘No, this is the show to bring’.

“This is the most Irish show.

“It’s far out in the Flann O’Brien sense.”

Little John’s play Sparkplug won an Irish Times Theatre Award, the RTE radio version won a Special Mention Prize at the Prix Italia 2013.

“That was brilliant. That was for sound design.

“I thought, ‘Oh God, how unworthy am I?’

“Because when I think of all of my peers and contemporaries, the brilliant music they make…

“But I guess the fact that I got it was a credit to them as well.

“The fact that for so long I’ve always been arguing for live music in theatre and I’ve always employed live musicians in my theatre shows.

“I suppose over the years I have been learning an awful lot from them so it  rubbed off.”

Mary Coughlan and many more have been very complimentary about the show..

“There’s lots of people like Christy Moore and John Prine who have said very positive things about my work.

“When you are kind of a bit left field or quirky, it’s really good when you get people like that, who you really admire, who enjoy the work and speak up for the work.”

Little John Nee brings Nettle Horse to the Irish Cultural Centre in Hammersmith 1- 2 June.

For tickets, click here. 

For more information about John, click here.

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