Tuesday 17 September 2019

Tapping into the power of DNA

The Seamster’s Daughter

Smock Alley Dublin


Touring countrywide

Clare Barrett plays both Old Sal and Father Rice in 'Trad'
Clare Barrett plays both Old Sal and Father Rice in 'Trad'

Emer O'Kelly

New play suggests we look at all sides of a complex topic, says Emer O'Kelly.

There's nothing of the snowflake about Megan. Aged 20, she is about to take off (permanently) to New York, with the full encouragement of both her mother and her grandmother.

They both feel that life has let them down, and they want Megan to have freedom. Theirs is a female household: Grandma's husband (much loved) is long dead; mother Alison never had a husband.

And there's the rub: Megan fantasises, in the midst of her childhood embarrassment at not knowing who her father is, that at least she was the result of a possibly drunken yet still romantic one-night stand. But now she learns that her mother was raped by a man she knew.

He served three years in jail, but is still a monster in the eyes and minds of Alison and her mother.

Alison lost her chance of going to university; her mother prevented her husband taking the girl to Liverpool for a termination. Much though she loves her spirited granddaughter, she now has conflicts of both emotion and principle about that action, even though at the time she "did what I thought was right".

Jimmy Murphy's new, important play explores the issues with painstaking detail, and from all points of view, even that of the rapist whom young Megan finds and confronts. Even rape isn't one-sided, Murphy posits (with considerable courage in today's climate) as he explores conflicting moralities through the lens of lives disrupted and at least partially destroyed. As Megan's father asks when she finds him: "Aren't the guilty allowed to move on?"

The play, a Glass Mask production does have huge production problems, however.

There is no design credit, but the choice has been made to play it at audience level with most of the action seated.

The poor sightlines in the venue mean the action is invisible for most of the time.

There is also a huge vocal projection problem. Only Una Crawford O'Brien as the grandmother makes herself heard throughout, while at the other end of the scale the scene between father and daughter (Michael Ford-Fitzgerald and Aoife O'Sullivan) is almost inaudible and invisible.

Rachel Pilkington is the resentful Alison.

The author directs, which was probably a mistake, as his play would be immeasurably improved by a dramaturg oversight.


When Mark Doherty's Trad was first produced at the Galway Arts Festival in 2004, our awareness of DNA was in its infancy. Now, in a revival by Livin' Dred, the connection between our faith in tradition and a determination to preserve it, the play can be read as a slightly surreal manifestation of the power of DNA.

The Earth was flat; the Sun moved round the Earth; they were once immutable facts and to deny them courted anything from disapproval to sentence of death. Nor have we entirely moved on from such savagery, as recent events in Brunei have shown.

And now we also know that humanity has a fierce determination to preserve its own footprint in the passing on of personal legacy. We will hang on until the legacy is safe; that is, provided nature permits us. Sometimes we hang on even though we long to let go. It's in our DNA.

In Doherty's strange, thought-provoking play, Thomas looks after his ageing father somewhere in Ireland; except that Thomas is already 100 years old, and his Da is ageless. Doherty emphasises the surreal nature of tradition's part in relationships by playing the character of Da as a much younger man than the gormless Thomas, who incessantly calls on his father for guidance.

Thomas's floundering increases the day the pair, on a chance piece of information from the local "wise woman", set out on a journey to the town to find the facts of their own history, which may or may not be in the records closely guarded by the local priest, himself an ancient whose memory is unreliable. Thomas is vaguely sure he fathered a son in a casual encounter 70 years earlier; but it's his Da, clinging to a life barely lived, who wants the certainty of that continuity of "the line". Then he can slip away.

Aaron Monaghan, newly appointed artistic director of Livin' Dred, directs the piece, with Emmet Kirwan as Da and Seamus O'Rourke as Thomas, while Clare Barrett plays both Old Sal and Father Rice.

Jim Doherty's original music is played by Tony Byrne on guitar and Andy Morrow on fiddle.

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