‘Not everybody knows how I killed old Phillip Mathers, smashing his jaw in with my spade.’ That opening sentence, bone-judderingly Dostoyevskian in its random violence, launches Flann O’Brien’s novel The Third Policeman.
Written in 1940 and published posthumously in 1967, a year after O’Brien (aka Brian O’Nolan and Myles na gCopaleen) died, it’s a masterpiece of black comedy and bicycles behaving badly, set in a rural Ireland eerily transmogrified by the author’s darkly surreal imagination.
Belfast musician Colin Reid first read The Third Policeman when he was 15, and was instantly addicted. ‘It either very much appealed to my sense of humour at the time,’ he remembers, ‘or it may even have done something to form my sense of humour.’
It wasn’t till much later, however (2003, to be precise), that Reid first considered the possibility of writing music inspired by O’Brien’s anarchic novel. By then firmly established as a top-rank guitarist performing with the likes of Brian Kennedy, Bert Jansch and Leo Kottke, Reid was ready to spread his musical wings a little.
‘I was writing piano music at the time,’ he recalls. ‘I thought initially I would write some music to a ghost story, and it was turning out a certain, quirky way. So I re-read The Third Policeman, and started mapping out what I thought were salient parts of the narrative that suited the music, or the music suited it.’
In filletting the 240 pages of O’Brien’s text for musical purposes, Reid needed to be ruthlessly selective. ‘There’s many layers in the book,’ Reid says, but, in his new musical take on the text, which is being narrated by acclaimed actor Stephen Rea at this year's Aspects Irish Literature Festival, ‘at no point did I try to tell the whole story'.
Reid is, however, understandably ‘very pleased that people have said after seeing our show that they now understand the story', having previously been befuddled by the high jinks and philosophical tomfoolery of O’Brien’s original novel.
The music, in eight sections with some underscoring of spoken narrative, is, according to Reid, ‘a very good fit’ for the extracts it accompanies, the one playing suggestively off the other. ‘The music is quite black and eerie in places,’ Reid explains, ‘and it can wrong-foot you as well. It’s slightly other-worldly.’
The 2003 incarnation of The Third Policeman had half-a-dozen performances, after which Reid dropped some of the music he’d originally written, composing more to replace it. This new edition of the piece, performed six times already in 2012 at venues across Ireland, is ‘very much a mark two version', and comes to Bangor Abbey as part of Aspects on September 29.
‘Looking at the text again, what I’ve noticed is it’s actually quite a contemporary story, or can be read that way. There’s a bit where Divney (the farmhand who helps the narrator murder Phillip Mathers) says “money is hard to come by these days". So that became a focal point for one of the new bits I’ve written.’
Common to both the 2003 and 2012 redactions of Reid’s The Third Policeman has been the presence of internationally renowned actor Stephen Rea as narrator. Reid met Rea through the musician Neil Martin, who plays cello in The Third Policeman, with Reid on piano, and two violinists.
‘I was performing at one of Neil’s concerts. Stephen was there, and passed on that he’d enjoyed the piece I played on. Just at that same time The Third Policeman idea was coming up, so I rang Stephen and asked him to have a look at it.’
And though the idea of doing a musical treatment of O’Brien’s novel had existed in Reid’s mind long before the possibility of Rea’s involvement was mooted, he is fulsome in his praise of the Belfast actor’s contribution to the project.
‘He gets Flann O’Brien way more than I do!’ grins Reid. ‘He brings life into it. It would not be the same thing without him. The text is musical, there’s a lot of rhythm in it, and Stephen speaks very rhythmically. And you have an important north of Ireland fit there.’
That ‘north of Ireland fit’ is crucial, explains Reid, because though Flann O’Brien spent most of his professional life working as a civil servant and newspaper columnist in Dublin, he was actually born in Strabane, in pre-partition County Tyrone, in 1911.
Reid is in no doubt that a very specific sense of place permeates O’Brien’s writing in The Third Policeman. ‘To a degree I think it’s a very Northern Irish voice that tells the story. In terms of the observational capacity O’Brien shows, the rural settings, and the understated humour in it. Very black humour, some of it.’
With all the development that Reid’s project has undergone in the near-decade since its inception, is it fair to view the piece as definitively finished, or is it still a work in progress?
‘Well,’ muses Reid, ‘we’ve got this lovely gig in Bangor Abbey at the end of the month, and after that it will be time to take stock. Maybe just a polish, and a few nips and tucks here and there, but as a show it is really just about finished.’
Which could be just as well, as calls have recently been raining in to Reid’s mobile telephone number. ‘I’ve been bowled over by the interest,’ he confesses. ‘People love Flann, they love Stephen, we got it to work with my music. People just responded very well to it, and the phone has been ringing.’
It’s on the cards, therefore, that fresh performances of The Third Policeman will happen in Ireland in the near future. It’s also possible the show may eventually travel to the east coast of America for a US premiere.
Would Reid and Rea necessarily go with it? ‘We all had a conversation about that, including Neil, cellist Becky Joslin and violinist Niamh Crowley. And we’ve more or less decided we’ve become a unit around this piece. And it’s really the five of us.’
Which leaves the one question about Reid’s musical treatment of The Third Policeman that devotees of O’Brien’s novel will be desperate to have him answer: ‘Is it about a bicycle?’
Reid laughs on being reminded of Sergeant Pluck’s strange obsession with the two-wheeled method of perambulation, and his delusional theories about it. ‘There’s certainly mention of bicycles,' he chuckles. ‘Oh yes, it’s in there. Wouldn’t be the same without it.’
Visit the North Down Borough Council website to download the full Aspects Irish Literature programme.