The playwright Dermot Bolger was locking his bicycle outside the International Bar one day some years ago when he heard a familiar voice coming from the pub.
“That’s my play,” realised Bolger. It was coming from the International’s tiny upstairs theatre.
He snuck in, and found his one-man show, In High Germany, being performed to a two-man audience. Too late to back out, Bolger sat down to watch. He was astounded.
It was the best performance of the play he had seen since its premiere. The actor was wonderful. At the end, he was overcome. He rose to speak.
“I don’t normally do this,” he excused himself, “but I’m the author of the play, and I just wanted to say, that was one of the greatest performances of it I’ve seen.”
Then one of the two others in the audience stood up. “I don’t normally do this,” he said to Dermot and the third man, “but I’m the director of the play, and I just wanted to acknowledge that that was the best performance of it we’ve done yet.”
They both looked to the remaining punter — the sole audience member not connected with the play. He stood up. “I don’t normally do this,” he said, “but I’m a theatre critic, and . . .”
Bolger has been a prolific and influential, but low-profile, writer for 30 years. His latest play, Tea Chests and Dreams, is at the Axis in Ballymun from April 11 to 14 (www.axis-ballymun.ie) and then at the Civic in Tallaght on April 20 and 21 (www.civictheatre.ie).
Bolger has had a fruitful association with the Axis since it opened, and believes its success has been one of the great stories of Irish theatre of the last 10 years. In a place with little culture of theatre they have steadily built one, and have done so in large part by reflecting the community back at themselves.
Bolger’s last play was The Parting Glass, which revisited the character of In High Germany 20 years on. Both sought to probe the state of the nation through the story of a soccer fan (first at Euro ’88, and then on the night of Thierry Henry’s infamous handball). But Bolger never got to enjoy the play. His wife, Bernie, died suddenly. In the struggle to cope, he thought he’d never write again.
Almost a year later, he took out an old radio play and wondered could it be the basis for something longer. The character was a young wife in a new house in Tallaght in the early 1970s. As Bolger revisited her, he was startled to find himself laughing aloud at the things she said. He realised there were two Dermot Bolgers: one, the man, would never be the same, but the other, the writer, knew how to write, despite the loss, and needed to do so.
The realisation came accompanied with guilt — how could he be enjoying himself whilst in mourning? But he worked through it, and found a set of new characters to accompany that first young woman.
Tea Chests and Dreams tells the stories of five mothers and their daughters, all of whom have moved onto the same street in Tallaght, at different times.
Bolger thinks his instinct to write may have started with the death of his mother, when he was a boy. He “began to invent a fictitious world where she wasn’t actually dead”. He used fantasy to substitute for reality. When Bernie died, he thought reality had finally extinguished that sense of fantasy.
But this new play was his way back into it. The process has clearly been hard, but he speaks of the play with quiet pride, and a gentle sense of wonder at these characters that keep creating themselves.
For 30 years, he has been preoccupied largely with characters on the margins, and his success, too, has been mostly on the margins: fringe hits, the respect of his peers, the affection of a community. “I’m just a story teller,” he says, modestly, but with resilience. “I just keep telling stories.”