20 Questions With...Billy Roche
Date: 17 December 2001
Playwright Billy Roche, currently appearing in a revival of his tuneful play The Cavalcaders at London's Tricycle Theatre, explains how music & the Irish gift of the gab influences his work.
Irishman Billy Roche is best known as a playwright, having risen to prominence in Britain with The Wexford Trilogy - comprising A Handful of Stars (1988), Poor Beast in the Rain (1989) and Belfry (1990). Collectively, the trilogy won ten major awards including various Best Play honours from the John Whiting, George Devine, London Fringe and Time Out Awards.
Roche's other plays include Amphibians, Trojan Eddie, Haberdashery and The Cavalcaders, which is currently being revived at the Tricycle Theatre, in a production in which Roche also stars.
As an actor, Roche has also appeared previously on stage in A Handful of Stars, Poor Beast in the Rain and Amphibians as well as The Grapes of Wrath and Aristocrats, while his television work includes The Bill and David Hare's Strapless.
Roche is also an accomplished musician and often incorporates music into his plays, such as The Cavalcaders, about a barbershop quartet. He worked for many years as a singer, fronting his own group, The Roach Band, which toured throughout Ireland and released two singles, "The Shamrock Shuffle" and "Italy".
Date & place of birth
Born on 11 January 1949 in Wexford, southern Ireland.
Lives now in...
Is it deliberate that much of your work is set there, mostly notably The Wexford Trilogy?
No, I don't do it intentionally. But when actors move around, they find it is usually written in a Wexford accent. But I don't write historically about the place.
None! I've done so many things. I grew up in my father's bar; I was a musician until I was 30; I worked on building sites and in factories. It taught me all I need to know.
First big break
A Handful of Stars being produced at The Bush Theatre was my first big break. We had done a community version of it in Wexford, and I had been trying to get people to do it over here, all in vain. But unbeknownst to me, an actor friend of mine had passed it on to a few theatres. Then one day, I got a refusal from the Royal Court in the morning, and the same afternoon, The Bush accepted it.
Seeing the title of The Cavalcaders and my own name up in lights outside the Royal Court for the first time when I came out of the Underground. It was snowing that night, and it was a great feeling.
I've worked with some great directors, and I'm working with two at the moment - Robin Lefevre on The Cavalcaders, and Wilson Milam on my new play, On Such as We, that opened at the Peacock in the Abbey in Dublin this month. But I've also enjoyed working with Garry Hynes and Michael Attenborough; I've been blessed, really. All of them have been different, all of them brilliant, and all of them beautiful people, as Marlon Brando would say.
I'm very fond of Tom Murphy, and I love Arthur Miller, too.
What plays (by someone else!) would you most like to have written?
A View from the Bridge by Miller and The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams. I saw them both in my early days, when I was just learning about theatre. They are both beautiful pieces of work and have a certain pop element to them as well. A View from the Bridge has this Greek tragedy running through it; it's just gorgeous, and the language appealed to me. There's this beautiful image of "The green scent of the sea" and it's lovely.
What's the best thing currently on stage?
The Tom Murphy plays The Gigli Concert and Whistle in the Dark at the Abbey in Dublin. Also, recently in London, The Homecoming was a wonderful production, directed by Robin Lefevre, with wonderful performances by Ian Holm, Lia Williams, Nick Dunning, Ian Hart and the rest of the cast.
What advice would you give the government to secure the future of British theatre?
Not to underestimate the power of theatre, and the community's thirst for it! And to give it more money - theatres never have enough, they're always having to beg, borrow and steal.
If you could swap places with one person (living or dead), who would it be?
I don't want to be anyone else. Something good may happen while I change places and I don't want to miss it.
Madame Bovary by Gustav Flaubert - it's gorgeous writing.
Favourite holiday destination
Italy, around Sorrento and Capri - I've been to Italy a few times, but last year we went there, and it was very special and gorgeous.
How has your experience as a musician affected your work as a writer?
My plays are full of music. There are snatches of songs and tunes, and people singing or whistling, everywhere. There's enough to cover an album, and in fact I'd love to do one - I would love it if, when I'm dead and gone, people could buy a CD of my music. The Cavalcaders has a barbershop quartet at the heart of it, and I wrote three original songs for the group to sing. Music is also the way I check out which directors to work with; if they're not musical, forget it.
And what about your experience as an actor?
Being an actor myself, you learn to respect actors. Most of the lines I write are deliverable, at least. You know that actors can do wonderful things, but you also know what's an impossible task for an actor to do. You know what to leave out.
If you hadn't become involved in the theatre, what would you have done for a living?
I shudder to think; maybe I'd have become a lounge singer or something like that, going from one gig to another. That's not a nice picture! But it was the only other trade I'd have had to ply. I was a terrible worker.
How does it feel when you see one of your plays revived after many years?
Most of my plays have been done again and that's nice. It's good to see something you've created going out and working for you. The Cavalcaders has been done in Tokyo, Australia and Clwyd - little outings like that. Like writing songs, it's lovely to hear people keep singing them. It's good that they're going out into the world. Some will be good, some great, some might not come up to scratch; but they're still the same old songs.
When you're involved with a revival of your own work, how do you personally approach the script? Are you tempted to revise things?
I might want to change the odd thing, but nothing drastic, no. There are many ways of doing a play, but only the one right way. I don't change things just to change them. I prefer to do it for real, the way it was written and supposed to be done. I do feel quite fresh about it, too. When I go into the room as an actor, I don't know how I'm going to deliver something - how I react depends on what's coming at me. It keeps changing colour. I treat it as if it was written yesterday.
What do you think distinguishes Irish writing from British or other writing?
The English that we speak is different, sometimes it seems turned upside down. Maybe the way we look at life is different, too. The Irish talk a lot. If you're in a bar for five minutes, you will know someone's life story. There's also more of a sense of community, particularly in the small towns, where old and young are flung together. That brings with it all kinds of stories and all kinds of songs that young people over here might not come into contact with in the same way. I don't know, I'm only guessing.
As for audience reaction, over here the language is new and fresh to you, so something that might be everyday back home will sound quite beautiful and inventive here. I was once given great credit for one line - "she was dying alive about somebody" - I took the credit, but someone says that in Wexford every day!
What's your favourite line from The Cavalcaders?
"Jaysus, Terry", which Breda says on her way out of the door in the second act. When I first heard it being done, I realised it captured everything I wanted to say. I could have written four pages, but those two words said it all.
What are your plans for the future?
I hope that my new play (On Such as We, which opened in Dublin on 4 December) will come to London. We have no home for it yet here, but we're looking. It's set in a small town in Ireland, which again looks like Wexford, in rooms above a barbershop. It's about all different kinds of love, as most of my work is.
- Billy Roche was speaking to Mark Shenton
The Cavalcaders continues at the Tricycle Theatre in Kilburn, north London, until 9 February 2002.