Wednesday 21 August 2019

Reviews: Much Ado About Nothing and Where the Willow Meets the Ash

Much Ado About Nothing

St Kieran’s College, Kilkenny


Where the Willow Meets the Ash

Viking Theatre, Clontarf, Dublin

Where the Willow Meets the Ash
Where the Willow Meets the Ash
Clare Barrett in Much Ado About Nothing

Emer O'Kelly

Take what looks like a holiday village. Everyone's in holiday gear. After the party, they stagger out in the morning hiding behind dark glasses. Except in this case, the holiday gear is largely hidden beneath anoraks streaming with rain, and the dark glasses have to be shoved on heads, because they're so wet they're blinding the wearers.

This was the scene in the already somewhat bleak quad of St Kieran's College in Kilkenny last Thursday night as the promised rainstorm and accompanying flood hit the marble city and much of the rest of the south.

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An open-air production of Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing for the Kilkenny Arts Festival was washed out (almost literally.) Gamely, the Rough Magic crew had decided to go ahead even though the huge splashes had already begun to fall. Stewards handed out rain capes. People dried seats off, and the Lady Leonata of Messina prepared to welcome home from war the successful general Don Pedro.

By 9.30pm most of the cast must have been incubating pneumonia, their party gear in the form of sequinned carnival costumes slipping off their sodden bodies, the women's hair hanging like seaweed as they peered through the sheets of rain. And then the blow as well as the rain fell: it was announced that in the interest of safety, the production was being pulled (for that evening.) The cast applauded the drenched audience who had so loyally stuck with them (only three people had abandoned ship); the audience applauded the cast as water spewed from them in fountains. And everyone splashed their way through the almost ankle deep flood towards the distant gate.

So nobody got to see the outcome of two convoluted love stories: arrogant young officer Benedick finally brought to heel by the argumentative, bitchy Beatrice; gentle Hero having her nuptials to officer Claudio almost ruined by the vicious machinations of the idly spiteful Don John, who just enjoys making people miserable. But being a Shakespeare comedy, they could probably guess the outcome.

Director Ronan Phelan had obviously decided to play the piece as a romp, full of colour and breakdancing. But as far as I could judge (it was, after all a preview, as well as facing the weather problems) it was probably paced a bit too slowly.

Peter Corboy's Benedick was almost lizard-like in his dexterity, with Shane O'Regan a touch of the "little boy lost" as the bewildered Claudio.

Maeve Fitzgerald made a deliciously surly Beatrice (with a definite fondness for the gin), while Venetia Bowe was pretty and wide-eyed as Hero. Conor O'Riordan was a bluff Don Pedro to Clare Barrett's lusty Leonata, and Jack Mullarkey made a handsome villain as Don John.

Patrick Martins and Margaret McAuliffe complete the cast.

The lively choreography is by Philip Connaughton, and there is superb sound design by Denis Clohessy, aided by admirable voice production by all involved.

Sabine Dargent is responsible for the set, lit by Sarah Jane Shiels, with costumes by Catherine Fay.

Everyone, and that includes the audience, deserves medals.


In a week when a Catholic priest, in offering advice to people burying their dead, suggested that funeral offerings of a GAA jersey might be acceptable, but a Manchester United jersey possibly not, the revival of Malachy McKenna's gentle satire Where the Willow Meets the Ash seems particularly apposite. Or maybe ironic might be a better word.

The play, a sequel to his hugely successful The Quiet Land, gives us rather dopey but nice middle-aged farmer Bobby. He's infatuated with "Polish Maria", the bar girl at the local pub.

Elderly Eamonn, last of his generation, has no social life other than daily visits to the nursing home to see his lifelong friend Nayshee. This is significant, because Nayshee's land, complete with fairy ring, is now for sale, and Bobby has his eye on it. So far, so typically Irish sly greed.

But along comes English William, slightly solitary, unflashily well off, with tragedy in his past and a whole bagful of cats to throw among the pigeons.

And what ultimately emerges is a hymn to tolerance… if there's decency in the background. Willow (cricket) can co-exist with ash (hurling) without either being desecrated.

McKenna, with his light touch and sharply accurate dialogue, paints an only slightly enhanced picture of racial compromise for the enrichment of all: he even encompasses a sad and sobering recall of the bitterness of World War I when medals won honourably in the hell of the trenches were spat upon in Ireland.

It's a delightful piece, with impeccable performances by the author as hapless Bobby, Michael James Ford as William, and Tom Lawlor as the fulminating Eamonn.

They're directed splendidly by Bairbre Ni Chaoimh in a set by Andrew Murray, and it's at the Viking Theatre in Clontarf in Dublin.

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