Sunday 23 October 2016

Theatre: An Irish legend is reborn with divine intervention

Maggie Armstrong

Published 09/10/2016 | 02:30

Challenge: Caoimhe Mulcahy will play Aisling in Eamon Carr’s theatre debut Dusk: A Colloquy
Challenge: Caoimhe Mulcahy will play Aisling in Eamon Carr’s theatre debut Dusk: A Colloquy

When Eamon Carr got his first royalties cheque as a musician with Horslips, the first thing he did was travel to Greece to see the ancient amphitheatre of Epidaurus.

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Greece was under the Generals, and the least cool place in the world to visit. But this questing writer has apparently never followed the crowd. He climbed to the back row of crumbling Epidaurus, heard a bee buzz from the stage thousands of seats beneath him, and was determined to write his own version of Euripides's tragedy Alcestis, and film it right here, for Irish television. As a rave.

Alas, his Alcestis never got made.

Now, the songwriter-drummer-journalist during the Troubles who, for the Herald, has covered all of human life - from celebrity funerals to boxing and music, turning out haiku and verse plays along the way - at last has a play coming out, DUSK: A Colloquy. At age 67, it is the first play he will see produced. "It's quite thrilling obviously," says the raconteur, sitting in rehearsals for DUSK.

DUSK is written in blank verse, staged as Japanese Noh theatre, a style that invokes the supernatural through masks and dance (see obscure Yeats plays for more Noh). Carr's play imagines Cú Chulainn as a ghostly figure (Garrett Lombard) trapped in the other world when he meets a forlorn woman, Aisling (Caoimhe Mulcahy). The play is directed by the talented theatre-maker Denis Conway.

Myths, Greek or Irish, have interested Carr all his life. "There's a great repository in every society and every tribe has their mythology," he says, lowering his voice, "that has its own psychic wisdom."

From the legends he read growing up in Kells, Co Meath, Carr has kept an enduring fascination with the brave and flawed figure of Cú Chulainn.

The Horslips songs Dearg Doom, Cú Chulainn's Lament, Faster than the Hound, Time to Kill, were Carr's way of exploring Cú Chulainn. Before he wrote these songs, back in the 1960s he set up Tara Telephone, the Dublin poetry collective Seamus Heaney and Phil Lynott dipped into. Cú Chulainn was, to these young men, "the swashbuckling anti-hero". It was obvious to them why Cú Chulainn had inspired Patrick Pearse and 1916.

"There's this iconic image by Oliver Sheppard of Cú Chulainn," says Carr, "as a dying or dead man, slashed and stabbed, who binds himself to a pillar so he can die standing up. It's more Irish than the potato as a national symbol." A few years ago, Carr wrote a play called Deirdre Unforgiven. As a reporter, he had met bereaved mothers of murdered sons in the North and found parallels in the myth of Deirdre, who loses her children. It was published, but not staged. A commission to put it on in the Peacock as part of this year's Dublin Fringe fell through, "so I rummaged around," says Carr, "and I found this instead".

Carr had been writing this verse play in "dribs and drabs" over two years, thinking of the "hardmen" he met after the Omagh and Drumcree bombs who had killed several people, and of Cú Chulainn who killed his own son in battle.

"What I'd been attempting to do was to explore the concept of the divine feminine power, pitted against this iconic Irish macho man who has a reputation for incredible violence. Suddenly these two polarities sprang to life and created an alchemy."

What's divine feminine power, asks this unfeminine female. "I don't know," says Carr.

"Are we talking about Beyoncé here?"

The feminine power, he ventures, "is a greater force than the male force. It's Wicca, it's the power of the witch, of the wise woman. It's that intuitive sense. A nurturing sense. Possibly, a more caring sense. I feel the world has been fairly hammered over the centuries by warring men, and men who take that into the boardroom and into politics".

Caoimhe Mulcahy will play Aisling, and play the concertina, in one of her first stage roles. Her Aisling is due to marry the following day and is very unhappy about it. Her journey from girl to woman is "empowering", says Mulcahy. "It's very exciting exploring Aisling, figuring out what it means nowadays, and bringing my own thing as a 25-year-old woman living in Dublin - the kinds of struggles you have as a female.

"Everyone has ideas growing up about how things are going to turn out. And quite often, we let society tell us: if you do this, you'll be happy. For women, there's pressure, you have to be something."

She says the play is challenging, the language being "flowery". "It's full of imagery. That's where the challenge is, trying to bring it to life on the stage and make it theatre. Because as it is, you could just read it as poetry."

DUSK: A Colloquy plays in the New Theatre, Temple Bar, October 11-15

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