Like Telemachus, I find myself on the shore awaiting the telltale configuration of silhouettes on the horizon to signal the return home of those whose reputation was forged abroad. Since Ben Barnes informed me about WexFour earlier this year, the adaptation for the stage at Wexford Arts Centre in October of new work by four Wexford writers who continue to bestride the world, far and beyond the anadromous caul of Loch Garman, has had the swallow note of Odysseus’s lyre.
Why a swallow? As every dabbler of Homer knows, swallows migrate and return to the nest they previously inhabited. Ben Barnes was born a stone’s throw from the Arts Centre and got his short back and sides from Syl and Willie Carley at the bottom of George’s Street; Billy Roche’s first incarnation of A Handful of Stars – the raw The Boker Poker Club – was directed here by Patrick Sutton, with a very young Gary Lydon, last seen in the Arts Centre in Roche’s One Is Not a Number; Eoin Colfer’s first full length play, The Crescent, saw the light of day in the Arts Centre when he was still unknown, and both Colm Toibin and John Banville have given readings here.
Four celebrated Wexford alumni: Homer’s lyre also had four strings, and one knows that Barnes is best suited to pluck Toibin, Banville, Colfer and Roche to enable us to admire the multifariousness of the works you are about to see which – having read the text – will have an enduring hold on your imagination.
Nicky Furlong maintains that the riches of the many parishes of Wexford fertilise the proliferation of living characters, ‘many of whom choose to express themselves with urging pens.’ I have to imagine that for Barnes, Colfer, Roche and Banville, raised in Wexford, and Tobin, who was educated here, the soundtrack of an average year in the life of the town when they were young was a riotous cacophony of the musical and the theatrical on its streets, especially during the Wexford Festival which continues to segue mild autumn and cold winter.
Arias, declamations, perorations and proclamations would have cruised colourfully through the cloistered and multilingually-baptised streets and lanes, forever descending in cobbled free fall to where Wexford began, the sea, a recurring source of the cathartic and the catalytic in their novels, short stories and plays.
And being from Wexford, it is inevitable their paths would have crossed: Billy Roche sheepishly gave the manuscript of his first novel Tumbling Down to the eminent historian, the late Dr. Billy Colfer, for his perusal, only for his young son, Eoin, to borrow it first and gobble it up. When an older Eoin, a teacher in Coolcotts and a member of the local opera society, was on the cusp of introducing Artemis Fowl to the world, he shared a stage at a reading event with both Roche and Banville in the Talbot Hotel, the scene – eight years earlier in 1992 – of his first foray into playwriting, the one actStereotypes.
When Ben Barnes was appointed artistic director at the Abbey at 43, he had already directed 28 plays from the Irish repertoire and 20 premieres of new Irish plays, including John Banville’s adaptation of Kleist’s The Broken Jug; he initiated the adaptation of Toibin’s Lady Gregory’s Toothbrush for the stage (they were at St. Peter’s College together and played tennis against each other) and Barnes awarded the Abbey Writer in Association to Billy Roche, which would culminate with On Such As We at the Peacock, featuring Brendan Gleeson.
Is it too much to consider, in the context of WexFour, that the town which binds them together can consolidate their identity, if only for the duration of a performance? Writers, however, are not tethered to the same vernacular, so what is important, to paraphrase Colm Toibin, is that ‘the word somehow remains – the beauty of the word.’