Stage: An affectionate critique for Joe O'Connor's epic
A few years ago a pair of sisters, Máiréad and Ionia Ni Chróinín, sat around a dinner table with their ensemble of actors. The company, Moonfish, had just finished Pinocchio in Irish at Smock Alley. The Ni Chróiníns were reared speaking Irish in Galway and their inventive theatre uses masks, shadow work, live music and Irish.
They toasted each other a job well done, perhaps chinking festively filled glasses of red wine, before the sisters passed Christmas presents around. The actors each opened the wrapping to find a fat historical novel, a best-seller from 2003. Mairead and Ionia suggested they have a read of it over Christmas.
Joseph O'Connor's Star of the Sea is a 405-page epic set on a coffin ship bound for New York in 1837. It is a compilation of hairy sub-plots, engrossing back-stories, letter extracts, panoramic shipping scenes. The descriptive prose chaptered into nautically precise ship log entries, Star of the Sea was not made for the stage. But Moonfish decided to do it, and do it as Gaeilge agus as Béarla.
That means "in Irish and English" for anyone that did not have an teanga náisiúnta beaten into their skulls by dreary teachers from infancy.
O'Connor is probably Ireland's best-loved novelist (never mind journalist, poet, songwriter, professor of creative writing at UL), but it's often forgotten he is a pretty fluent, and well-connected, theatre personage too. His 1995 play Red Roses and Petrol was well-received, and he and his wife, Anne-Marie Casey, have both adapted classics for The Gate.
Plainly, he could have done Star of the Sea himself. Or given it to one of the more venerable companies, unnamed companies he had turned down before youthful Moonfish tracked him down last year.
The 52-year-old writer had never heard of Moonfish. But their proposal captivated him, he told me, because they wanted to stage his book through Irish. Joe's novel is about the Irish refugees that set off for a better life during the Great Hunger. Some reached Manhattan, but many perished at sea, their bodies thrown overboard to be finished off by sharks. Joe had one "niggle" about his Famine opus - it was written about Irish speakers, in a language foreign to them.
He looked Moonfish up on the internet, liked their stuff, and his agent sold them the rights. He did not breathe down their necks. "I handed them my baby, and off they went," says Joe. "I didn't attend rehearsals or anything like that." At opening night at An Taibhdhearc in Galway last year, he told the sisters he felt overwhelmed. "To hear the dialogue spoken in Irish I found very emotionally powerful. I always felt it was a weakness in the book. I ended up writing about the issue of the Irish language rather than embodying what happened with the Irish language, which was that the Famine was a disaster from which it's probably never recovered."
He goes so far as to suggest that in compressing its 405 pages into two hours, Moonfish might have improved his story. "I think of adaptation as a form of affectionate critique. You tend to heighten the aspects you like and omit the bits that you still like but maybe not so much," says the wry author.
As this poignant piece of theatre sails forth on its national tour, Joe is not ruling out writing another play soon.
Of theatre, he says: "There's something that happens in us when the lights go down. A bond is made between us and the people onstage: we're going to pretend to be people who never existed, and you're going to pretend that you believe what we're doing. When it's good it's very, very powerful as a storytelling medium. So even if the play is rubbish, I get something from it."
And yet, he can count on one hand all the plays he has really enjoyed in his life. One was by Brian Friel, who passed away earlier this week. "I saw Donal McCann doing Faith Healer at the Royal Court. I can still remember the look in his face when the lights came up. He was spent, exhausted, he shrugged and limped off the stage; he gave it everything that he had."
Star of the Sea tours until October 24 as part of the Dublin Theatre Festival