Thursday 23 November 2017

Stage... Purgatory: the play that may never ever happen

Show must go on, and up: The theatre-goers prepare to ascend Ben Bulben for the performance
Show must go on, and up: The theatre-goers prepare to ascend Ben Bulben for the performance

Maggie Armstrong

Drumcliffe churchyard looked drenched and desolate as we made our way to the meeting point. In the hammering rain, the prospect of climbing Ben Bulben at night to watch a Yeats play was becoming less attractive than when I promoted the idea in these pages last month. The news that morning that Yeats probably isn't even buried in Yeats country came as an added little sting.

Blue Raincoat have been staging Yeats plays in site-specific locations in Sligo all summer to celebrate 150 years since the poet-playwright's birth, and at 526 metres high, Ben Bulben was their most hare-brained excursion yet. Rain pelted as is its wont in the wild north-west. But Sligo Leitrim Mountain Rescue assured us the show would go on. These fine people were helping three audiences in groups of 70 to get to the top to see Yeats's one-act play Purgatory, descending at midnight.

Instructed to wear raincoats, head-torches and those hideous waterproof trousers, we were a wretched sight to behold, beginning our ascent from Luke's Bridge up the northern face of the mountain. Rain fast penetrated our waterproofs, winds were said to be high. For the first time ever, the idea that the show might go on was more a bleak possibility than a triumphant custom.

Climbing, hearing my knees crack like they belonged to one of Yeats's ancient mystic men, I remembered there were actors among us. The poor souls, heaving their props of heavy capes. What backstage treatment this was; and The Fourth Wall might as well have dissolved in the rainwater that filled our boots.

There would be a clearing, Mountain Rescue assured, yet reminding us of "apocalyptic conditions" going up the "escarpment", a word I didn't like the sound of.

Purgatory was first performed in The Abbey in August 1938 - aptly, as Yeats was nearing his death bed. In it, a father tells his son about how he killed his father, and then he kills the son. Curtain closes.

It's amazing what people will do for fun. We marched up around that vertiginous escarpment, past a lonely booley ruin, towards "the really steep part, lads". How purgatorial this was already. Ordered into single file to cross a stream that had become a gushing river, we hopped across the slippery rocks to a cliff side under swirling mists.

At 495 metres we stopped to gasp for breath. Mountain Rescue put some coats around a hypothermic teenager. We were 31 metres from the trig point, the summit, the theatre. Everyone's knickers were wet. And there, the most marvellous sight appeared. It wasn't a Yeats play. It wasn't Yeats's ghost, stern and monocled. It was a huddle, unmistakable, of Mountain Rescue guides. We know what it means when guides huddle. That the show cannot possibly go on.

"Everyone," hollered Heidi, "we are very sorry to break this to you, but we're going to have to call this walk."

It was the best performance I'd ever been to. It got a standing ovation. Heidi got a more muted response when she said the actors might perform the play at the base of the mountain. You see if you stood still for one moment, the shivering got the better of your mortal soul.

Back down, I fell into line with Blue Raincoat's director, Niall Henry. Was he disappointed to see his Yeats vision cloud in like this?

"Chicken. I just think Mountain Rescue are chicken," he said. He was jesting. In darkness then, a more sombre mood fell and each passenger was left to their chattering teeth. People fell into carpets of thistles; one actor slid past us down the mountain.

There was tea and biscuits - like at the theatre but less suave. Seventy people crammed under a dripping gazebo and an hour ticked on as no buses arrived to take us back. A miscommunication, of course. We waited. A chap called Lorcan with headphones seemed to be reporting for RTÉ's Arena. He was recording rain. "I'm trying to find some symbolism between Yeats and rain," he said. His voice trailed off.

On the bus the performer Ciaran McCauley sat bound in red waterproofs. He told me it wouldn't have been a bother at all to have performed at the top of the mountain. Would they perform at the bottom of the mountain, your correspondent asked in dread. "Oh, we might do something," he said, with a note of suspense that would kill any spirits you had left.

Due to potential pneumonia we didn't stay around to find out.

The good news is the show did not go on. It never began. Blue Raincoat are going to try again to reach the summit. Tickets are scarce (I will generously forgo mine). Below are two site-specific pieces of theatre for you all to embrace.

Blue Raincoat are staging Yeats plays out of doors through August, see

Pals - The Irish at Gallipoli returns on August 4 to September 6 to the National Museum of Ireland - Decorative Arts and History, Collins Barracks, in Dublin.

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