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.



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.

What Makes Stephen Brennan a Great Actor? – Thoughts on Halcyon Days

Last night I went to see Deirdre Kinahan’s Halycon Days at the Town Hall in Galway. It’s playing until Saturday and is well worth going to if you’re in that part of the country.

The audience, as sometimes happens on Tuesdays in theatres, was a bit chatty. This can happen in any theatre, really. You’ll get people who give a running commentary on the action (“Oh Jesus, look what he’s after doing!”). And then you get some who gently mock the dialogue or the characters, as happened last night when in the fourth scene one of the actors moved a cup of tea poured in the first scene – prompting one person behind me to whisper to her companion “your tea has gone cold mister!” And then of course you get people who comment between scenes – “what do you think”, “that was good”, etc.

None of this really bothered me – Halcyon Days is the kind of play that puts people at their ease and involves the audience thoroughly from the start, so to a certain extent people were responding as they would to a good movie on TV.

One of the things that struck me was that after each scene change, I kept hearing different people around me saying the same thing: they were all saying variations of “he’s very good, isn’t he?” to each other. The “he” in question was Stephen Brennan, and it was clear that while many people knew who he was, many others didn’t. But almost everyone was very impressed by him.

I found myself wondering about this. The play is about two people in an old folks’ home, one played by Brennan and the other by Anita Reeves. And I thought both performances were excellent. On a technical level, the two were equally good – and I thought both parts were equally well written. Yet it was Brennan’s performance that the audience kept talking about. It wasn’t that they didn’t like Reeves’ performance – quite the opposite. But there was just something about Brennan that people kept responding to.

This experience emphasised to me that it’s very difficult to define what makes a great actor great. In the Dublin theatre scene at the moment, I find myself consistently being impressed by the performances of Denis Conway, Declan Conlon and Owen Roe, to give just three examples of male performers. But while they have all given ‘great’ performances during the last 10-15 years, they are not all ‘great’ in the same way. In fact, they are very different from each other: Roe and Conway have both played the Irishman in The Gigli Concert, for example – and while I was astonished by both performances, they were also very different from each other. And one of the best performances I’ve seen on a Dublin stage in the last decade was Tom Vaughan-Lawlor’s Arturo Ui at the Abbey a few years ago. And what made it great is that the only person who could have played that part that way was Vaughan-Lawlor himself.

So in thinking about Brennan’s performance last night, I can point to things that seemed admirable. I admired the physical discipline that allowed his character to seem about 20-30 years older than Brennan is himself. He also showed that the character’s apparent infirmity was partly based on fear rather than any genuine physical problem – and he did this by allowing the character sometimes to lose his self-consciousness and move without thinking. And there were just some nice details: for instance, he wore pants that seemed just slightly too big for him, so we had the sense of his character becoming thinner, fading away slightly. Some of this of course is the work of the playwright, director and designers too. Yet the audience kept talking about how good Brennan was.

He has, I think, been great in many performances, but there are three that really stand out for me.

One is his performance of Hamlet, in a mid-1980s Abbey production directed by Michael Bogdanov. I was too young to go at the time but have watched it on video, and was very struck by the dignity that Brennan gave his Hamlet in what was otherwise a (deliberately) chaotic production. At the time of watching the video, I jotted down a note saying that ‘his movements seem deeply felt’. That phrase doesn’t make much sense, I suppose, but what I meant by it was that Brennan didn’t actually need to say anything to communicate Hamlet’s thoughts – they were evident in whether he chose to stand up straight or not, in how he held his head, in the determination and pace of his steps, and so on. And I also liked that he delivered the words in his own accent: that doesn’t happen often enough in Ireland, even now.

Another that I remember very vividly is his part in the second play in Nancy Harris’s No Romance, which appeared at the Peacock a couple of years ago. That production involved three inter-linking but separate plays. The first part was good, but among the people I chatted with at the interval there was a definite sense that we weren’t sure how things would go for the rest of the production: there was promise there but also a few problems. Then Stephen Brennan came out in the second play and within five minutes of his appearance, there was a definite sense that the audience had forgotten their hesitation and were now fully involved in what they were seeing. This was probably because Brennan was so funny, brilliantly capturing the self-loathing and self-deception of a feckless middle-aged man in a funeral parlour. By the time people emerged from the theatre after the third play, there was a definite buzz: a real sense of enthusiasm for the play and for Harris’s future as a writer. And I think a lot of that was due to Stephen Brennan’s performance. That of course was made possible by Nancy Harris’s script (male ineptitude is something she’s especially good at, as evident from her other play Love in a Glass Jar). But I wonder if the play would have been as successful if someone else had played that role.

Finally there was his performance in Conor McPherson’s monologue play Port Authority, which was staged about 10-12 years ago. Brennan played one of three men who delivers a monologue directly to the audience. And in some ways he had the toughest job because his character was the least likeable, and his story the least credible (in the sense that it was so unbelievable it actually rang true).

On the night I saw the play in the Gate, there was a woman in the audience who had a very distinctive laugh. Whenever one of the actors cracked a joke, the audience would laugh – including the woman with the funny laugh – and so then the audience would laugh again at the woman’s laugh. So many of the jokes were generating two bouts of laughter. The other actors didn’t really pay much attention to this (it wouldn’t have suited their characters) but Brennan started to work around the woman’s laugh – timing his jokes around it and at one stage improvising a simple “I know” in response to her. It was as if he was saying that only a character as feckless as he was could have wound up in a theatre being laughed at by someone like her. This wasn’t in any way mean-spirited: there was actually a moment of identification between the woman’s discomfort and Brennan’s character’s perpetual state of self-loathing.

What made that impressive is that Brennan’s actions – far from being a crowd-pleasing breaking of the fourth wall – actually made the play work more fully. McPherson’s stage direction in Port Authority is that the action ‘takes place in a theatre’. That meant that the characters are actually talking to us – so Brennan’s responsiveness was entirely appropriate. And it also made sense in terms of his character – who had enough self-knowledge to know how ridiculous he was to other people (including the audience) but not enough awareness to actually change.

A lot of what I am describing is the craft of acting. And I’m also, I think, writing about the art of acting too, which (to generalise) happens when the actor gives something of himself or herself to a role, at once making it individualised (we believe this is a real person) and universalised (we believe that these feelings or experiences could be ours, at least potentially). I think Brennan does both of those things very well: his Hamlet is not necessarily the best I’ve ever seen, but it is one of the more memorable because it was different from any of the others. No-one but Brennan could have played the role that way. In contrast, most of the other Hamlets I’ve seen tend to blend into each other.

But I’m also trying to describe one of the things that makes a stage actor different from a film actor. Brennan has an extraordinary ability to listen to and thus to guide an audience. (Rosaleen Linehan is also brilliant in this respect.) He knows when to withhold a line and when to give it, when to drop the tone of his voice to fill a space made empty by audience inattention or some distraction in the auditorium, and when to hold back on the expression of a character’s emotions. I think people nowadays tend to see him as a comic actor, and while it is certainly true that he is very funny, he does many other things very well too.

I don’t want to romanticise acting in stating all of this. But I do think we could do with more writing about acting and actors in this country – about how they do what they do, about the decisions they make from one night to the next, about why audiences will feel compelled to whisper to each other during scene changes that someone was good. I’ve been thinking about what is meant by those whispered ‘isn’t he’s goods’. Do they represent surprise? Appreciation? Delight? I don’t know. But I see this happen all the time when Brennan is on stage, and I’m not sure how to describe what he does – how to record it, if it can be recorded.

I’m struck by this issue every time I read a review and see performances described as ‘compelling’, or as a ‘tour de force’. I think these are words that reviewers or academics use when they don’t actually know how to describe what they are seeing. For instance, I’ve called both Reeves and Brennan ‘excellent’ in this post but that word doesn’t really say anything about how they do what they do, how and why it works, and what makes Reeves excellent in ways that Brennan is not – and vice versa

And finally… the play itself is enjoyable, and it’s great to see Deirdre Kinahan doing  well: there’s a definite sense at the moment that her time has come. I’m going to be interviewing her on Friday at the Synge Summer School (together with Mark O’Rowe and Owen McCafferty) and am looking forward to that a lot.

One other observation I had is that a lot of Irish writers have plays that in some way tackle dementia – Bailegangaire, Dancing at Lughnasa, Friel’s Aristocrats, Morna Regan’s Midden, and quite a few others. This underlines for me the way that Irish writers remain very focussed on memory, and how they see memory as metaphor for the construction of a character’s identity.

But that’s another topic.