Druid’s Brigit and Bailegangaire

It seems essential to write something about last night’s opening of Druid’s Brigit and Bailegangaire by Tom Murphy. Like many people, I’ve been hoping for years that we would eventually get to see Marie Mullen playing Mommo in the latter play – a role originated by Siobhan McKenna in 1985, in a Druid production that featured Mullen as Mary (Mommo’s granddaughter). But this production far surpassed and confounded my expectations: I can’t remember the last time I came out of a theatre feeling so elated and so drained.

The evening began with Brigit – a play that is difficult to categorise. It is a companion piece or perhaps even a prequel to Bailegangaire, showing us Mommo and her husband Seamus at a time when their three grandchildren were still very young. This, as people familiar with Bailegangaire will know, was also a time in the life of this family just before the onset of a terrible tragedy: it is the last moment that this group of people will be able to enjoy something approaching a sense of happiness or normality. This feels unusual for Murphy: ordinarily, he focuses on the moments after a tragedy has transpired: it is Friel who gives us the final summers – as in, say, Translations or Lughnasa. But this approach makes the play feel both poignant and (as ever with Murphy) deeply sad.

Yet this is also a play about what it means to be an artist. Seamus has been commissioned to create a sculputure of Saint Brigid for the local church, and in his obsessiveness, his propensity towards self-destruction, his search for meaning, and his commitment to his own vision of his work (disregarding the opinions of its intended audience), it seems that we are being shown something deeply personal – not just about the artist but, perhaps, about Murphy himself. Playing the role of Seamus, Bosco Hogan gives a performance of commanding intensity and depth: one I found very affecting. As a consideration of what art does to the artist and his family (and the gender-specifici pronoun is deliberate), Brigit makes a fascinating counterpoint to plays such as Kilroy’s Shape of Metal and of course Friel’s Faith Healer.

It also has much to tell us about Bailegangaire, fleshing out aspects of that play without necessarily adding anything entirely new. I found very touching the relationship between Dolly and Seamus, knowing that Dolly’s pain in adulthood seems caused by the loss of the love that her grandfather had for her – a love that is shown here with an authentic simplicity. So too do we understand how Mommo gained a reputation for storytelling that would see people come from miles around to listen to her. And almost unbearably sad is the presence of Tom, the child whose absence is so palpable in Bailegangaire.

Most importantly, perhaps, Brigit, underlines Mommo’s iconic status, doing much to explore the relationship between male artists and their female characters. By the end of Bailegangaire, we understand that Mommo is not just a character in a Murphy play: she is Maurya in Riders to the Sea and Kathleen Ni Houlihan; she will become Mag in The Beauty Queen of Leenane and Woman in Carr’s Woman and Scarecrow. She is Anna Livia and Maud Gonne. But in Brigit Murphy develops her iconic status further, relating her to the Virgin Mary, to Saint Brigid and to her Celtic precursor that goddess Brigit. As an investigation of how Irish authors express their masculinity by creating female icons, the play seems like a meta-theatrical exploration of the writing of Bailegangaire by Murphy himself: Brigit asks what it means to create a character like Mommo. This aspect of the play should keep academics busy for quite some time.

So Brigit seems both a coda to Murphy’s long career – and it makes more accessible and more visible many of Bailegangaire’s more challenging elements.

A question I could not answer last night is how the play wil be received by people who don’t know Bailegangaire. At the interval, I was struck by the fact that those who know Baile were both moved and excited by Brigit. Others seemed perplexed or underwhelmed. It is undoubtedly the case that both plays deserve and perhaps even need to be seen together. But can Brigit stands on its own merits? That remains to be seen – I hope so.

Brigit_Bailegangaire

 

As for Bailegangaire, what is there to say except that the performances are wonderful – literally, they inspire wonder. Marie Mullen as Mommo captures her character’s shifting movements in and out of lucidity, and in and out of time: the technical range and complexity on show here is astonishing.

But astonishing too is the performance of Catherine Walsh – which was described by a colleague of mine this morning as flawless. Her physical stance, her movements, her delivery of lines all show that Mary is utterly trapped, perhaps more restricted by circumstances than Mommo is by senility and her bed. I had never understood fully the links between the telling of Mommo’s story and the transformation of Mary until I saw that change being embodied by Walsh.

Aisling O’Sullivan as Dolly has grasped fully the challenge of playing a role in a Murphy play – she shows all the traits of self-destruction that we find in Seamus in Brigit, and we understand too that for her, hate is an expression of thwarted love, thwarted opportunities. As with Seamus, alcohol and sex are both a respite and a trap for her. And it is almost unbearable  to consider what she is now in the light of what she had been as a child in Brigit. Watching O’Sullivan I found myself having the following thought – involuntarily and very much to my surprise: I hope I live long enough to see O’Sulllivan take on the role of Mommo, sometime 30 or 40 years from now (yes, yes, morbid thoughts at a Murphy play – hardly surprising).

This feels like one of the great moments for Druid: a time when (as with the premiere of DruidSynge) so many paths previously explored seem to narrow to one point. That Mullen is at the heart of this achievement is no surprise, but so too are Walsh and O’Sullivan. In Brigit another Druid regular Marty Rea shows his versatility in playing a different kind of dysfunctional priest from the one he gave us in Druid’s Be Infants in Evil earlier this summer, and it is good too to see Jane Brennan returning to a Druid production. Hogan too plays a key role in this, and I hope he receives the credit and praise he deserves. That all of this would have been impossible without Garry Hynes goes without saying, but this feels like one of her great achievements. 

Sometimes you see a play that makes you determined to tell everyone you know that they must see it. Before sharing that news, I first made sure  to check if there were any more tickets left for Bailegangaire this week (there are: I bought two). So now it seems safe to encourage everyone to go.

I know the internet is a place dominated by hyperbole – and bloggers are guiltier than most in that respect. But there are a few moments in the theatre when you can feel glad to be alive, glad to have been around to have witnessed an achievement that seems so close to perfection as to be transcendent. Bailegangaire is one of them, and Brigit adds greatly to that experience.

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9 thoughts on “Druid’s Brigit and Bailegangaire

  1. So glad you wrote this, Patrick, you’ve articulated, so well, the impact that both plays had on me. I saw them on Saturday and feel transformed by the experience, I haven’t stopped thinking, or talking about it since. The work Garry’s producing with this group of actors; Marie Mullen, Aisling O’Sullivan, Marty Rea, Catherine Walsh, is truly exceptional.
    I’ve been attending Druid shows since I was a student in the 80’s in Galway, and have been rewarded over the years by Garry’s insight and vision, always setting the bar higher, always giving more, always rewarding her audiences with enriching theatre experiences.
    I hope that those studying, and working, in theatre, make an effort to see the ‘double bill’ (I do think the two plays should be seen together). Occasions like this are rare, they remind us why we do what we do, and why we should always reach for the stars…

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  2. Hi Patrick,
    I saw Brigit last week. I’ve never seen Bailegangaire. I felt very disappointed with the play so I don’t understand your giving it such an easy ride. It’s a bad play however you look at it. Completely inorganic plot. Cliched priest and cartoon mother superior; long boring talk about the glories of saint Brigit that sound like they’ve been copy and pasted from wikipedia. Kids who hardly open their mouths. A redundant character in Brigit herself who plays no part in what little drama there is. An infidelity chucked in and then forgotten in a thrice. Trunk of ancient bog wood conveniently to hand on the top of a wardrobe. Not to mention the non revelation that art is sacred and organised religion is not. It all added up to a boring evening in the theatre for me and while I admire Tom Murphy I feel he’s done no favours by turning a blind eye to his failed plays. I’ve seen it before with his awful Last days of a reluctant tyrant which was hailed as a masterpiece by some critics. As for Druid and their supposed magnificence I have to say I was again underwhelmed by the static and unimaginative staging and direction. This country is brimming with fresh, raw, hugely imaginative talent who with a fraction of Druid’s resources can produce stunning theatre. Gary Hynes and co really need to move over and allow others some space to create. They are atrophied in their work and ambitions and that’s only to be expected after so long. They have served the cultural life of the country admirably but like an old tenor who can no longer hit the high notes their efforts are becoming a bit of an embarrassment at this stage. Best wishes,
    Bernard Field

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    • Thanks for the reply Bernard.
      I don’t think I gave Brigit an easy ride; I just had a different opinion to yours, and that’s fine. My opinion was largely based on the fact that it’s a companion piece to Bailegangaire, a play I know well, and as I say I think it’s an interesting question about how well it stands alone. Also, in fairness, you did see a preview, so that may have been a factor. Or maybe not.
      As for Druid’s ongoing relevance, I’ve often heard that view expressed but I am glad that Druid are still around, and think in fact that they are actually doing a lot to create audiences for theatre in Galway and generally.
      Thanks
      Patrick

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  3. Interesting post (& comments) – where the shows are on as a double bill, the Dublin Theatre Festival are showing Brigit first, presumably as per Druid’s request. So, if not familiar with Bailegangaire, it sounds like you’re better off seeing them on separate nights, with Bailegangaire first, which might dilute the overall effect on seeing the 2 back to back. Looking forward to seeing them. Btw – did you ever write a post on Ballyturk? Would be interested on your views. There were quite a lot of diverse views expressed on boards.ie theatre forum

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    • I think both plays enrich each other – Brigit makes a lot more sense when you know Bailegangaire, but likewise Brigit enriches Baile too. It’s not essential to see both, and the order doesn’t really matter. All I’d say is that if you are seeing both, suspend judgment until you have seen both.

      As for Ballyturk – I do want to write about it but as it’s still on in London I don’t want to “spoil” it for anyone. But I do want to write about the ending.

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      • I would also respectfully suggest Patrick, that too main stream theatre critics and commentators in Ireland are far too closely connected with the organisations whose work they critique. An objective view is thus compromised. It’s much harder to speak the unvarnished truth (as one sees it) which may be unflattering to someone whose cheek one has kissed. It’s interesting how many of the more hard hitting reviews are meted out to companies of little or no celebrity while the big guns are almost invariably lauded to one degree or another. And many times unconditionally lauded. It’s all somewhat craven in my view but understandable as there are ultimately positions and livelihoods at stake. Boat rockers soon get turfed into the swell. But let’s not gild the lilly by pretending there’s much serious critiquing of work going on. Regards, Bernard Field

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  4. Don’t really think that’s true Bernard. If it were, we’d see huge discrepancies between Irish reviews and international reviews when shows go on tour. And while that sometimes happens (e.g. Ballyturk getting 2 stars from the Observer yesterday), it doesn’t happen often or consistently enough to suggest any particular bias. And in Ireland, everyone knows everyone – most professional critics respond to that not by trying to be objective but rather by just being professional, and readers will always make up their own minds. But yes, I am all for reviews having more detail and serious critique. And also I think that reviews should not be unnecessarily harsh or bad mannered, regardless of whether the company is established or emerging. Thanks again.

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