Thursday 18 July 2019

Poem struggles to find its drama

Incantata. Photo: Patrick Redmond
Incantata. Photo: Patrick Redmond

Katy Hayes

Paul Muldoon's long poem, an elegiac engagement with his former partner, the artist Mary Farl Powers who died at the age of 43 from breast cancer, is a beautiful piece of work. Intense, emotional and knotty, it offers up the best of poetic values - it is both intellectual and deeply moving. The poem has been produced by Jen Coppinger and Galway International Arts Festival as a cornerstone show for this year's festival. The result is a frustrating experience: there is brilliant writing in it, and the staging has lots of innovative ideas, but the work has not actually been transformed into a drama.

Following on from Enda Walsh's adaptation of Max Porter's Grief is the Thing With Feathers, which also focuses on a bereaved man, this feels much less confident and clear-headed. Director Sam Yates here tackles the problem of poetic complexity by repeating some of the verses. Repetition is a blunt instrument, and while it helps to somewhat reduce the opacity of the material, it doesn't render it fully accessible.

Stanley Townsend's moving performance doesn't impersonate Muldoon as such, but effectively conveys the poet's presence all the same. It has a defeated and traumatised core beneath an occasionally playful humanity. He sometimes expresses defiant anger, sometimes distressed despair. These emotionally intense moments are complemented by Teho Teardo's searching music.

A video camera is affixed to a chair that is swathed in a vast dress-like drape and the poet speaks to it, his image relayed on to the back wall of the studio.

This is an effective way of creating a corporeal sense of the dead woman, of bringing her back to life, in a form of resurrection. In particular it conveys the idea that the man wants, above all, to be seen by the dead woman.

The show is set in an artist's studio, which seems an odd choice, given Muldoon is a wordsmith. Design by Rosanna Vize has a haphazard quality. The big moment towards the end when the back wall disappears lacks any dramatic pay-off. The pile of potatoes, used to make the potato prints that Muldoon obsessively creates, is a lovely image, but the dropping of potatoes on to the stage feels like a gimmick. Paul Keogan's lighting plot has lots of great ideas - standalone fluorescent lights and a hanging work light, occasional dramatic blackouts - but it feels like innovation to make things lively, without a clear direction. Jack Phelan's video design lacks clear purpose.

The necessity of reading slowly, of occasionally looking up a reference - these are the hallmarks of poetry, and particularly poetry of the complexity of Muldoon's. For all the strengths of the poem, and for all its sweet and loving intentions to eulogise a dead lover, what is missing here is a dramatic vision to make it stage-worthy. Despite Townsend's beautiful performance, this remains a poem on the stage rather than a drama.


Druid conjures up a feast of new writing



Mick Lally Theatre, until July 28


Mick Lally Theatre, until July 29

Sonya Kelly's witty new work, Furniture, is made up of three short plays about relationships and the structures that support them. It opens at a fancy art exhibition with ophthalmic surgeon Alex (Clare Monnelly) and her penniless artist husband Ed (Peter Campion) bickering. The prospect of starting a family hovers like a threat over them. The dialogue is whip-smart and brilliantly probes the altered power dynamics in modern marriage caused by women's new-found professional status.

The second act features a pair of lesbians who have made a hasty decision to move in together. Dee (Rebecca O'Mara) brings a hideous purple comfy chair to her lover's flat. "I feel like 1987 threw up in my living room," exclaims a horrified Stef (Aisling O'Sullivan). This comic writing is like contemporary Oscar Wilde, with its aesthetic preoccupations and funnelling of emotion into hilarious vortices. O'Sullivan and O'Mara match each other with stunning performances. This is a triumph.

The third act comprises a dying old gay drama queen George (Niall Buggy) who is organising bequests of his valuable furniture with the help of his lawyer nephew Michael (Garrett Lombard). Here we are on more well-worn territory, but this story brings a satisfying emotional closure to the three pieces.

The tonal challenges are expertly handled by director Cathal Cleary and Francis O'Connor's set ingenuously uses the small space of the Mick Lally Theatre, creating cupboards full of character. Kelly's compendium of shorts is a treat.

Also part of part of Druid's season of new writing is Cristín Kehoe's Shelter - a traditional, well-made play in the Seán O'Casey mode, flavoured with the more contemporary influences of Conor McPherson. A bunch of homeless people quietly hang out in a Dublin squat overlooking the canal. Fus (Aaron Monaghan) has drawn attention to their presence by diving from the window into the canal and getting photographed for the cover of The Sun newspaper.

They were allowed to sneak into the abandoned building by security man Tommy (Rory Nolan), a former homeless friend who has got himself off the streets and into a job. Now he is in trouble.

It is unclear if Fus's jump from the window was recreational or a suicide attempt. His pregnant girlfriend Majella, a defiant Lauren Larkin, is busily nesting in a cryptic homeless person's way, providing bags of chicken to feed everyone.

The events of 1916 hover in the background; the issue of homelessness is ever-present. But Oonagh Murphy's direction keeps the emotional complexity of the individuals to the fore. Monaghan as the troubled skydiver is deeply moving. An intelligent and rewarding new play that packs real emotional punch.


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