It’s 22 years since I wrote St. Nicholas, and I can still remember the dream that inspired it. I dreamt I had been bitten by a vampire, and someone was giving me two paracetamol tablets for the pain.
I was a young playwright who had started doing my own plays in fringe venues around Dublin, like the International Bar, The City Arts Centre and The Crypt at Dublin Castle. I had scored a hit with This Lime Tree Bower at the first Dublin Fringe Festival in 1995, and the production had traveled to the Bush Theatre in London. This marked the beginning of my professional life as a playwright—in that it was the first time I received a fee or royalties. The Bush Theatre was also very generous in asking me to become their Writer-in- Residence. This would involve receiving a bursary of £5,000 in order to devote time to writing a new play. But I think I had already finished St. Nicholas, which I presented to them and they accepted for production in early 1996.
All the plays I wrote around that time—like Rum and Vodka (1992), The Good Thief (1994), This Lime Tree Bower (1995) and St. Nicholas (1997)—were monologue-based plays. There was nothing particularly conscious about this. It just happened. I found that direct address could unlock energy, and infer both insight and a strange kind of poetic sense which dialogue resisted. But then, of course, a play is not just a piece of writing. It’s a blueprint for a live performance. The connection between performer and audience in the theater is a potent force and, perhaps rather brazenly, I knew that making the hero of the play a theater critic would add to the potency. I recognize the theater as a holy place where transcendence is possible. I’m not trying to say I always achieve it in my work, or that I always experience it when I go to the theater. But writing a piece like St. Nicholas, which is kind of about that very thing, was part of the essence of my understanding of theater.
For its first production, I suggested we send the play to Brian Cox to see if he would play the role. Mike Bradwell, then the newly-appointed director of the Bush Theatre said, “Let’s send it to him; Brian is just about mad enough to do it.” And he was. Brian and I hit it off immediately, and he performed St. Nicholas in London, and then in New York the following year to great success.
But I had also just written another new play, The Weir, in 1996, and was equally blessed by a wonderful cast for its first production at The Royal Court. Brendan Coyle played Brendan Byrne, the lonely young farmer and barman who welcomes Valerie to his home. His beautifully judged, uniquely understated performance won him that year’s Olivier Award. Brendan seemed to connect to something in my writing which we never needed to discuss. As such, it was a
performance to cherish.
Now, with Brendan performing this older character in St. Nicholas, these two plays I wrote 22 years ago have reconnected in this production, reminding me of a very special time in my life. And I imagine for Brendan, too.
It’s also particularly gratifying to have this play performed here at the Goodman. I’ve visited Chicago many times over the years seeing my work performed here. It’s such a beautiful city and the great spiritual home of American Drama for me. And I’ve always been made so welcome.
By Conor McPherson