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.
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.