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.

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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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Eugene O’Neill’s Strange Interlude, National Theatre London

I just saw a very good production of Eugene O’Neil’s Strange Interlude at the National Theatre in London. As you’d expect from O’Neill, it’s massively ambitious, encompassing several decades in the life of Nina, a woman who is unusually self-possessed and sexually assertive (for a female character in a 1920s American play, anyway…).

The play is also formally experimental, using asides to present the inner thoughts of  the characters. The ensuing contrast between what people say and what they’re thinking is often very funny, but the cumulative effect is to create the impression that in some ways O’Neill is trying to reverse engineer Shakespeare.

Shakespeare in his earlier plays took the inner self and externalised it, not only through the use of soliloquies but also, and more interestingly, by personifying human emotions. Hence, jealousy took the form of the villain John the Bastard in Much Ado, who in turn became the far more sophisticated and interesting Iago in Othello – until in Winter’s Tale the jealousy took place entirely within the mind of Leontes, and was all the more horrifying for that. Where Shakespeare started by externalising emotion and worked his way in towards psychological credibility, O’Neill is working his way out – perhaps trying to dramatise the inner life of his characters in the way that Joyce had done with Ulysses a few years earlier. But unlike in Joyce – and unlike in Shakespeare – O’Neill’s characters’ thoughts are sometimes so dense and intense that they don’t always ring true when spoken aloud: our minds move faster than our voices ever can, after all.

As a result of that technique, some of the exposition in the play feels a bit awkward, but the overall effect is very interesting, adding depth to characters who might easily be played as caricatures, and eliciting far more sympathy for the play’s mildly ridiculous author-figure Charlie than he probably deserves. And the contrast between how the characters appear to others and what they feel about themselves is both funny and poignant.

And the acting is very good. The lead role is played by Anne-Marie Duff. I’ve only ever seen her perform live once before, in Druid’s 2004 production of Playboy of the Western World. She seemed a bit uncomfortable in that role: she was playing opposite Cillian Murphy, and she seemed oddly subdued opposite his hyperactive Christy – and was also overshadowed by Aisling O’Sullivan’s impish Widow Quinn. But here she’s very impressive – those old reviewers’ clichés about actors ‘owning the stage’ are apt, since she confidently dominates every scene from start to finish. It’s difficult to explain that dominance by reference to one specific thing that she does: there is the decisiveness of her movements, the unobtrusive but unignorable melody of her voice, her skill in adding weight to the apparently inconsequential, and much more. But, to use another reviewers’ cliché, the most impressive aspect of her performance is that we never notice she’s acting.

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Also impressive as Charlie is Charles Edwards, who manages the tricky balancing act of being the butt of many of the play’s jokes as well as the focal point for much of the audience’s sympathy. And as usually happens in the Littleton, there are lots of impressive scene changes on that lovely revolving stage in there.

Eugene O’Neill is sometimes claimed as an Irish playwright – though, of course, this usually happens only in Ireland. Strange Interlude is one of his least “Irish” plays, though its lengthy consideration of the ethics of abortion would certainly have an impact in the country today. But I still found myself regretting the fact that we rarely see these big American plays – the loose baggy monsters of the theatre world – in Ireland.

Since the turn of the century, most of Arthur Miller’s famous plays have appeared in Ireland (The Crucible at the Abbey and Lyric, All My Sons at the Abbey, View from the Bridge, the Price and Death of a Salesman at the Gate). Tennessee Williams’s Streetcar is about to be produced at the Gate, and there have been a couple of productions of Glass Menagerie by smaller regional companies. And the Gate staged Eccentricities of a Nightingale a few years ago. Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross and American Buffalo have appeared a couple of times; Boston Marriage has been done twice (by B*spoke and the Gate), perhaps because it’s not a very typical David Mamet play. And I think I’ve seen three productions of Long Day’s Journey Into Night in Ireland: one at the Gate in the mid-1990s, another in the Galway Arts Festival starring John Mahoney a few years later, and then Druid’s production with James Cromwell in (I think) 2008. And one of the first shows I ever saw at the Abbey was The Iceman Cometh with Brian Dennehy, just over 20 years ago. So we do get to see the American ‘classics’ from time to time, but rarely see anything more unusual.  I’d love to see plays like Miller’s American Clock or The Archbishop’s Ceiling, and almost anything else by Tennessee Williams and Eugene O’Neill.

I know that the economics of the Irish stage have an impact here: most of those plays I’ve mentioned call for a large cast and would be unlikely to attract a large audience without a star actor in (at least) one of the leading roles. And Strange Interlude is three and a half hours long, and Irish audiences are reputed to get cranky when faced with the prospect of missing their last bus home (aka last orders).

But I was struck tonight by the Irish echoes in Strange Interlude – the similarities between O’Neil’s women and Synge’s female characters, the hints of an affinity with O’Casey’s use of language (I could understand how the two men would end up being friendly a few years later)… And just as Irish writers influenced O’Neill (or were similar to him in interesting ways), I’m often surprised by the way in which so many Irish dramatists state, when asked who their influences are, that Tennessee Williams is one of the major figures in the development of their work.

Well – in the meantime, Strange Interlude is well worth catching if you are in London.

Shush at the Abbey

Last Wednesday night I attended the opening night of Elaine Murphy’s Shush at the Abbey.

There’s something very exciting about seeing new writing on the Abbey’s main stage, especially from a young dramatist who’s not very well known yet. Most of the Abbey’s recent main stage premieres of new writing have been by established Irish writers, and many of them have been adaptations – productions such as McGuinness’s The Dead and John Gabriel Borkman, Tom Murphy’s Last Days of a Reluctant Tyrant, Roddy Doyle’s Government Inspector, and the ill-fated Adigun/Doyle Playboy of the Western World. There are exceptions, of course: Bernard Farrell’s new play Bookworms has appeared twice, and most recently Richard Dormer’s Drum Belly caused a bit of a stir at the theatre.

All that said, it’s very unusual – and perhaps unprecedented in the contemporary period – for us to see a writer’s second play debuting on the Abbey’s main stage.

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Elaine Murphy’s first play was Little Gem, which was co-produced by Guna Nua and the Civic Theatre back in 2008. That play proved a (somewhat unlikely) commercial success, transferring to the Olympia and later to Peacock stage of the Abbey itself; it also toured nationally. I describe the success as unlikely because it was a monologue play by a then unknown author, but audiences actually responded very positively to Murphy’s presentation of different generations of women – and to the quality of her language and her humour. Those traits appear again in Shush, though this time we move from monologue to dialogue, in a play about five women who gather in a suburban house to celebrate a birthday.

I’d imagine that Shush could match and potentially even exceed the success of Little Gem. But what I found most exciting about the opening night was that I was seeing a new play by a woman on the Abbey’s main stage. That’s something I’d only ever experienced three times previously, when I saw Marina Carr’s By the Bog of Cats in 1998, Marina Carr’s Ariel in 2002, and Marina Carr’s Marble in 2010. In other words, Elaine Murphy is only the second woman to have a new play on the Abbey’s main stage during my lifetime.  [note – after publishing this post, I got a note from a reader to say that in 1988, Jeane Binnie had a play on the Abbey stage, making her a third Irish woman dramatist – http://www.abbeytheatre.ie/archives/production_detail/702 ]

After the 1930s, Deevy’s plays were revived on the Abbey’s main stage from time to time, notably with Katie Roche, which appeared there in 1975 (it was also revived in the Peacock in 1994). And Lady Gregory’s (unduly neglected) Devorgilla was revived in 1949 and 1966, while her best known plays such as Hyacinth Halvey, Spreading the News, the Rising of the Moon and the Gaol Gate had occasional main stage productions right up to the early 1970s. After that, Gregory more or less disappeared from the repertoire, most noticeably in 2004, when the Abbey’s centenary celebrations featured a play about Gregory (Colm Toibin’s Beauty in a Broken Place) but neglected to produce any of her own works – a poor tribute to a woman who had not just established the theatre but kept it open for almost thirty years of her life. So the Abbey’s main stage has not been hospitable to women dramatists, both historically and more recently.

The story is a little different in the Peacock, where there have been some very good plays by Irish women, especially recently. Since the turn of the century, at the Peacock I’ve seen new work by Stella Feehily, Hilary Fannin, Paula Meehan, and Marina Carr. And in 2010/2011 that theatre staged plays by Marina Carr, Carmel Winters, Nancy Harris, and Stacey Gregg. I’d be curious to know if that was the first time any Irish theatre has staged four plays by different women consecutively: I certainly can’t remember anything comparable happening.

So in the last five years or so, the Abbey has been addressing the neglect of women dramatists historically, and has been making a concerted effort to redress the problem. It’s a pity that their attempts to do so have not generated much comment or coverage, if only because the Abbey is doing something that could be more widely imitated.

In Irish theatre generally, the relative absence of women dramatists is a serious problem. Ireland’s second biggest theatre the Gate produces relatively few new plays; the only time I can recall their producing an original play by a woman was when Yasmina Reza’s Art appeared there in the 1990s (though Anne-Marie Casey wrote a version of Little Women there a couple of years ago, and Joseph O’Connor and Conor McPherson have respectively adapted Daphne Du Maurier’s My Cousin Rachel and The Birds for the theatre).

Druid has produced work by Geraldine Aron throughout its history, and in more recent years premiered Leaves by Lucy Caldwell, but a majority of its productions are by male authors like Synge, Murphy and McDonagh.

Rough Magic has the strongest record in this regard, having premiered a number of important plays by women – many of whom are also actresses, as it happens. Liz Kuti’s Sugar Wife and Gina Moxley’s Danti Dan stand out, but they’ve also produced very good plays by Ionna Anderson, Rosemary Jenkinson, Morna Regan and others.

Likewise Fishamble have brought us work by Sonya Kelly, Abbie Spallen, and Rosalind Hassit – while in the north Tinderbox has recently produced work by Lisa McGee, Rosemary Jenkinson, Stacey Gregg.

But the overall picture is not good. A few years ago, I went through the Irish playography, counting the number of plays by women. Roughly one in four Irish plays produced between 1990 and 2005 were by women. And most of those plays were produced in smaller venues. Plays by women were therefore much less likely to be published, to be reviewed, to be written about by academics, to win awards… And while there have been some improvements lately, things haven’t changed much since then.

It’s not as if women aren’t writing plays, of course. Ursula Rani Sarma and Stella Feehily can be pointed to as examples of very successful Irish women dramatists. But both of them are produced mostly in Britain, and it would probably be fair to say that Feehily in particular is better known in London than she is in Dublin. Similarly, Nicola McCartney is from Belfast, but she appears far more often in surveys of Scottish theatre than in discussions of Irish drama.

So for these and other reasons, it’s great to see the Abbey taking a chance with a new play by a young female dramatist.

As for the play itself… Well, I agreed with Peter Crawley when he stated in his Irish Times review that the play tends to avoid metaphor or significant events; he also pointed out that it’s not very dramatic. He gave it two out of five stars, though, and I thought that was a bit harsh.

Watching the play, I would have liked to have had a sense that there was a bit more going on beneath the surface, but the lack of dramatic action didn’t bother me. This is a play in which characters with no sense of direction sit around talking for hours, contemplating whether they have the will to go on, and engaging in inconsequential games in order to pass the time. Shush is not trying to be Waiting for Godot, but Murphy does show an awareness that Irish audiences don’t necessarily need something to happen regularly. As with so many Irish plays, the drama lies not in the action but in the dialogue. And while the primary theme here is the relationship of these women to each other and to the (off-stage) men in their lives, there are also some interesting explorations of themes like emigration, alcohol abuse, and middle class materialism (and vulnerability to economic shock). Inevitably – perhaps too inevitably – there is a moment in which dance is used to express emotions that are unable to be articulated verbally. So we never feel too far away from another Irish play about five women: Friel’s Dancing at Lughnasa.

Murphy also does something that we don’t see often enough in Ireland: she writes five good parts for women of varying ages. The performances here are very funny: the roles could easily enough turn into caricature, but Deirdre Donnelly, Barbara Brennan, Niamh Daly, Evan Bartley and Ruth Hegarty all flesh out their characters in interesting ways. And Jim Culleton as director allows the laughs to come naturally: his direction is unforced and unhurried, and he pays Murphy the compliment of trusting her work. I’m not sure many other directors would have been so generous, and the production is all the better for that.

I suspect that some of my fellow academics may debate, and perhaps even condemn, the play’s gender politics during the coming years. Murphy gives us five women who are for the most part self-fashioning and self-directing; they’re also (mostly) interesting and individualised. But there is also a tendency for the characters to judge and assert their value in relation to whether (and how much) they are noticed by the men in their lives. For example, without wishing to give anything away, there is a moment in the play in which the suggestion seems to be made that the only thing that makes one of the character’s lives worth living is the prospect of attending a significant event in the life of one of her male relatives. We’re used to this kind of characterisation from film and novels, of course, but Murphy leaves those generic conventions largely untroubled.  Again a comparison with Lughnasa feels apt: Friel’s five women are to a large extent influenced by how they are seen by men like Gerry Evans, Father Jack and Danny Bradley. But Friel’s play is formally so original that it gives us many other ways to see the characters.

I also wondered about the decision to have the play’s least intelligent character deliver its most insightful speech. The passage works well in performance, and helps to bring us towards the conclusion, but someone could argue that the play seems to be suggesting that the way to be happy is to think about things as little as possible.

These are minor criticisms, though, and they don’t detract much from the many positive qualities of the production.  Shush is an entertaining play, and it’s often very funny. And if the genre is familiar, the dialogue itself is very original – it literally sounds like no other play I’ve seen before. I think it will be seen as offering a very good night out, and should be very successful on that basis.

But the real significance of the production, for me anyway, is that it’s a step towards normalising the presence of women dramatists on the main stages of our theatre. We still have a long way to go, of course – but Shush feels like a good start.