Thursday 8 December 2016

Theatre: Raincoats and Yeats on the Wild Atlantic Way

Maggie Armstrong

Published 14/06/2015 | 02:30

Scaling new heights: Blue Raincoat will perform Yeats' Purgatory on top of Ben Bulben
Scaling new heights: Blue Raincoat will perform Yeats' Purgatory on top of Ben Bulben
Extreme theatre: Blue Raincoat's Niall Henry

In the beginning, Blue Raincoat Theatre Company called themselves The Famous Blue Raincoats. It was 1991 when two school friends, Niall Henry and Malcolm Hamilton, formed a theatre company in their home town of Sligo. Niall was 26, lying on his bedroom floor soaking up the lyrics of Leonard Cohen's 'Famous Blue Raincoat'.

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"The ostentation of being young," he says, sitting in their resident theatre on Sligo's quays, The Factory, a restored Denny's slaughterhouse. "You were very attracted by what you felt. At the heart of the song were two things running parallel, love and betrayal. It was the ruthless honesty that [Leonard Cohen] could bring out that attracted us. Analyse that, dramaturg that? We wouldn't have been able to."

Niall was at first reluctant to become a Famous Blue Raincoat. He grew up on Quay Street around the corner from The Factory, and played amateur dramatics at school - in fifth year at Summerhill he even set up a mime company with another Sligo thespian, Mikel Murfi, devising character sketches while repeating their Leaving Cert together.

But soon Niall took off to Paris to train as a mime artist under Marcel Marceau, becoming a fully-fledged Parisian artiste. When Malcolm asked him to come home to Sligo, he said: "You must be out of your mind."

"You might think Sligo is small. Sweet Jesus, 25 years ago? It's changed radically in that time."

By the time, an 80-year-old Marcel Marceau and then Minister for Arts Michael D Higgins came to launch The Factory in January 1993, they had dropped the 'Famous' for 'The Blue Raincoats'.

Twenty-five years later the company have changed, literally, the landscape of Irish theatre, with Niall as the artistic director, Malcolm as writer-in-residence.

Raincoats, it turns out, weren't a bad idea. Under the more modest seal of Blue Raincoat they are embarking on a season of Yeats plays staged in wild outdoor locations all over Sligo as part of 'Yeats 2015'. People will have the opportunity to see all 26 of Yeats's plays, including On Baile's Strand on Streedagh Beach and Purgatory on the top of Ben Bulben with the help of mountain-rescue teams.

At 50, Niall has a distinct Peter Pan quality. He has a mane of salt-and-pepper hair and looks ready to sail the Atlantic, wearing his Sligo Yacht Club Mirror Fleet hoodie. The right man for "extreme theatre", as he calls it.

"We did a play two years ago on a mountain. I said, 'Okay, we'll do it so. I think it's a stupid idea.' But I remember thinking 'God, you must be getting old if you think it's so stupid so off you go and do it.' And hundreds of people came up to the top of the thing. I was amazed. If you gave me 50 quid I wouldn't go to the top of a mountain to see a play."

After performing Purgatory at Queen Maeve's cairn on Knocknarea, Senator Susan O'Keeffe asked the company to do another out-of-doors Yeats play.

"So we went out to the mud flats behind Ulster Island, and it was torrential. It was the only time in my life I thought, we have to cancel this, because if we bring people out here, we'll be really, really hung.. with that level of rain. And the rain sorta stopped. And they came in their hundreds. Walking across the beach, in the rain, to see a f***ing Yeats play."

They performed like sailors sail: wind on their backs, shouting at the top of their voices. During the play, An Baile Strand, a tractor mowed across the beach and reversed back, but that was the only interruption to the communal experience witnessed by people of every age.

It left Niall "dumbfounded". From the start, Blue Raincoat had striven to combine the "drama and punch" of playwrights like Tom Murphy with the "transcendental visual element" of Pina Bausch, a dancer.

"You'd spent so long working on the synthesis of all these things technically, and then you put a play on a mud flat, and they come in their droves. That was interesting. It tells you simple things. People want to see theatre. They want to experience these stories in different places."

If fame means people talking about you, the Raincoats have arrived.

A Country Under Wave takes place June 21 to August 8. Blueraincoat.com

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