Saturday 23 September 2017

Theatre: Irish history as fantasy football

Emer O'Kelly finds a new comedy overwritten, but making good points

Seamus O'Rourke and Zara Burdon Yeates in The Mysterious History of Things at the Viking
Seamus O'Rourke and Zara Burdon Yeates in The Mysterious History of Things at the Viking

Emer O'Kelly

For the first 15 minutes of The Mysterious History of Things at the Viking Theatre in Clontarf in Dublin, I thought I had been transported to an amateur drama performance in the village hall circa 1950. It was somewhat startling, since Bairbre NiChaoimh is a director I've always believed could get a performance from the proverbial stone, and Jack Harte's writing for stage has so far been both interesting and provocative.

But things improved: a lot. Zara Burdon Yeates has a long way to go before she can smoothly assume the persona of a ruthlessly unprincipled, sophisticated, high-achieving city slicker (think Hillary Clinton with looks and glamour) but she does settle fairly well into the role of the woman sent on behalf of an all-powerful boss to ensure that a rumoured "iconic" history of Ireland and its heroes past and present being prepared by a mysterious folk hero on an isolated farm treats Mr Moneybags well in the telling.

The farmer is missing, but she meets his visitor, a big man physically the worse for wear, and rather too tenderly attached to a battered hurley stick, asleep in an armchair.

In other words, early credibility is stretched: any woman, whatever her temperament but in possession of even one brain cell would take off, and not take her foot off the accelerator for at least an hour. But the intrepid lass stays, to hear the man's tale: he wants the author of The Great Book of Lackan to re-write history and make St. Patrick a legendary hero, not of Christian Ireland, but sporting Ireland, having come to save the great game of hurling from extinction…and explaining its line-out intricacies by means of the shamrock. Blasphemous? You bet. Funny? Mmm, yes: but far too over-written.

Seamus O'Rourke plays the man with a good mixture of early threat and later gormless charm, and he also makes the most of the author's flashes of genuinely sharp wit. But everything would be helped by judicious editing, since even with O'Caoimh's direction it is in need of pace.

Andrew Murray is responsible for set design and the rather iffy lighting is by Liam O'Neill.

Harte's message is that we do not make history, we invent it, manipulate it, imagine it . . . and are it. It's a serious message, put across with considerable, if slightly rough-edged charm in a not-so-slight comedy by a writer more than usually aware of Ireland's many warts.

(Initially) I thought I had been transported to an amateur drama performance in the village hall circa 1950.

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