Tuesday 24 January 2017

A log: The Druid production of 'The Cripple of Inishmaan'

'America is a stranger to the kettle. Druid always brings a kettle ... arrival at an unfamiliar and disconcerting venue is instantly steadied by a reassuring mug of tea'

Dearbhla Molloy

Published 20/03/2011 | 05:00

Bobby Kennedy's memorial in Arlington cemetery is inscribed with a quote from Aeschylus: "And even in our sleep, pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God."

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On a cold, ice-blue morning in Washington, at the top of a hill, a fistful of tourists stand in silence in front of the massive, black marble bowl holding the eternal flame. Four simple marble squares are embedded in the grass. These are the gravestones of JFK, Jackie, and two of their dead children. A little lower down the hilltop, a white cross marks the place of Bobby's burial, and below that again is another. A still-new, temporary wooden cross. The stark sign reads "Edward Kennedy". The eloquence and solemnity of the site are reminders of the Kennedys' share of suffering. I try to imagine what wisdom might have been learned. Dignity in tragedy perhaps, and simply going on living.

A few days earlier, on Sunday, back in Boston -- where we were touring with the Druid production of The Cripple of Inishmaan -- as each scene finishes during the Sunday matinee, props, furniture and costumes are whisked away and packed for trucking to our next city. The moment the curtain comes down, the crew begin to dismantle the set and everything is loaded. The truck will be driven non-stop to Washington, a journey of two days. As soon as we're out of costume, the cast and stage management are bussed off to the airport. I hate flying and wish I was going in the truck.

***

ON our last Saturday morning in Boston, determined not to leave without seeing anything other than the snowbound area around the hotel and theatre, Ingrid Craigie, Clare Dunne and I get up early and foray out to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. We are half an hour too early. We slip and slither our way around the block through piles of snow, hunting in vain for a nice, warm coffee shop. The museum is worth every frozen finger, our only regret being that we had to leave within an hour to do the matinee.

The Boston audiences are terrifically enthusiastic, and we're getting blase about cheers and whistles and stomps at the end of every performance. Nightly analysis of audience response is temporarily suspended and our two primary topics of dressingroom conversation are now negotiating weather challenges and food. We Google the airport eating possibilities and are thrilled to discover there's a branch of a great fish restaurant. "Fine Dining at the Airport", the screen says. Suitcases hauled off the bus and onto the check-in conveyor belt, hungry and keen, we are ready for "Fine Dining". In disbelief, we discover the restaurant is landside, not airside, and we don't have any time. Through security, it's more pizza, sandwiches and chicken wraps from the fastfood court. Chewing the contents of our cardboard cartons, we moodily watch diners deconstructing lobsters on the other side of the dividing glass wall.

***

A lovely, low, white building on the banks of the broad and frozen Potomac, like a marble box holding a wedding cake, is our Washington venue, the Kennedy Center. It was dedicated as a "living memorial" to the assassinated President, a passionate advocate and supporter of the arts. He left the arts one of his best quotes: "After the dust of centuries has passed, we will be remembered, not for our battles or for our politics, but for our contribution to the human spirit." This should be tattooed on every politician. Especially those that want to cut arts funding.

Oh joy. Our hotel rooms have kitchens. All morning a trail of actors stagger back from the shops with bags full of groceries. Such pleasure from simple things -- good bread, cheese, homemade salad, scrambled eggs on toast. We buy tea, milk, mugs for blissful morning cuppas. A whole week ahead without having to have coffee and powdered creamer from the hotel courtesy bar. America is a stranger to the kettle. Druid always brings a kettle and a catering box of Barry's tea. Arrival at an unfamiliar and disconcerting venue is instantly steadied by a reassuring mug of tea.

We've fallen in love with Washington, with its beauty and its amazing selection of museums and art galleries. Each night, we eagerly exchange tales of the day's explorations -- the Space museum, art galleries, a visit to the Pentagon, walking in Georgetown, bus tours of the city, the Ford's Theatre, where Lincoln was shot. Astonishingly, you can go up to the box where the assassin, an actor, entered and shot Lincoln in the side of the head while he was watching the play.

But the highlight was a late-night visit to the war memorials. Walking through the huge parkland in front of the Capitol in the moonlight, having stopped at the Lincoln Memorial and the Vietnam Wall, both majestic and moving in their turn, we are sideswiped by the Korean War Memorial. An area the size of a small Connemara field is striped with rectangular slashes of water and deep, green vegetation. This is plainly a paddy-field. A group of bronze soldiers, one-and-a-half times lifesize, in full gear -- helmets, greatcoats, walkie-talkies, guns at the ready, all quiveringly alert -- are making their way forward. Their tension and fear is palpable. We come upon them from behind, and find ourselves creeping silently around them as if not to distract. The faces are the faces of boys, 19 and 20 years old. I think of similar boys in Iraq and Afghanistan.

***

Paul Durcan wrote a series of poems inspired by paintings in London's National Gallery, Give Me Your Hand, and Dermot Crowley and I have devised a stage production of some of them. On our Sunday off, our first American date with this piece is at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in the Capitol, a small amphitheatre seating about 150.

With Cripple, we have the magnificent Druid production team to do everything for us and all we have to do is give the performance. Now at the Corcoran, Dermot and I are horribly aware we have to do everything ourselves -- organise the lighting, check the screen is properly set up, find appropriate lecterns, make sure our computer and the projector are compatible and working, get the pre-show music levels sorted and playing. The lighting is our biggest headache -- because we show the paintings on a screen, and because we perform the poem's either side, we have to make certain our faces are lit, but no extra light spills onto the screen and washes the colours.

It's a steep learning curve -- I sit out front and check Dermot's light and he does the same for me, over and over, until we get it as right as we know how. We're already dressed in our finery -- Dermot in black evening suit and arty shirt, with a fancy red brooch on his lapel, me in black frock with patterned tights, Cleopatra shoes and green nail varnish. The shoes are strictly for sitting down in, and I'm asking a lot of my mature frame to stand about in them for an hour and 15 minutes, but it's all for the Higher Cause of Art.

We're delighted by the response. The museum hosts a reception after the performance, and the audience are entranced by Paul's poems. If we'd had a pile of his books I'm sure we'd have sold every one. The next week, while the rest of the company have a week off, we perform at the Century Club in NY, and there the audience is just as enthusiastic.

***

Landing in Dublin early Sunday morning, we open in the Gaiety on Monday night. I have definitely over-estimated my capacity for adapting to a five-hour time difference. By 7.30, I'm in a parallel reality. I hang on gamely until Liam Carney's entrance as Babbybobby. His line is: "There's more important things in life than big parts in Hollywood films." Liam said: "There's more important things in life than big farts in -- I mean big parts in Hollywood films." Ingrid and Liam were heroic, but I was gone. I did my best to control my face, hoping the audience would think these were tears of anguish and not of near hysteria, but I heard a woman in the front row clearly say: "I think she's laughing."

On home turf, we expected the Dublin audience to be the best, but although good in terms of numbers, they were warm but comparatively muted in response. Perhaps a combination of election fever and post-traumatic shock had a subduing effect. The country's financial state, and the startling emigration figures, surely mean there is not a family in the land that's not affected and worried.

On our last night, as a warm wave of Saturday night perfume washed the stage, and the first laughs arose from a full house, I felt unexpectedly emotional. As a nation, Irish people are just keeping on going on. Dignity and courage are humbling and moving.

www.druid.ie

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