Corn Exchange and _ A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing_ at Dublin Theatre Festival

Well, this year’s Dublin Theatre Festival programme is out today, and I’m looking forward to spending a bit of time digesting it. There are some obvious highlights  – Thomas Ostermeier’s Hamlet,  Ganesh Vs the Third Reich, and the NTS’s Confessions of a Justified Sinner on the international side; and on the Irish side, new plays from Deirdre Kinahan, Tom Murphy, and Mark O’Rowe, and new productions from Anu and Pan Pan, among many others.

But by far the biggest surprise – and the most intriguing prospect – is that Corn Exchange plan to adapt Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing into an eighty-five minute performance that will star Aoife Duffin (below). My immediate reaction upon hearing this news? “But that’s impossible – they’ll never manage it”.

A Girl is A Half Formed Thing

But then, after a moment’s reflection, it occurred to me that I’d had this reaction to news of previous Corn Exchange productions several times before.

I never thought it would be possible to put on a stage adaptation of the film version of Lolita – yet they did this very memorably in the Peacock in 2002, with Andrew Bennett playing Humbert, Ruth Negga (below) playing the title role, and David Pearse and Ciara Simpson completing the ensemble. The strangeness of Humbert’s narrative – and Nabokov’s distance from it – was made theatrical by the company’s use of commedia and live musical accompaniment. Annie Ryan, in other words, had found a theatrical language that translated the novel’s most important characteristics into something physical and dramatic.

Lolita-Ruth

A few years later, I never thought they’d be able to adapt Dubliners for a production at the Gaiety – firstly because it’s a collection of short stories, secondly because the theatre was so big, and finally because the impact of the stories lies not (just) in plot or characterisation but mostly in language and what it does to the reader. But again Ryan and Michael West found a way to make it work on the stage,  allowing the stories to accumulate a theatrical energy that corresponded to the collection’s transitions from childhood to maturity, and by retaining as much as possible the original language. This had the impact of highlighting the performative elements of Joyce’s stories – the songs that are sung, the stories that are told, the public spectacle  – the fact that Joyce was working within a tradition that was both literary and oral.

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I never thought that they’d be able to do Eugene O’Neill’s Desire Under The Elms in Ulster accents last year, and I was wrong about that.

And I was sceptical when I heard back in 2006 that their production Everyday was being seen as an attempt to do in the theatre what filmmakers like PT Anderson were doing in movies like Magnolia (or Haggis’s Crash or Soderburgh’s traffic): showing how an entire community’s stories overlap in surprising ways. Well, I was wrong there too.

Then there was the time I heard about the idea behind Dublin By Lamplight and… well, you get the idea.

So perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised that I again have no idea how Corn Exchange are going to pull off something that seems impossible to me.

The story McBride has to tell – about the upbringing of a young woman and her shifting attitudes to  sex, identity, autonomy, mortality, religion – is difficult, but it can be put on the stage, especially, I’d think, if there is a careful enough focus on the relationship that  the woman has with her brother. But how can the stage accommodate what McBride does to language and form?

McBride does something shocking with syntax and language. Her sentences are jagged, written as if torn out of some longer, more coherent narrative. They spill out and overlap as if being forced from a body.

It’s notable that so many people state that reading the book feels like a physical experience – for once, the reviewers’ clichés about the text being visceral or feeling like a kick in the stomach or the narrative being heart-breaking actually feel accurate: McBride’s language has a kind of muscularity that hurts sometimes. And the language does actually change the reader, permanently: you have to learn how to read the novel, and that means forgetting what you know about reading. You can’t skim; you can’t fill in blanks. You just have to let the words accumulate and the meaning will make itself felt, sometimes painfully so.

It’s an impressive book, and a very unsettling one. It’s also a difficult book – difficult to read in many ways: it takes time and effort, and the content is upsetting.  But it’s massively rewarding, and I consider it to be one of the major Irish novels of our time. People have compared it with Molly Bloom’s soliloquy – and while that should be seen as a compliment of sorts, I think it also runs the risk of obscuring the fact that McBride is not just one more Irish novelist trying to out-Joyce James Joyce. She is doing something that no-one has ever tried before.

But here’s where I wonder about the adaptation. Perhaps what makes the novel so rewarding is that it’s never fully possible to identify the features of the novel in a literal or realistic sense. We never learn the protagonist’s name; we may be able to guess or infer where she is from or where she studies or lives – but we’re never told for sure. We are never fully sure whether individual events in the novel are real or fantasised or dreamed or anticipated or feared. The fractured language is an expression of the protagonist’s individuality but it also works to defend that individuality – to reject the ways in which her mother, uncle, community, and society all seek constantly to name her, to narrow her down, to fix her in place with words. She doesn’t want to be named: she doesn’t want to be formed by language but to use language to disguise herself.

So what happens when you turn the narrator – who is just a broken voice – into a human being on a stage? What happens if the words become physicalised and literalised? Can the text’s ambiguity survive the transition to the stage?  Can the many ‘half-formed’ features of the novel be given form?

Well, of course they can. There is one useful model already in existence:  Beckett’s Mouth in Not I, another text that Half-Formed Thing can be compared to, while standing on its own merits. But of course Annie Ryan isn’t going to just give us a mouth in the darkness.

But it’s pleasant to be faced once again with the conviction that Corn Exchange can’t possibly achieve what they are setting out to do – and the happy expectation that I’ll be proven completely wrong, yet again.

Here’s a link to the production page: https://dublintheatrefestival.com/Online/A_Girl_is_a_Half_formed_Thing

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David Greig’s THE EVENTS – Dublin Theatre Festival 2013

In the spring of 1996, I spent a lot of time listening to Nick Cave’s Murder Ballads. I’d been a fan of Cave anyway but that album seemed to push his work on to several entirely new levels. The biblical and southern gothic allusions that had dominated his earlier music (and his novel And the Ass Saw the Angel) were there, as was his characteristically blood-curdling wit. And musically the collection seemed to fuse every genre he’d been working in up to that point, giving us something that was somewhere between folk and punk. But what was striking was the combination of those different elements: it was as if his career had been leading up to this point for years, that he was finally tying together several strands that had previously been developed separately.

The subject matter of the songs was, as the title implies, murder: according to the Wikipedia page, more than 65 killings are described across the album’s 10 tracks. Yet while they were undoubtedly morbid – vicious, in fact – they could also be funny, as in Cave’s fabulously over-the-top rendition of “Stagger Lee”. They were  sometimes beautiful too, as in “Henry Lee”, Cave’s duet with PJ Harvey. And his duet with Kylie Minogue, “Where the Wild Roses Grow”, was revelatory in all sorts of ways, bringing both singers to entirely new audiences.

The mid-1990s was a time when an excessive, even hyperbolic, sense of violence was dominating the culture. Cave’s album came out just after Sarah Kane’s Blasted and McDonagh’s Beauty Queen of Leenane appeared, for example. As a final year student at UCD during that year, I used to find myself regularly going along to see Film Soc screenings of what were then massively popular movies: Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, and True Romance. These plays and films used violence for a variety of reasons, but Aleks Sierz still puts it best when he describes such work  as ‘in-yer-face’. The idea behind such work was to shock the audience, to force them to pay attention, to shake them out of complacency.

That “in-yer-face” quality was one of the reasons I loved Murder Ballads. It describes the killing of people but it felt that Cave was instead murdering conventions – about what music could and should be, about the barriers between pop and supposedly more serious forms of music, about the relationship between folk traditions and rock. Violence, he showed, is embedded in our culture – not just in Tarantino movies but in everything from the Bible to Milton. He showed us that what we regard as aberrant and dangerous can actually be a lot more familiar than we might wish to acknowledge.

One morning as I was preparing to leave for college, I was listening to Cave’s album while a housemate had the TV on in a different room. I was relaxed, singing along to Cave’s music – but was then  called into the TV room where reports were starting to come in of a school massacre in Dunblane in Scotland. As many people will  remember, on that day a man arrived at a primary school in a Scottish village, carrying his own  handguns. He opened fire on a group of 5 and 6 year-old children, killing almost everyone in the class, including the teacher. He then committed suicide himself.

I was watching this news report, shocked and upset – and became aware that from the other room Cave’s “O’Malley’s Bar” was still playing – a song about a man who enters a bar and murders his fellow townspeople. The contrast between  the reality of the massacre in Scotland with the sexed-up, rocked-up narration of murder by Cave suddenly seemed horrifying.

While I have since heard different songs from Murder Ballads in many different contexts, I don’t think I have ever again listened to it the whole way through. I know – and knew – what Cave was trying to do, but I felt that his album was using the coherence of musical form to bring order and occasionally even beauty to the theme of murder. In doing that, Cave was of course following a long tradition. But in the context of the Dunblane massacre, Cave’s songs seemed at risk of making such events instead seem in some way comprehensible or even normal:  normal not in the sense of being morally right, but rather in the sense of being something that we can and should expect as part of our ordinary lives. Making something comprehensible is of course not the same thing as making it seem justified. But it no longer seemed possible to listen to that album in the same way. I’m not criticising Cave in stating this; I just found the juxtaposition of the album with the real events too disturbing to shake off.

I was thinking about all of this while watching David Greig’s new play The Events, which is running at the Peacock as part of the Dublin Theatre Festival. While it was  inspired by the massacre in Norway by Anders Breivik, it also speaks to such events as Dunblane, not to mention the many horrible atrocities that have recently taken place in America. It also resonated painfully with events in Athlone last weekend, when two young girls were lured from a birthday party and sexually assaulted.

The Events asks how a community can and should survive after such an atrocity has taken place, focussing on the figure of a choir-leader called Claire (Neve McIntosh) who is one of the few survivors after her choir is attacked by a young man with a gun. She engages in a series of dialogues with other people (all played by Rudi Dharmalingam): a journalist, a politician, her psychiatrist, a friend of the murderer, her partner, and then, finally, the killer himself. Along the way, she tries to attribute responsibility, to understand the murderer’s motivations and background – to try to make sense of ‘the events’ and by doing so to assuage some of her own guilt at surviving them.

The play reaches some surprising conclusions. But it’s not giving anything away to suggest that Greig doesn’t offer his protagonist or his audience comforting answers: all we are  left with is the choice to accept our confusion and try to move on as best we can.

What makes the play especially stimulating – and this is why I was reminded of Nick Cave – is that it is performed each night with a different community choir on stage. The choir’s presence might at first seem gimmicky but it quickly becomes evident that they are carrying a great deal of the emotional power of the production, their live bodies contrasting all too painfully with the people who had been murdered in the play.

I have written before on this blog about playwrights using music to make certain emotions seem more evident – a trend evident in Conor McPherson’s The Night Alive and Elaine Murphy’s Shush, among many other examples. I am uneasy about this technique, especially when it is used by younger or less experienced writers, since it tends to be used to evoke a feeling that the dramatist ought to be able to inspire through writing (in other words, it can sometimes be a bit lazy). But in Greig’s play it works very well.

Firstly,  the choir  operates as a metaphor for community. We have a variety of people: male and female and of different ages and backgrounds and nationalities – and of course with different kinds of singing voice as well. What seems like a busy mass of individual bodies on-stage is transformed into a (literally) harmonious collective through music.  And importantly,  they are not using music to respond directly to the murders. Rather they use it as a way of asserting a shared determination to continue living – to remember and perhaps to forgive as well. So where Murder Ballads beautifies death,  The Events reminds us of the beauty of ordinary life.

In this respect, the play reminded me slightly of Karl Jenkins’s Armed Man, a mass for peace which (I believe) is very popular with choral groups around Ireland and the UK. Some of that music is militaristic and (as sometimes happens with Jenkins) a little bombastic. But the movements that deal with forgiveness and peace are often very moving, as can be heard in the “Benedictus” below (go on, click on it and listen as you read the rest of this post – you’ll enjoy it).

In other words, what impressed me about The Events is that it doesn’t try to make sense of murder. It instead says that our shared community with each other will help us to keep going when we realise that some aspects of life and death cannot be understood or explained or predicted.  Claire’s “healing” (if we can call it that) arises not because she has made sense of “the events” but instead because she has been embraced by a larger collective – who rescue her from her sense of isolation and confusion.

Strangely, this means that the play can feel somewhat under-powered. As Fintan O’Toole put it in his Irish Times column this weekend,

It is striking that Greig and [the play’s] director, Ramin Gray, more or less admit, in the form of the piece, that drama, on the scale they can manage, is not quite adequate to the task of exploring the big themes of racism, difference and decency.

I’d agree with that – I found myself surprised that Greig didn’t reach for a conclusion that was more profound or more substantial in some way. But his solution seems in some way more honest, more apt, more in keeping with the sense of helplessness that we feel when confronted with events like those in Dunblane or Utoya.

One other thought. For the play’s run at the Peacock, a different choir appears on stage at every performance. There’s a link here with Greig’s other works, and indeed with some of the things that have been done by the National Theatre of Scotland generally (this play is not produced by NTS but it has a similar approach to audience involvement).

In bringing choirs onstage, Greig is doing something similar to what he did with the brilliant Prudencia Hart, a play about Scottish folk music which is staged in pubs, performed as if everyone is at a session. So when we see the play we watch it not in a theatre but in a pub: the lights stay up, we are encouraged to buy pints, and it is all as raucous and as immersive as a good rural session would be. It’s also one of the best productions I’ve seen in the last 10 years, but that is another story.

We hear a lot in Ireland (and elsewhere) about plays being “relevant”. Too often theatre-makers and critics think that “relevant” means that we should see on stage all the bad news that we read about in the newspapers. But Greig’s Events and Prudencia Hart show a different approach to making theatre relevant: they share a knowledge that in every community in Ireland and Britain there are hundreds of people who travel out night after night to perform – in choirs, in pub sessions, in amateur drama, and in many other ways as well. One of the reasons for the vibrancy of Scottish theatre at present is that groups like the NTS have tried to connect with amateur performances – integrating them without appropriating them. They thus make theatre that is relevant to the ordinary lived experiences of such groups.

We’re not unaware of this kind of process in Ireland. One of the reasons that Louise Lowe’s work is so exciting is that it draws on the communities it depicts. And one of the reasons Macnas’s work is so inspiring is that it is a total fusion of professional and community theatre. But I still think there are lessons for us to take from plays like Prudencia and The Events – both of which show that our communities are performing in ways that could be better connected with our theatres.

On the bus back home after The Events I was working through these thoughts and decided I should give Murder Ballads another try, so I lined it up on the i-pod… I didn’t get to the end – in fact I only got to the half-way point. But I was glad to be reminded of how surprising and beautiful I had found this song when it first appeared 17 years ago:

“In A Glass Darkly” Junk Ensemble’s Dusk Ahead

Just a quick note about Junk Ensemble’s Dusk Ahead, running as part of the Dublin Theatre Festival this year…

I saw this last night in the Project, and was surprised to see that the theatre was only about three-quarters full. That seemed a pity, because it’s an excellent show, and I’m sure it would be enjoyed by anyone who sees it. So without wishing to write an advertorial, I thought it might be good to encourage others to go

Choreographed by Jessica Kennedy and Megan Kennedy, the piece is performed by five dancers who also sing and play musical instruments – so one of the things that immediately impressed me was not just the virtuosity of the performers, but also their versatility across different disciplines.

A score is played over the PA system, but it’s accompanied by a live cellist (Zoe Reardon) who sits stage-right for the duration of the performance. It quickly makes sense that the company has chosen to include that most sensuous of musical instruments on stage: this is a very passionate and (to use the word again) sensuous performance.

As the title implies, Dusk Ahead explores ideas about light and darkness, and/or sight and blindness. It’s about borderlands or (to use one of academia’s worst clichés) liminal spaces: places of transition where rules can temporarily be set aside or reinvented.

It explores ideas of sight and blindness in many ways. The performers often move blindfolded or with their eyes closed, for example – and there are some occasions when they are able to synchronize their movements despite being unable to see each other (as for instance when three of them perform with their heads in boxes). And much of the performance is carried out in very dim light.

Twilight is thus represented not just as a period  during the day, but also a metaphor for how we see the world (evoking ideas about Plato’s cave etc). Ultimately the performance seems to propose that blindness (metaphorically) can offer a deeper kind of sight – that what appears to be weakness can instead become a kind of strength. If that seems to put us in the territory of Sophocles’ Oedipus, the comparison is apt – since this has a mythical or ritualistic quality to it. And it’s a quality that’s still lingering in my mind, more than 14 hours after having seen it.

Dusk Ahead

The theme of having a kind of half-sight extends into the metaphorical realm too. There’s one very passionate scene in which two of the dancers manage to sustain a kiss over several minutes and through dozens of different movements. At once erotic and funny, this scene presents the actors with their lips fixed firmly to each other – their eyes closed all the while. This seems an innovative  illustration of the cliché that love is blindness (although the Irish Examiner interprets this scene very differently)

There are also moments of aggression too, as when two of the performers are blindfolded and forced to wrestle with each other. There’s a sense here in which violence comes from the impotence of being unable to see the world clearly enough.

As you might expect, given the theme, the quality of the design is very impressive. Sarah Jane Shiels’ lighting does not just illustrate the performance; it becomes a significant element of the performance (in a way that can be contrasted fruitfully with the opening of GerminalAnd set and costume design by Sabine D’Argent likewise is not just the context for the performance but adds  to the working out of the core ideas in the production. And Denis Clohessy’s score and sound design are also massively impressive (following on from the terrific work he did with the Gate’s Streetcar). Anyone with even the slightest interest in design needs to see this show.

As I’ve said, then, this is surprisingly passionate: it moves  freely from eroticism to aggression and sometimes blurs the distinction between the two. Both musically and in terms of the movement, it is also very beautiful at times. It’s sometimes ugly too, but never coarsely so.

As I walked away from the Project Arts Centre, heading towards the Peacock to see The Events (about which more later), I listened to the other audience members who’d been to the show. “I really liked that,” one of them said. “I mean, I feel like I’d need a Master’s degree to understand what was going on, but I really liked it”.

Well, I don’t think anyone needs any kind of prior qualifications to go to this – and it’s not important to feel that you understand all or even any of it: it’s best simply to experience it. But the point is that everyone coming away from this show seemed much calmer and happier on the way home than they’d been coming in.

The performance is on at 6.30 on Thursday and Friday and at 6.00 on Saturday and Sunday of this  week. It ran for about 75 minutes when I saw it (that is, by the time I left the theatre it was 7.45). So if you’re seeing The Events or Riverrun or any other show that starts a bit late, I’d really recommend this. And indeed it’s well worth seeing in its own right.

The video below gives some sense of how the performance is staged and is worth a look.