Dave Duggan Interview

March 2, 2010

Poetry is life affirming and soldiering is death affirming. So how does one individual hold those two aspects of humanity together? This is the issue at the core of academy award nominated playwright Dave Duggan’s new play Still, The Blackbird Sings which opens tonight at the Project Arts Centre.

A dramatic & engaging production it focuses on a period in the life of the poet Francis Ledwidge when he was stationed at the barracks in Derry. It explores the stress, fear and tension that the soldiers experience when they come back after a military campaign and before they return to the front and although set in 1916 it resonates today with wars in the Middle East, Iraq and Afghanistan.

“It’s a barrack soldier story of a squad of men feeling conflicted and terrified following two years of war” says Duggan during our early morning phone call from Derry. “Projecting forward as to how it will be when they go out again. And in the context of that fear they’re further conflicted by the fact that the period is roughly July to December 1916. And in Easter 1916 the Easter Rebellion happened and in July 1916 the Battle of the Somme happened.

“The first event threw up the whole idea of what it is to be an Irish man in uniform because other Irish men put on another uniform and fought the very army that Ledwidge and his very squad members were in. And these guys had come back from campaigning in Gallipoli and the east to the news of the massive slaughter of soldiers at the Battle of the Somme so these events weigh heavy on their minds as they are being set up to go out and fight again.”

Duggan has had an interest in Ledwidge for a long time. Mainly through his poetry which he came across in school but later in his character which is described so well in Alice Curtaynes biography.

“He’s very romantic and Byronic. A lively, good-looking young fella, who liked the girls, did a bit of courting but was also very shy. And he used his lyrical, poetic voice to engage in romance in that way.”

Born into a peasant family in Slane, Co. Meath, Ledwidge had no meaningful education but he started reading books and writing poetry at a young age, which he sent off to the Drogheda Independent. Soon he was swanning around Slane and Drogheda, The Boyne Valley, the local poet and the man about town, throwing shapes, and getting involved politically, in labor conflicts. And suddenly he’s off to the British Army even though he had spoken out against Irish men and women fighting in the war.

Duggan is aware of the danger involved when imagining something that actually occurred in real life. “The play is a fiction and there is a history and the challenge when you write a history is to not bore people” he says. “People don’t go to the theatre for a history lesson. This is a dramatic engagement. You remain true to the themes and the history of the character, but its an all action, all engaging piece with lots of songs, lots of movement, very fine tablots and very fine images to look at. “

Duggan doesn’t consider himself a “troubles” writer but conflict is often at the core of his work with one of his Fringe shows AH 6905 currently touring Afghanistan. The modern echoes of our own troubled past with the Middle East struck him. “It is the classic tragic story. Why and how did this nightmare become a reality-a question which is really deepened within the context of war- and the struggle then for the survivors to get at the truth of what happened.”

Theatre is in his opinion as one of the better mediums for getting at this truth. “Theatre has the great advantage of being live and also from being a communal experience. You watch a group of people in front of you and even though it is about a conflict or person who is past, when it’s happening in front of you and it’s done well, it is happening now. You are able to engage. “

Still, The Blackbird Sings opens at The Project Arts Centre in Dublin, March 1-6; The Balor Theatre in Ballybofey, March 9; and An Culturlann in Belfast, March 11-12. The production finishes its run back in Derry, at Ebrington Barracks, March 13-14.


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