That theatre guy! Catching up with playwright Fergal O’Byrne

The Irishman has a new play coming out on March 16, and then it’s Paddy’s Day. Sounds like it’s going to be quite the weekend

By Bartholomew Skala

With over 2,000 Irish people living in Denmark, CPH POST is always spoilt for choice looking for heavyweight interviews for its annual St Patrick’s Day supplement.

In 2020, ahead of what turned out to be a cancelled day out, we caught up with Irish Ambassador Adrian McDaid, Copenhagen Celtic founder Aidan Coogan and Kennedys co-owner Tim Tynan.

The year before, it was management consultant Patrick Sheridan, the co-owner of Irish bar Gravens Rand, and popular musician Pat Kelly.

No better choice!
For 2022, there could be no better choice than Fergal O’Byrne, the resident playwright at That Theatre Company, the group run by Ian Burns. 

Following the success of his play ‘Extremophiles’ in late 2020, Burns and O’Byrne (which has a nice ring to it) are making final preparations to stage ‘Rub-A-Dub-Dub’. The worldwide premiere is on March 16 at Krudttønden theatre.

We caught up with Fergal to find out more about his background, what brought him to Copenhagen, his new play and how he will be celebrating St Patrick’s Day – when it finally arrives after what has been a three-year wait. 

Tell me about your experience growing up in Ireland: how did your childhood and university years pave the way for your career as a playwright?

I was born and bred in the Dublin suburbs from what I would call a typical Irish Catholic upbringing in the late ‘60s. I was from a family of eight, and I suppose we would have been politely called sort of upper working class. I went to a very famous school called Synge Street in Dublin. My dad was insistent I go there for their expertise in English – maybe my dad knew something before I did. I do, however, regard my childhood as quite normal. I was a bit of a maths geek in school. I love tech – it framed my early career. After working in the industry for a few years, I continued my college education. College was honestly where I just woke up. I discovered everything. I had a very sheltered childhood, so college was a total awakening for me in more ways than one. I really loved it. I studied electronic engineering at what was then called the Dublin Institute of Technology.

It was during these university years that I got involved in a theatre group. We put on what you would call routine comedy skits that we devised ourselves – very improvised stuff. But it was fantastic. And then I was challenged to write a play, and it was absolute rubbish. But I remember sitting there, with 300 people in the audience, and people started laughing; they seemed to be enjoying it! So I said, hang on, I’ve got something here. A few of my friends were very encouraging, and that’s when I realised I had the bug. 

So a career in theatre beckoned?

Not immediately. When I left college, I had a job guaranteed for five years in the telecom industry. It was quite depressing, however. I went from being an avant-garde student with a great lifestyle to being stuck in an office. It didn’t sit well with me at all and I knew I had to get out of this work environment. It was getting involved with a dear friend named William Morgan at the Pink Panda Theater Company where the spark re-ignited. We put on a lot of work at a small theatre in Dublin. One work that stuck with me was the first play I wrote called ‘Oscar and Jim’. It was based on Oscar Wilde and Jim Morrison meeting in a graveyard in Paris. We ended up making a little money out of it, so William and I went on to do about five or six more theatre productions in Dublin, touring them around Ireland.

My major break came in the late 1990s when I started writing short stories, and ended up winning the prestigious Hennessy Literary Awards. After that, a publisher rang me and asked to turn it into a book. I had a great time writing it, but it definitely did not make waves. It was hard to understand and I only made 600 pounds in royalties. But it set the tone for my future. I was at that crux where I was getting some recognition but could not make any money. I just stopped writing and went back into technology for quite literally the next 13 years. I started a couple of technology companies and eventually sold one of them and became financially secure. I then went back to the thing I love most. On 1 January 2013 I became a writer again. I had the financial security to say look: this is life, you get one shot. Follow the things that fulfill you the most.

How did moving to Copenhagen impact your career?

So we moved in 2017. We went from looking at cows in green fields of Wexford to the wonders of Copenhagen. In terms of my writing career, you can write plays anywhere, so I just kept going. But I was itching to get into the local scene. It was actually on St. Patrick’s Day when I met Ian Burns dressed up in the Irish Embassy as Saint Patrick. He read one of my plays ‘Extremophiles’ and saw potential in it. To this day, I think to myself that it’s the best thing I’ve written in a long, long time. He produced the play, and it got great reviews. And now I am thrilled to work with him on ‘Rub-A-Dub-Dub’. We will also be doing another of my plays called ‘Same Shit, Different Planet’ in early 2023.

How does your background in tech influence the genres of plays that you write? Are all your plays normally centered around sci-fi?

I still love technology. People regard me as a geek because my bedside reading would be a book about Mars, a book about the history of science, and a book about artificial intelligence. So absolutely, technology features in all my writing: my short stories, my book, and definitely my plays, at a heavy angle. It makes sense since I am qualified in that field. I have a degree, so I can talk about technology without having to either invent it or veer into non-factual information. I did about six months of research on Antarctica before I even started writing ‘Extremophiles’ – right down to what communication systems and frequencies they would use, to make sure it was all spot on. And the same with the current play that’s coming up. I delved into artificial intelligence because I’m fascinated by it and big data. I mean, all of us, whether we like it or not, we’re kind of controlled a little bit by the algorithms that Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat use. The way they profile us is great in one sense, but terrifying in another. We live in a state where we need to be aware of the Orwellian portent. 

Can you give a quick summary of what to expect from ‘Rub-A-Dub-Dub’? 

Well, it’s a very simple story. It’s about three old friends getting together. They’re in the autumn years of their lives; their bodies are starting to show wear and tear, and each has taken a different decision on how to handle that. They’re scattered across the planet, so they only meet every few years. One of them wants to grow old gracefully, although it makes him very grumpy. Another is in denial of his self-decay and is actually considering euthanasia as an option. And another is trying to beat old age with technology. He’s quite rich, wears an exoskeleton suit, and buys all these technologies to avoid old age. 

photo: Julian Simpson

So it’s about using technology to stop the ageing process?

Yes, that’s the main theme. Should we be using technology to elongate our lives and cheat death? I’ve read the science around this: about the scientists that actually claim the human body could, in theory, live to be 500 years old. Think of the ramifications of that in terms of the family unit. Do you want to live that long? Do your loved ones want us to live that long? These are fundamental questions, and it affects our religious and ethical beliefs. That’s the core of the story. 

And then I always like to throw in a twist. The character hosting the event has a replicant called Sisi, who is meant to represent an ‘Alexa’, although she turns out to be so much more than just that. She’s actually a piece of human-software and she cannot lie. The three of them are trying to score points off each other, but she cannot lie to anyone. So she’s telling them exactly as it is. And yet she has a yearning to do one thing: to know what love is. She just cannot identify this human emotion called love.

Sounds great! How can we get tickets?

You can find tickets on the Teater Billetter website. The play runs from March 16 until April 9 at Krudttønden.

As an Irishman, how do you think St Patrick’s Day in Denmark compares to other places you’ve celebrated the holiday?

In Ireland, people just go a little nuts on the day. It’s great fun. There’s a massive parade in Dublin. It’s a spectacle. It’s a time where all walks of Irish life are represented in every small town. When I came to Denmark, I expected nothing because a lot of Danes haven’t been to Ireland. But it’s actually quite similar here: everyone is singing and chanting at pubs. My family loves going into the town square on St. Patrick’s Day. There is lots of Irish dancing and a small parade. There are about 3,000 people there and it’s quite fascinating. Danes really love to put in the effort to make us feel accommodated on our special day, and I know I am very much looking forward to the day.

There is a quite large Irish community in Copenhagen. Has that made settling into Copenhagen easier for you?

Absolutely. I love stopping by Irish pubs and meeting new friends. Pubs are the social cultural centre of the Irish. We sometimes don’t even go to drink, just to meet people and talk. I really enjoy that. I know I can walk into any of the pubs, sit at the bar and someone will introduce themselves and ask where I’m from.

What would be your top recommendations for St Patrick’s Day in Copenhagen?

Well, I strongly recommend you go to Radhuspladsen. They set up a pub in a tent right in front of the Town Hall. It’s a great time: you see everyone out there wearing green, dancing and singing. Our Irish traditions are infectious, and people just walking by always come out and have a beer with us. We’re like a disease of friendship. And if you do not wear something green you will get pinched!

Are there any last words you’d like to add regarding the play?

If people want a good night out, check it out! It’s a comedy, but it has a dark angle, and it’s very relevant to our times. It’s in English and the actors, and director, are so good.