In Misogynist a lonely protagonist (brilliantly played by the respected Irish actor Tom Hickey) slips from one paranoid character to another in a powerful monologue which explores the darker corners of the male mind. When we meet him, he is in the guise of a clergyman working himself up at having discovered a cleaning woman holding the chalice. He slithers from charm to aggression, from mild anti-woman statements to ranting paranoia, which he backs up with wild-eyed quoting from the Scriptures.
'I knew it was going to be a problem before I started writing it,' says Harding, a non-practising priest. 'You are writing about the ugliness of men and you think, 'This is going to be ugly, and people are not going to like it.' But I felt there wasn't really a play that did an anatomy of misogyny. I tried to explore what it is and where it comes from and what the connection is between complete normality and utter, unspeakable violence.'
Unspeakable is how many of his critics found it. 'The critics went for me, totally, which I think was interesting. I feel that some of it had to do with the fact that the context wasn't right - there is a right time to put on a production. If they had dealt with the play, if they had said, 'We see what he's talking about, but it's boring' or 'He didn't resolve this, that or the other' - that would have been fine. But there was no address to the content of the play. I've had criticism before: I had reviews of Una Pooka (his black comedy about the Pope's visit to Ireland) which said it was a bit too tricksy. And I agreed with them. But this was more abusive. This was like 'How dare the Abbey put this on' and 'What is an actor like Tom Hickey doing with this rubbish?' '
The reviews were bad enough to close the show and were certainly hostile enough to send a lesser author into hiding. Instead, 18 months on, Harding decided to dust Misogynist off and try again. 'The thing about Ireland is that writers are taken seriously: the place is small enough to have a real dialogue between writers and their audience. Even the slamming of Misogynist is part of that process. I would be much more depressed if it had been reviewed blandly and died a quiet death. The response was outrage: 'Rubbish]' - 'Get it off]' - 'Close it]' That's healthy. This was an argument.'
It was an argument that Harding and Tom Hickey were determined to win. Earlier this year they took themselves away and rehearsed in private, then mounted the play on a small-scale tour. Harding even decided to incorporate Gay Byrne's brickbat into his publicity, by placing it on the poster alongside the positive quotes he received from American and Dutch critics. This time the response was more positive ('I have no idea why the Dublin critics slammed this work into premature closure at last year's Dublin Theatre Festival,' wrote one critic).
So are we seeing a different play to that staged in Dublin? There has been some rewriting ('In a 90-page script, if you added up the changes it would come to about 10 pages') and substantial restaging ('For the Abbey Theatre production in Dublin there was a very sumptuous set. There was a chorus of 13 women who were dressed in clerical gear and who sang the Missa dei Angeli in Latin. All that went out'). But the play, insists Harding, is true to the original. 'It has reverted to what it was originally intended to be: a one-man show.'
And it still touches raw nerves. 'I think this time the show is much more intimate. It connects with the audience, and, if you like, allows its ugliness to be ugly, rather than dressing it up. I think the business of theatre is to say, 'Look at that. That is very terrible, very sick or very depraved. And it is human.' '
'Misogynist' is at the Assembly Rooms (venue 3), 54 George Street, 031-226 2428. 4pm to 27 Aug.
Michael Harding and Tom Hickey take part in today's Independent/Traverse Theatre Conference on new Irish writing. See below, right.