Theatre: The boy from Dublin

Daniel Rosenthal meets Conor McPherson, 26, and already a top writer-director
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CONOR MCPHERSON'S diary for early 1998 runs as follows. January: I Went Down, the comedy-thriller whose screenplay has already earned him rave reviews in his native Ireland, opens in the UK. February: The Weir, for which he received last year's Evening Standard Most Promising Playwright gong, returns to the Royal Court. March: he flies out to direct the off-Broadway premiere of .St Nicholas, a previous drama. April: he starts to direct the feature-film adaptation of an earlier play, This Lime Tree Bower. His 27th birthday will be in August.

I Went Down, the tale of two down-on-their-luck Dubliners, forced by a local gangster into kidnapping his former partner in crime, will still be raising laughs at London cinemas when The Weir opens next week, making McPherson perhaps the first, and almost certainly the youngest, writer to have an original screenplay and a new stage play running simultaneously in the West End.

That achievement would be less remarkable if he had written a stagy movie, all interiors, close-ups and static dialogue. Yet, just as The Weir's "plot" - four Irishmen telling ghost stories - and real-time action are wonderfully theatrical, so I Went Down, with its hapless heroes chasing across country in time-honoured road movie tradition, is tremendously cinematic. At 26, McPherson is already a master of both forms.

"Paddy Breathnach, the director, and I wanted I Went Down to be commercial," McPherson says when we meet at a pub near his Dublin home. "But we didn't want to make it cold and violent, like so many American thrillers. We wanted the audience to have a warm relationship with the characters."

The kidnappers, taciturn Git (Peter McDonald) and galumphing Bunny (Brendan Gleeson), do dish out and take violent blows. Until the climactic shoot- out, however, less is more. To great comic effect, McPherson shows us the aftermath rather than the blood-letting itself. "Characters are more important to me than blood or guts or pain," he says. "If people are being killed all the way through, like in a Tarantino-scripted movie, you're not really moved."

McPherson's spiky dialogue, dominated by Bunny's hilarious bursts of expletive-laden wrath, helped I Went Down to a hefty pounds 570,000 box-office take in Ireland, and its writer to a Best Screenplay award at last year's San Sebastian Film Festival. We can hope for more of the same from the script he is writing for Breathnach now, about "a big criminal stuck in a small backwater in the Deep South". Meanwhile, the return of Ian Rickson's production of The Weir, premiered last summer, demonstrates McPherson's gifts to more sombre effect.

His play is set in a pub much like the one he used to frequent with his grandfather in Leitrim, "a remote, tough place where there were so few women around that if one appeared, 20 men would be swarming around her in minutes".

Those real-life bachelors, hopelessly unaccustomed to female company, find their fictional counterparts in the landlord, Brendan, and two of his regulars, Jack and Jim. Their inconsequential crack is interrupted when Finbar, the married local big shot, arrives with Valerie, a thirtysomething Dubliner who has just moved into a nearby haunted house. The supernatural tales which the men tell to impress her are soon movingly topped by her own personal history.

The play has a mournful spirit, derived in part from grief in McPherson's own life. "When I got the commission to write a play for the Court, I thought people in a pub telling ghost stories was a stonking idea,"he says. "But soon after I started writing it, my grandfather died. That imbued the play with a sense of loss which I hadn't initially planned to give it."

This Lime Tree Bower, which, in expanded form, marks his debut as a film director in April, interweaves monologues by two Dublin brothers and a disenchanted philosophy lecturer into a gripping crime/coming-of-age story. "I love monologues because they are intrinsically more theatrical than 'conventional' plays," explains McPherson. "You're not pretending that the stage is a battlefield or a courtroom; you're saying 'Here we all are, in a theatre, and the actor is going to use this space to take us on a journey.'"

McPherson's initial interest in writing "came from being a reader". There were always a lot of books around the family home (his father teaches at a further-education college). His initial interest in writing came from reading. The playwriting and directing began while he was studying English and Philosophy at University College, Dublin. "I wrote pretty conventional plays, with lots of dialogue. It was an invaluable experience because it meant I could get some bad, immature work out of my system at very little personal or professional cost."

He is refreshingly self-effacing. When asked if he minds that his plays have yet to gain proper exposure in Dublin, he replies: "It's just great if there's enthusiasm for my work anywhere. Success makes me very self-conscious. Winning awards is great publicity and I'm very grateful, but it's unnerving when you become the centre of attention, instead of the work. Until recently, I've written without knowing if the work's going to be staged at all. Now I feel as though I have to make everyone happy."

That self-consciousness reached a peak two days before we met, when I Went Down was reviewed on Film '98 and McPherson sat at home watching Barry Norman offer fulsome praise for the script. "That's a programme I grew up with, and suddenly there I was being mentioned on it," he says, with a disbelieving shake of the head. "For 24 hours that was all I could think about."

If further proof were needed that this is a writer low on self-importance, his wordless 10-second cameo towards the end of I Went Down should suffice. In a packed nightclub the camera follows him as he cruises the floor, asks five young women for a dance and is unceremoniously blown out by them all. The closing credits identify this hapless bloke as "Loser in Nightclub". McPherson, a loser? Talk about art failing to imitate life.

! 'The Weir': Royal Court Downstairs, WC2 (0171 565 5000), previews from Wed, opens 23 Feb. 'I Went Down' is on selected release. 'The Weir' and' St Nicholas' are published by Nick Hern Books.