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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Ireland Playing in Brazil: an Irish theatre company in São Paulo

Like many people, I have been thoroughly enjoying this year’s World Cup in Brazil. So far, it has been the tournament that we always wish for but never get: there have been surprises (Spain – twice) and lots of great goals. Most of the good players are living up to the pre-tournament hype, and, strangest of all, the English media is displaying a realistic sense of their team’s potential (for now anyway). Let’s hope it continues for the next few weeks – even if the 11.00 matches are slightly exhausting.

I’ve heard a few people say that it’s a pity Ireland aren’t at the World Cup, and of course that is true in some ways. Having said that, the style of play evident over the last week has displayed all of the virtues that the Irish team currently lacks: speed of thought, technical ability, imagination, confidence. The team would not have fared well at this tournament, I think.

In thinking about Ireland’s absence from the World Cup, I found myself being reminded that there is one area in which Ireland retains some sort of international prominence – I’m talking, of course, about our theatre – or literature from this country more generally.

There is one great example of that prominence in Brazil, which is the existence of the company Cia Ludens. Based in São Paulo, this professional company was established in 2003 with the remit of translating and staging Irish plays, starting with a well regarded version of Dancing at Lughnasa in 2003 which was recently revived.

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I’ve heard a lot about this company from Beatriz Bastos, the company’s producer and a scholar at Federal University of Santa Catarina. There is also a very useful article about it by Domingos Nunez, who has written about how the company was established, explaining that its name is derived from Johan Huizinga’s Homo Ludens –  a book that emphasizes the importance of play as a category for understanding all of human life. “I had come across Huizinga’s study while writing my Master’s dissertation,” writes Nunez:

 

but it was only in 2003, while in Ireland researching for my PhD thesis, that, through the critical works of Stewart Parker, I approached Huizinga’s idea of ludo ergo sum in a more revealing way. Parker, interpreting Huizinga, affirms that “play is how we test the world and register its realities. Play is how we experiment, imagine, invent and move forward” (6). This movement accurately reflected the innermost feelings of the people who happened to be part of the company at that time, and Ludens seemed the precise term to signal our deepest intentions in dealing with Irish and Brazilian contexts through the perspective of drama. The Latin term led us to make associations with other rich words that could be used as fruitful possibilities on the stage, such as the Latin ludo, inlusio and illudere; the Portuguese lúdico and ludibriar, and the English ludicrous and illusion.

 

Nunez has a very stimulating account of how the company’s approach draws on ideas not only from Huizinga but also from Boal, Stanislavski, Brecht and Lehmann. It is rooted in Irish drama, but it draws freely on an amazing range of international contexts.

So far the company has produced or staged readings of Dancing at Lughnasa, Stones in His Pockets,  Faith Healer, Vincent Woods’ Cry from Heaven and many others including Come and Go, Shadow of the Glen, Murphy’s Alice Trilogy, Friel’s Performances, Carr’s Ariel and Sebastian Barry’s Whistling Psyche. The Friel plays are in print, and I am very proud to own a beautiful edition of the complete set…

Of particular interest is a production that the company staged of Tom Murphy’s Bailegangaire and A Thief of A Christmas. Both plays were originally performed in 1985, the former by Druid and the latter at the Abbey – and both tell the same story from different perspectives. In Bailegangare, Mommo tells the story of how a town called Bochtan was re-named Bailegangaire (the town without laughter) as a result of a laughing competition that her husband participated in. Thief of a Christmas actually stages the laughing contest, and makes explicit Mommo’s culpability for what happens in it.

Fascinatingly, Cia Ludens staged both plays together in a single production. Here is what Shaun Richards has to say about it:

Seeing Cia Ludens’s rehearsal of the play I realised how profoundly the director, Domingos Nunez, had penetrated Murphy’s dramatic vision. For in his ‘transposition’ of the play to Brazil, and merging of Mommo’s memories in “Bailegangaire” with her lived experiences from “A Thief of a Christmas”, Mommo does more than tell the story. In this production she inhabits it – or rather it inhabits her, and she lives more fully in that world of the past than she does in the present where she only fitfully recognises her granddaughters. In staging the play as Mommo’s ever-present nightmare we see her slow progress to Bochtan and inability to leave, for to continue her journey home would be to acknowledge the events which faced her there, events for which she feels responsible. As her granddaughter, Dolly, says, ‘She’s guilty.’ This is the fact which must be faced.

 

What is notable about these works is that Nunez and his company are not staging productions that are in any way derivative of the original Irish versions. The Irish works are transposed to Brazil, re-imagined, and thoroughly re-inhabited. The kinds of choices made about staging and performance draw on many of the approaches used in Ireland, from naturalism to post-dramatic theatre – yet they are also distinctive.

There are some clips from on Youtube from Balangangueri (the company’s name for the merged plays), and they are well worth checking out:

 

 

I would love to see Cia Ludens performing in Ireland (ideally in Galway, where there remains a strong Brazilian community). I feel that we could learn a huge amount from these kinds of exchanges.

In the broader context in south America, there are lots of other interesting projects underway. Only recently, I heard from Charlotte Headrick (an American scholar who works on Patricia Burke Brogan’s plays) that Brogan’s Eclipsed was recently staged in Peru. That play is one of the first attempts in Ireland to come to terms with the tragedy of the Magdelene Laundries – and it was given a terrific production by Mephisto theatre company here in Galway last year (I blogged about it at the time). Ireland and Peru are of course very different from each other. But it is sickeningly unsurprising that Brogan’s story has proven resonant with the experiences of people in another “Catholic” country.

About fifteen years ago, there was a definite shift in the academic study of Irish theatre: scholars moved  from writing about plays they had read (focusing on themes, characterization and other broadly literary elements of the script) to instead analysing performances that they had seen. As a result, an Irish theatre conference is now just as likely to host papers about theatre-makers – from Garry Hynes to Joe Vanek to Louise Lowe and beyond – as it is to include papers about Irish dramatists.

This is certainly a positive development, but it is notable that we have tended mainly to explore Irish theatre as it is staged in Ireland. We tend to have some awareness of the Irish theatre companies that stage work in America  (groups like PICT or the Irish Rep among many others), or in the UK (the Tricycle, for example). But I think there’s a very poor awareness of how, when and why Irish theatre is staged outside of the Anglophone contexts – especially outside of Europe. A group I’m involved in called the Irish Theatrical Diaspora project was set up 10 years ago to try to track some of this work – and I think that in our second decade we need to do much more to engage with work in places like Brazil.

We hear much about the importance of the work that Culture Ireland has done in bringing theatre from Ireland to other countries. Yet groups such as Cia Ludens are also doing this work, and perhaps do more to facilitate a genuine intercultural dialogue between Irish culture and other forms of culture. The translation of Irish plays from English into other languages is important – and is brilliantly supported by ILE. But the subsequent staging of those plays is another form of “translation” that has a lot to teach us about our theatre and our country.

Of course, for a dialogue to happen, both parties need to listen to each other. I’d hope that in the years ahead, we can find more opportunities to bring companies like Cia Ludens to Ireland, so that we can – perhaps – start to re-conceive Irish theatre in a more international context. Just as football was an English game that the rest of the world imported and then made its own, perhaps “Irish theatre” can similarly be seen as something that is staged in Ireland – but staged everywhere else too, often in ways that are very exciting. And those stagings can in turn be brought back here, re-invigorating, renewing and challenging our theatre practice.

Irish Musical Theatre – A New Development That Has Always Been With Us

A few weeks ago, I did a brief interview with Eithne Shortall of The Sunday Times about the Irish musical. In her feature, she writes about Once and The Commitments, and wonders if these two productions suggest that we’ll see more  Irish musicals during the years ahead.

I think she’s right. I can see evidence of this growth at NUI Galway, where incoming Drama students are passionate about musical theatre, making GUMS (the university musical society) one of the university’s most vibrant student groups. And many students come to study theatre not because they have appeared in work by Synge or O’Casey or Friel, but because they were in a school production of South Pacific or Grease or West Side Story. We’re introducing classes in musical theatre from next year in an attempt both to meet that interest and to stimulate more of this kind of work.

Of course, the Irish musical has been around for a while. We saw it work brilliantly almost a decade ago (can it really be that long?) when Rough Magic premiered Bell Helicopter and Arthur Riordan’s Improbable Frequency, a musical about Ireland during the Second World War – which included such hilarious songs as “Be Careful Not to Patronise the Irish”. And we saw it on the main stage of the Abbey only last year with Wayne Jordan’s production of Alice in Funderland by Raymond Scannell and Phillip McMahon. Each of those productions was greeted with a lot of commentary, both formal and informal, suggesting that perhaps – at last – we in Ireland might be on the verge of developing a tradition of musical theatre.

I wonder, though, if it’s quite that simple. Music and musicality have always been important if not essential for Irish plays. One of the best examples of the importance of music can be found in O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock – which features a long scene in which the characters sing songs and play music on a gramophone.  It’s not a coincidence that Captain Boyle, who spends the play’s first act trying to deceive his wife, will in this scene choose to sing ‘Oh Me Darlin’ Juno, I Will Be True to Thee’ —a song intended to emphasize his honesty, which therefore reveals his duplicitous and hypocritical nature.  Another example is Mrs Madigan’s choice of the song ‘If I were a Blackbird’ to sing in the play’s second act:

   If I were a blackbird I’d whistle and sing;

I’d follow the ship that my true love was in;

An’ on the top riggin’, I’d there build me a nest,

An’ at night I would sleep on me Whillie’s white breast!

This seems quite an innocent choice, but given that her audience includes Captain Boyle—a former sailor who is supposed to have inherited a large amount of money—her choice of a love song with a maritime setting reveals a great deal about her motives.

Arguably, the play’s turning point occurs in that same scene, when we hear Juno and Mary singing ‘Home to Our Mountains’ from Verdi’s Il Travotore.  O’Casey does not transcribe the words of this piece; he does not change them to reflect the accent or social status of the singers, but states that they must sing the song well.  By showing that the two characters can express themselves perfectly well in this artform, O’Casey hints that they are capable of transcending their circumstances—and indeed makes the case that they must do so.

And then the scene concludes with the song “If You’re Irish, Come Into the Parlour” playing on the gramophone while a funeral dirge is underway – a brilliant contrast of kitsch Irishness with the solemnity of the funeral ritual.

Juno is not a musical – but its use of music is far more than incidental or contextual: it reveals character, develops the themes, shapes the audience’s responses, and offers us new ways of seeing such issues as nationalism, religion, gender, and the relationship between Irish and international culture. And it seems to me that a lot of Irish plays use music in a similar way: they are not quite musical theatre, but they are much more than “music in theatre”.

Tom Murphy has a very similar scene to O’Casey’s in his under-rated 1998 play The Wake, which again sees a family gathering for a sing-song.  And there’s  a brilliant scene in his The Gigli Concert in which the Irishman acts out the story of Gigli’s youth while Toseli’s Serenade plays in the background. In Garry Hynes’s last production of the play (which I reviewed on irish Theatre Magazine), Denis Conway matched the movements to the music so carefully that it was almost as if he was dancing at times.  And the use of song in Conversations on a Homecoming offers rare moments of beauty in a play that is otherwise quite fearlessly ugly.

In the blog, I’ve also written a few times about the use of music in contemporary plays. This pattern worries me slightly, since it reminds me of something I occasionally see in the work of inexperienced directors and writers – which is that when you can’t work out how to convey an important mood or emotion to the audience through acting, staging, or writing, you let a piece of music do the work for you (and too often it’s the same music: Sigur Ros, Radiohead, Massive Attack).

Yet when done well, music can transform a play. As I’ve recently discussed, Frank McGuinness uses a song from the Mikado beautifully in The Hanging Gardens. Similarly, Conor McPherson’s use of music is almost always successful: I’m thinking of the use of Neil Young as a kind of ironic counterpoint to the action in Shining City or of John Martyn’s Sweet Little Mystery to bring us blinking back into the sunlight in The Seafarer.  And then there’s Enda Walsh, whose use of Doris Day in Misterman and more kitsch Irish ballads in Walworth Farce add to the sinister and unsettling quality of both plays. And who can forget the contrast between the intensely verbal sisters in New Electric Ballroom and Mikel Murfi’s amazingly sung “Wondrous Place” in the same play?

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Enda Walsh, incidentally, is the only Irish dramatist I know of who has won a Grammy – since his song “Abandoned in Bandon” appears on the soundtrack to Once – the Musical.

And there are many other examples we could think of. Billy Roche’s The Cavalcaders is arguably as much a musical as The Commitments is (in both cases, song is used as part of the action – songs are only sung when they would be sung in the ‘real world’). Something similar could be said of Christina Reid’s The Belle of the Belfast City. And think of how important music is for Brian Friel – Cole Porter and traditional music in Lughnasa, Chopin in Aristocrats, Thomas Moore in The Home Place, and so on. Likewise, Elaine Murphy’s use of music in Shush seems influenced by Lughnasa – a play which, I think, must also have had an impact on Marie Jones’s restaging of the Blind Fiddler back in 2003.

I’m also conscious of how deeply invested in music so many Irish dramatists are. For example, Stewart Parker was, among many other things, a brilliant rock journalist – and it shows in his drama.

We can also see the importance of music in some of the recent adaptations that have appeared at the Abbey. As I suggested in that discussion with Eithne Shorthall, Frank McGuinness’s The Dead – which again made use of the songs of Thomas Moore – was almost like a hybrid: not quite a musical but not quite a play either. And it seems that the Abbey’s forthcoming production of The Risen People – opening next week – will be making extensive use of music too.

Quite often, establishing an Irish musical tradition is seen as being like beating the All Blacks: something we really should have done a long time ago, but will, we hope, get round to doing sometime in the near future. But could it be that the reason we don’t have a tradition of musical theatre here is because, in some ways, it’s always been so firmly embedded in our theatrical culture anyway?

Frank McGuinness’s _The Hanging Gardens_ at Dublin Theatre Festival 2013

Frank McGuinness’s Hanging Gardens at the Abbey is both devastating and elating: it is not so much heart-breaking as heart-battering, but despite its intensity it’s a play that needs to be seen. This would be true if only because it features five of Ireland’s best actors: Cathy Belton, Barbara Brennan, Niall Buggy, Declan Conlon, and Marty Rea. And one of them – Buggy – gives a performance that I know I’m going to remember for a very long time.

As the Abbey’s PR has stated many times, this is McGuinness’s first new play at the Abbey since 1999. It’s also his first premiere in Ireland since Gates of Gold in 2002. And since then all of his original plays have premiered in England, many of them remaining unproduced here in Ireland. There’s been no better example than McGuinness of the serious problem in our theatre at the moment – which is that many of the best Irish plays of the last 15-20 years have premiered in London, and many of them remain completely unknown in this country. McGuinness’s There Came A Gypsy Riding, for example, should be celebrated as a great and important Irish play. But almost no-one here knows it.

So it’s great to see him back on an Irish stage with an original play.

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McGuinness’s works often feature a character so well drawn that he or she  threatens to overpower the rest of the play – from  Piper in Observe the Sons of Ulster, to Dido in Carthaginians, to Rima in Dolly West’s Kitchen. Located somewhere between Christy Mahon (the outsider figure who transforms an environment) and Falstaff (a supporting character so vivid that he dwarfs the main protagonists), McGuinness’s unruly strangers are always vulgar, joyous, and disruptive.

There’s another such character here – the figure of Sam Grant, an aging writer who, as the play begins, is a subject of intense concern to his wife and three adult children – all of whom wonder how to cope with Sam’s increasingly uncontrollable dementia.

As played by Buggy, Sam is mischievous and vicious, terrified and childlike, at turns enthralling and appalling. He harasses, bullies and belittles his family – and while some of that behaviour may be explained (but not justified) by his suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease, his abuse of his family has clearly been carried on over many years. As a result, none of his children has been able to form a loving relationship; none of them seems able to express the love that they all so palpably feel for their parents.

The performance by Buggy takes these varying and sometimes  contradictory states and makes them cohere. Much of that achievement is possible through his use of voice. At times his lines are delivered with a sing-song quality that contains both swagger and complacency: we sense that this is a man who has a powerful imagination but suspect that there may be an uncertainty or an insecurity in there too. At other times, Buggy’s voice is intense and full-bodied, making clear why his children seem somewhat frightened of him. Yet there is a gentleness too, a kind of mischievous waver that reveals Sam’s enjoyment of his own erudition and imagination.

The performance thus acts as a fascinating counterpoint to Owen Roe’s Lear at the Abbey earlier this year – and indeed to Paul McGann’s Undershaft in Major Barbara. Whether by accident or design, the Abbey has given us three very powerful portraits of flawed but irresistible father figures this year.

As ever with McGuinness, the risk of having such a strong character is that other roles may seem less interesting by comparison. In this play that potential problem is compounded by the fact that the three adult children are trying desperately to restrain themselves: to hold in their shock at their father’s deterioration, to resist the anger that has obviously been stored up over many years, to hold themselves together at a time when the person who has anchored them to life is leaving the world. So these are roles that demand an ability to convey a sense that there is much more going on than is evident on the surface.

That’s why you need excellent actors in the roles, and I was very impressed by the depth that Rea, Belton and Conlon added to their characters. It was fascinating to notice what the children will and won’t look at – the times when they appear to swallow down a thought or feeling – the times when they have no choice but to look away. There’s some lovely, subtle direction here from Patrick Mason.

As the matriarch of the family – and as a successful author in her own right – Barbara Brennan’s character follows in a long tradition of strong McGuinness mother figures. Like her husband, she’s full of contradictions, caring more for her garden than her children, yet appearing willing to sacrifice her own well-being for her husband. Brennan resolves those contradictions well, showing us the tension in her character’s body through a stiffness of movement and a vocal restraint that suggests that she’s only just keeping things together. This results in a very moving performance, and the creation of an intriguingly complex figure.

Becuase the play set in the garden of a Donegal house, it will immediately call to mind Brian Friel’s 1979 Aristocrats – a portrait of a family damaged by an authoritarian father-figure who, like McGuinness’s protagonist, suffers from dementia (though in Aristocrats the father appears on stage only once).

It also seems to draw on other great Irish plays. As a storyteller and beloved tormenter of his family, Sam seems to owe something to Tom Murphy’s Mommo – another artist-figure whose loss of memory drives the play forward. With its clash between two writers – one a populist success and the other a respected author – it reminded me of Friel’s massively underrated Give Me Your Answer Do! With its focus on a flawed artist-figure, it seemed to be drawing on Kilroy’s The Shape of Metal and Friel’s Faith Healer.  And with its characterisation of a family that can express love only by tearing itself apart, it occupies the emotional territory that has been mapped so rigorously by Tom Murphy in Whistle in the Dark,  Famine and The Wake.

All of this might sound as if the play is derivative or unoriginal but, on the contrary, these resemblances suggest that McGuinness is pushing his work to a new level, measuring himself against Murphy and Friel to a far greater extent than he’s ever done before. Watching the play, I felt as I did when I first saw Enda Walsh’s The Walworth Farce: the excitement of knowing that a writer I’d already admired had developed in a way that built on what had come before, but which was also excitingly new.

Among the things I most admired about the play is its emotional honesty. I found myself thinking several times of Shaw’s response to O’Casey’s Silver Tassie – which GBS had described as a “hell of a play – literally”.  McGuinness gives us a literal hell, unflinchingly exploring what it feels like to know that you are losing your mind, to know that you are dying. He also shows a genuine bravery in representing the attempts of a family to come to terms with the death of one of their own. So many of McGuinness’s observations feel as though they’ve been excavated from  some very personal space in his own imagination: his characters’ emotions are incoherent, chaotic, confused – and for all of those reasons feel absolutely authentic. This made the play – for me, anyway – very difficult viewing: I’ve never been quite so relieved to reach an interval as I was when I saw this. But that was because the play had captured truths that I’ve never seen represented so clearly before. The truths are uncomfortable and undeniable and necessary.

McGuinness has found a way to think about the death of a family member that seems as signficant as Robert Lepage’s Dark Side of the Moon. In that play, Lepage suggested that the loss of a parent is like occupying the far side of the moon: the earth is there but no longer visible to us – and all we see instead is the vastness of an empty, infinite space.  McGuinness does something similar, especially in the play’s final image, when he (and Mason) capture the vertiginous uncertainty that death evokes in all of us.

There’s also an important link with McGuinness’s work on The  Dead, which played at the Abbey last year. One of the ways McGuinness allowed Joyce’s short story to function on the stage was by theatricalising its use of music – and its musicality. He did that by drawing carefully from the works of Thomas Moore.

Here, McGuinness again uses music, this time featuring (of all things) a song from The Mikado half-way through the first act – which is sung by Buggy and Rea.

I’ve written a few times already about the use of music in Irish theatre – something we’ve seen in Shush by Elaine Murphy and The Night Alive by Conor McPherson already in 2013. I worry slightly about the frequency with which this technique is used – often enough now to be called a trend.

But in The Hanging Gardens, McGuinness shows how music offers the only way for father and son to be fully honest with each other. In the beauty and simplicity of the voices, this moment recalls a scene in Juno and the Paycock in which Mary and Juno sing Verdi’s “Home to Our Mountains” together – something they do so beautifully that they transcend the indignity of their environment. We sense from McGuinness’s inclusion of this song that the family have unseen levels of emotional and intellectual depth, that they have an appreciation of beauty, an attachment to each other,  a wicked sense of how to derive humour from the juxtaposition of the serious with the apparently trivial.

This scene doesn’t have the show-stopping impact that the dance in Friel’s Lughnasa had back in 1990. But as a moment that allows for an intensity of focus from the audience, McGuinness’s use of this song bears comparison with Friel’s iconic set-piece.

Both Friel’s play and McGuinness’s were directed by Patrick Mason, of course – and one of the pleasures of seeing The Hanging Gardens is to be reminded of those great nights at the Abbey in the 1990s when Mason produced or revived so many marvelous Irish plays, from Lughnasa to Observe the Sons of Ulster to Constance Wilde and By the Bog of Cats. It’s great to see Mason back directing new writing on the Abbey stage.

And as an aside let me mention that Marty Rea has a very beautiful singing voice.

None of the statements above is intended to suggest that the play is in every respect perfect. I think some viewers may find that the family’s second act resolution of their conflict happens too easily. That scene made emotional sense to me, but I think some may find it too sharp a turn in the play’s direction. And I also suspect that some may have difficulty with a long scene in the first act in which each of the four family members in turns confronts – and is upset by – the father. This sequence feels almost intolerable, not only on the grounds of realism (it eventually feels predictable –  when we see one character appearing on stage we know they are next in line for an abusive confrontation with the father),  but also because these confrontations are so  unrelenting that it becomes difficult to stay with the action. I suspected that we were intended to see the scene as (perhaps) not the real world but as a mixture of reality with Sam’s imagingings. But in any case the scene is emotionally exhausting.

Yet this is indisputably a major new Irish play, and an important moment also for McGuinness’s status within Irish drama – reaffirming  his centrality and importance to our theatre.

The production is also very well designed. Michael Pavelka’s garden set mixes the dark green of the lawn with vivid, bloody reds, producing an atmosphere of calmness that seems ready at any moment to bleed into chaos. He also places a sundial on the back wall, which, under Davy Cunnigham’s lights, causes time to shift confusingly,  adding to the strangeness and intensity of the play.  Finally, I’ve already praised Denis Clohessy’s sound designs in Streetcar Named Desire and Dusk Ahead  but I again must say how good his work  is, both in terms of his presentation of birdsong as well as incidental music.

So far the play has been reviewed once, in the Irish Times, where it received only three stars and a fairly mixed response. Well, everyone is entitled to an opinion, but I hope that such views – and in particular the three stars – don’t discourage people from going to see this. If you value playwriting that is brave and honest – if you appreciate world-class design and courageous acting – if you believe that theatre has to be painful before it can be healing – then you should see this play. Better yet, bring three or four people with you. I think we need to support this kind of work, to make sure that we don’t wait another 14 years to see a new Frank McGuinness play on the Abbey stage.

You can find out more about the play on this interesting Youtube clip from Frank McGuinness.

and this one featuring Patrick Mason

The Abbey website also has interviews with all the cast.

Why are there so many adaptations in contemporary Irish theatre?

I’ve written a bit recently about my concerns about contemporary Irish playwriting. But there is a form of writing that appears to be thriving at present: adaptations.

This is something that was mentioned quite a bit at the Synge Summer School a few weeks ago, when several of the writers present spoke about how they’re being commissioned to write adaptations of novels quite regularly, but are struggling to have their original plays put on. We’ve also seen writers moving from one medium to another – turning a successful play into a musical or film, as Enda Walsh has done with Once, for example.

There’s quite a lot of interest in the topic of adaptation at the moment: I see a lot of academic articles about it, and think I’m right in saying that Palgrave Macmillan recently commissioned a book series on the topic of adaptation in theatre and performance. And certainly over the last few years I’ve seen some great adaptations. The most memorable was Gatz from Elevator Repair Service, but there have been others.

Most interesting in an Irish context is Frank McGuinness, who (as I’ve written before) has had to go abroad to produce all of his original new plays since 2002 – but whose adaptations of John Gabriel Borkman and The Dead both did very well on the main-stage of the Abbey. (though I see today that his new play will appear on the Abbey stage – great news)

I just had a quick glance at the Abbey’s online archive, and was surprised by how many adaptations there have been on the main stage since 2005 (Ben Barnes’ last year in the job). By ‘adaptation’ I mean a new version (usually by an Irish writer) of a non-Anglophone play OR a staging of a story originally created in some other medium. The list is quite interesting:

  • A Doll’s House 2005 (Abbey)
  • A Cry From Heaven 2005 (Abbey)
  • The Importance of Being Earnest – With Prologue by Conall Morrison 2005 (Abbey)
  • The Bacchae of Baghdad – Euripides’ The Bacchae in a new Version 2006 (Abbey)
  • A Month in the Country 2006 (Abbey)
  • Hedda Gabler 2006 (Abbey)
  • The Playboy of the Western World – A New Version 2007 (Abbey)
  • Three Sisters 2008 (Abbey)
  • The Last Days of a Reluctant Tyrant 2009 (Abbey)
  • Christ Deliver Us! 2010 (Abbey)
  • John Gabriel Borkman 2010 (Abbey)
  • The Government Inspector – A new version after Nikolai Gogol 2011 (Abbey)
  • The Picture of Dorian Gray (2012)
  • The Dead (2012)

Many of those productions were excellent – I was very impressed by Kilroy’s Christ Deliver Us, and loved the visiting production of Hedda Gabler in 2006.

Likewise in the Peacock we had terrific adaptations such as Chuck Mee’s Big Love and the Company’s As You Are Now So Once Were We.

Over at the Gate, there have also been many adaptations: McPherson’s version of The Birds, Joseph O’Connor’s My Cousin Rachel, Ann-Marie Casey’s Little Women, and even the current Arthur Miller version of Ibsen’s Enemy of the People.

In informal conversation with friends, the view is often expressed that the large number of adaptations in our mainstream theatres is a result of risk management. Theatres stage what is familiar for the same reasons that movie studios commission sequels and remakes, the argument goes – because audiences can’t reliably be depended upon to give the unknown a chance.

Another factor, I think, is festivalisation: literary adaptations are particularly popular on the Festival circuit at the moment, and I think that’s because something like The Great Gatsby is so familiar to audiences everywhere that it is able to transcend or sidestep the kinds of cultural barriers that sometimes impede the reception of work as it travels around the world.

But I think there must be more to it than the management of risk.  What is it about our writers that so many of them at the moment are interested in re-imagining what we think we already know? Is there a link between what our ‘established’ writers are doing with adaptation and what emerging companies are doing with devising? And why do we continue to value adaptations less than original works – to assume that a new original play by McGuinness is inherently more valuable than his (excellent) adaptation of The Dead?

I’m not sure. With the launch of this year’s Dublin Theatre Festival programme imminent – and with the launch of the Fringe programme looming – I expect that we’ll be hearing more about this topic during coming months.