Shaun Dunne and Talking Shop Ensemble are teaming up once again, this time to consider the revelations and disillusionments of contemporary Ireland. Dunne himself has been going to psychic mediums for answers, which we will learn all about at their ABSOLUT Fringe show Do You Read Me?. I talked to Dunne and TSE’s Oonagh Murphy about their friendship, their work, and my obvious despondency from pop cultural references.
So, what number Fringe is this for you guys? Although, you have only started working together recently.
Oonagh: For Shaun it’s his second and for Talking Shop Ensemble it’s their third. We started the conversation of working together at Fringe last year, having seen each other’s shows …
Shaun: … having seen each other across a crowded room (laughs).
What was it about the two of you that attracted you to each other?
Shaun: There’s a thread between us already in terms of dialogue and taste of things we’re interested in. So for me it makes sense to work with her.
Oonagh: I think you know when you’re talking to somebody whether they get the way you work. Some people will give an interesting response and some people will tell you something about your work that you knew on a certain level or weren’t able to express yourself. I know for me after speaking to Shaun when he saw our show in Fringe last year it felt like he should have been in the room at the time. Somebody who understands the way you’re working or what you’re trying to do.
So, there are psychics in this show.
Shaun: We wanted to make a show about Ireland, that’s like our combined thing: we want to talk about Ireland and we want to talk about Dublin. I wanted to make a show about this culture of revelation that’s going on in Ireland at the moment. ‘We didn’t know this happened, we didn’t know this happened, it’s awful’. And there’s this huge feeling that everybody’s kind of reeling, everybody’s taking it in. A lot of people don’t know where to turn to now. They can’t go to the church anymore. They don’t trust the government, the banks. We’re all very much in shock. What I approached doing with the Talking Shop girls was making a show that dealt with this kind of loss in guidance. We wanted to find an interesting device, and I was always interested in the subject of psychic mediums.
And how we researched it was: I drew the short straw and went to visit psychic mediums. So, the show chronicles that experience and the things that were told to me, and things that spoke to me and to us and the country. Something that speaks to all of us now about belief and where to go next. So that’s why we’re excited about this gig: it’s based on reality. It’s based on actual meetings. What we’re not trying to do is expose anybody. We’re not talking about frauds. We’re not talking about Derek Acorah.
Shaun and Oonagh: Derek Acorah.
Shaun: That guy that was on Most Haunted.
Oonagh: He was exposed as an absolute fraud. And he’s made loads of money from it and it was a huge thing. We’re not really interested in that.
Shaun: What we’re trying to talk about is people and how we’re coping and what we need to cope. Where the tools are, where the faith is, do we need faith anymore? It’s very much about blind faith and the notion of religion. All of us that are involved in the cast or any element of the production were raised in Catholic households.
Oonagh: When the child abuse scandals came out in the late Nineties we would have been in our early teens. You’re making your confirmation in the same year that the church is falling apart. What does that mean? You become an adult in an institution as it becomes nothing. For us starting conversations we asked “what do you believe now”? It’s not trendy to ask: “what do you believe in now”? Yet once we started to say ‘this is what our show is about’, suddenly everybody was talking to us about it. And it’s very much so present in our lives day-to-day and it becomes a shorthand. Once you start everybody’s much more open to it and we’re more versed in spirituality than we give ourselves credit for.
The whole culture of defection from the church is very much in our conversations. I have a lot of friends who have made a very formal and intricate and long process defecting from the church. I don’t know a huge amount of theatre that has responded to that just yet. It’s definitely something that has been in my mind and that I’m trying to figure out for myself. You ask questions about yourself as to whether you continue to go to mass on Christmas Day and all those kind of things. That’s all been part of the conversations we’ve been having.
Shaun: I enjoyed Communion. I enjoyed Confirmation. I enjoyed the money I got (laughs) but there was also a pleasance in the ritual of it. So much of our habits are still wrapped up in that. You bless yourself when an ambulance goes by. You bless yourself when you’re crossing a church.
Oonagh: What are funerals without a church? How do you say goodbye to the dead when you don’t have prayers?
Shaun: We’re trying to explore that process of abandonment, of disillusion. But we’re also trying to talk about how important it is that we don’t become hardened by this. That we try to find comfort. We’re trying to hold onto something – not that it be something in the church, that’s not necessarily where the answer is either – but I think the answer is in not letting yourself ice over.
Shaun: Because I think that’s something that this country particularly is in huge danger of. It’s something that concerns me. And I hope it’s not the case.
It’s interesting. You guys are obviously passionate, and with Homebird as well, about topical things. It’s like there’s a generation of people, or even a nation, that are falling through the cracks and the theatre you make is trying to find how we can rebuild everything.
Oonagh: It’s true. I think there’s a generation of theatre-makers who feel exactly the same way. I’m allergic to people not giving a sh*t. I really think it’s important now to begin to give a sh*t, and that was the impetus behind Homebird. I was sick of people saying “meh”. What is that? So, maybe we’re not politicians and maybe we’re a little bit more idealistic than the next young person but I think it’s important to start those conversations and to start to dissect the belief structures that we allow ourselves to fall into.
Shaun: And that’s something that is very prevalent in our work: we’re not interested in prescribing answers to people. I don’t want to go: “this is right/this is wrong, mediums are real/mediums are fake, immigration is right/immigration is wrong”. What I’m saying is: consider the situation. Think about it a little more thoroughly and think about how it applies to your life.
Oonagh: Thinking about it in a very humane way.
Shaun: Yeah, regardless what you’re going to do. As long as you’re thinking about it. We want to encourage thinking. Which could sound really obnoxious. “I want you to think” (laughs).
Oonagh: (laughs) It sounds really patronising. “We’re going to sit you down for an hour and make you think”.
Shaun: But I think we also understand why you wouldn’t.
Oonagh: Yes, and how easy it is not to think.
Shaun: I always say it would be so easy to shut off to everything, just walk through the city looking at all the bright lights. But realistically we can’t do that.
It sounds like you’re not necessarily responding to a broken Ireland but an unresponsive one.
Oonagh: Maybe, yeah. An apathetic Ireland. Just giving up. Just put on life support and left to be a vegetable. That’s what we’re looking to resuscitate.
Do you want to make any predictions of your own about Ireland in the future?
Oonagh: We will win the Eurovision again in the next ten years. We’ll have gone back to our roots. We’ll be better then.
Shaun: Eventually Jedward will run for president. I think, please God hopefully, what’s going to happen to Ireland is that we’re slowly but surely going to come around. We’re going to stop being so devastated. Or hopefully start to apply that devastation to something constructive. I think there’s so much work to be done.
Oonagh: I would say, to be a little bit pessimistic and then more optimistic, I think we’re going to go through a period of political conservatism and financial austerity, and then we’ll break on through to the other side.
Shaun: And then we’re having a gaff party.
Oonagh: And then we’re having a massive gaff party. We’ll call you up and we’ll be like: “this is the future”.
Shaun: I don’t think the future is bleak. I refuse to believe that. I think in 2012 when they say the world is going to end there’s going to be some spiritual … I don’t know …
Oonagh: Dawning of the Age of Aquarius. We’re not actually as mental as we sound.
Do You Read Me? runs Sept 8-16 at Smock Alley Theatre.