Interview with Philip St John – Temptress – Viking Theatre
Philip St John is an Irish playwright who has written plays such as Temptress, and the Sylvia. We got the chance to put some questions to him about his influences and also the new production of Temptress which recently opened in the Viking.
What writers inspired you, both in your teenage years and today?
As a teenager, I was probably drawn more to music than literature or drama: Zeppelin, Joni, Dylan, Bowie, Talking Heads. Miles Davis is probably the one who interests me most now. An amazing artist, if a deeply flawed man…With literature, I stumbled upon Joyce’s Dubliners as fifteen-year-old and was entranced by its elusiveness and astringent eloquence. It’s still a favourite. I also love Austen, the Brontes, De Lillo, much of the work of James Salter, Nabokov and Philip Roth. Sarah Hall is a writer I’m very taken with lately. The best of her stories are as good as anything I’ve read.
With drama, I love (among many others) Shakespeare, Synge, Pinter, Caryl Churchill and Martin Crimp. I like drama rather than staged messages. I think audiences should be shaken up and shown things in all their complexity.
As to how much influence any of the above artists had on my work, I can’t say…
Tell me about the play ‘Temptress’?
Pete comes to a dilapidated old house in a remote part of County Wicklow. He is there to rescue Noel, who believes he is having an intense (and potentially fatal) affair with a beautiful female ghost, a Temptress. Pete seems to be a sound fellow. He does not believe in Temptresses. He is confident he can save Noel from his delusion…And then, well, something unexpected happens.
During the first run, at The New Theatre in 2015, it seemed to really strike a chord with audiences. Though it’s thematically elusive, people seemed to ‘get’ it at some deep level. The cast, the director and I have all been asked to restage it numerous times and we’re delighted to be doing so in The Viking. The intimacy of the space is ideal. You can see all the detail in the terrific performances and set.
With the themes and ideas in your plays, they would easily convert to film. Have you worked in film previously or do you have ambition in that field?
Though I love the form, I have no experience at all of film. But Temptress was immediately optioned for a movie by an American director/producer who seems to feel it can make the transition to screen without much alteration. After that, I started to wonder if I could write film, and last year began to do some development work with an established Irish director on a potential series for Netflix. It’s still early days but I’m enjoying it.
Temptress was first performed in 2015. Is the text the same as the original production? Do you continue to tinker with a play or do you consider it finished once it is staged?
Really, a play is never finished. My first, The Sylvia was staged in Dublin in 2013 and then in an Italian version in 2016/17, and seeing that latter version (even in a language I didn’t understand) has given me lots of ideas about changes I might make if there was ever a new production here. Recently, I was writer in residence in Farmleigh House and while there I directed a staged-reading of an extract from On City Water Hill, a play from 2014, and I did rework the text in advance of that. With Temptress, I just did a light edit. Rehearsal time was limited and I didn’t want to burden the actors with new stuff to process.
Do you believe in ghosts?