Hailed by The Irish Independent as “a wide-eyed, glorious, moving tale”, Michael Patrick and Oisín Kearney’s award-winning, one-man play My Left Nut has recently been adapted for BBC Three. Their second play, The Alternative, went on to win Fishamble‘s A Play for Ireland initiative and received great critical acclaim during its nationwide tour.
Michael and Oisín share an insight into their creative process as a writing duo, how writing for the stage differs from writing for the screen, and advice for future performers.
Can you talk about how My Left Nut came about? And what was the process like of writing the show together?
It came about through a programme called Show in a Bag, run by The Irish Theatre Institute, The Dublin Fringe Festival and Fishamble: The New Play Company. The idea was to take actors who have never written anything before through the process of writing their own one-person show. The deadline for applying was coming up and we met up in a pub to talk about ideas. Michael had a big list — alien abductions, the cultural history of the sandwich — but Oisín told him they were all terrible. Michael then began to reminisce about the time he had a giant testicle, and Oisín turned to him and said “write that play”. Michael had always wanted to write something about his father’s death as well, so combining the two seemed like a good way of exploring masculinity and the difficulty young men have in talking about their problems. We were accepted onto the programme and wrote the play together, Michael acting and Oisín directing.
It wasn’t without its difficulties, but it felt like a nice extension of our previous working relationship. Michael would get up and perform and try things out as we were writing the script, while Oisín would make suggestions as we went along. It was all quite organic.
What’s at the heart of the story?
It’s about negotiating life years after the death of a parent. It’s not about the immediate grief on their death, but what happens years later. The main relationship is a mother and son trying to deal with the difficulties of a young man growing up without a father to help. It also looks at male teenage friendships and how, under all the bravado, there can be a real tenderness and care. It’s also about balls.
How did writing the story for the stage compare to adapting it for television?
It was a bit of an eye-opener! We didn’t even own any paid-for scriptwriting software at the time. A lot of our first drafts barely had any stage directions in them at all, so there were a lot of practical things like that which we learnt. The biggest learning curve was the episodic nature of the whole thing. With a stage play you have a fully captive audience — they can’t leave half way through (well… they can, but you’d like to hope they won’t). The biggest thing we struggled with was structuring it in such a way that people would finish one episode and immediately want to watch the next one. So we did have to rework the story a bit to get in those ‘hooks’ and ‘cliffhangers’.
You’re planning on taking My Left Nut to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe again in the future. What advice would you have to any theatre companies looking to get their work noticed at the Fringe?
We don’t want to give away our secrets! Ah no, it’s very difficult, and a lot of it depends on what venue you’re at. In 2018, we were lucky enough to be at Summerhall, which draws a large theatre going audience; our strategy was to flyer only outside Summerhall, knowing that the people there would be interested in theatre. That seemed to pay off, along with our brilliant poster image (image by Cait Fahey, poster design by Naomi Sheehan), which got a lot of people through the door. But it’s a real challenge.
What suggestions would you offer to anyone interested in staging My Left Nut in future?
Speed is key. When we first performed a long run, I accidentally put 10 minutes onto the running time by slowing down — much to the detriment of the piece. It’s a really energetic show and you need to keep up that driving pace. I’d also say don’t get too bogged down in the sentimental moments, particularly the mother’s monologues. Always remember she’s talking to her son, and although she’s talking about her husband’s death, she doesn’t want to upset her son. She needs to maintain a lightness of tone, and even crack the odd joke — which we think makes what she’s saying all the more tragic.
Your next play, The Alternative, won Fishamble’s 2019 Play For Ireland Award and has been nominated for Best New Play at the Irish Theatre Awards too. Where did the idea for the show come from? And why was it significant that the play was told now?
It came from an observation we had around Brexit and Irish nationalism. Ireland is very much in favour of the EU — north and south — but a lot of arguments against Brexit would be the same as the arguments against Ireland leaving the UK back in 1922 (for example, cutting yourself off from your biggest trading partner). We wanted to poke fun at strongly held political views by rewriting history. 2019 was also the 100th year anniversary of the start of the Irish War of Independence, so we wanted to look at the myths around the founding of the Irish State, and compare those to the arguments around Brexit and Scottish Independence today. In that sense, it felt very timely, both in relation to the Irish anniversary and the current news stories around Brexit.
What would you want audiences to take away from The Alternative?
We want them to look at the narratives surrounding national identity and sovereignty. What makes a nationality? Why do we feel an affinity to certain ideas over others — because if we don’t understand why we hold our own views, how can we understand those with differing ones? We need to understand why we think the way we do, so we can understand others and begin a dialogue. And this dialogue starts at home, with interpersonal relationships: politics is about people, not just ‘us’ and ‘them’.
Can you tell us what you’re working on next?
We are the commissioned playwrights on Prime Cut Productions’ REVEAL programme. They’ve commissioned us to create a piece which is a 100-year retrospective on the Irish border. We’re looking forward to getting stuck into that!
The script for My Left Nut is now available to buy. You can register your interest to perform the play in future.
Buy the script for The Alternative and
register your interest for future licensing opportunities.
Photo: Cait Fahey