Saturday 18 November 2017

Theatre is alive and kicking in Yeats County

Curiouser and curiouser: Miriam Needham as Alice in Blue Raincoat's reinvention of the classic
Curiouser and curiouser: Miriam Needham as Alice in Blue Raincoat's reinvention of the classic

Maggie Armstrong

It's not what you would expect to find in weather-beaten Sligo town - home of Four Lanterns chipper and some very late-night sing-songs in pubs - a theatre company, working in mime, making expressionistic plays in a performance space they restored with their raw hands.

But so it is, Blue Raincoat, still looming over artistic life here, 25 years on. A unicorn might just pass by your window. Anything is possible.

To celebrate their quarter century together comes Alice in Wonderland, adapted by Jocelyn Clarke and directed by the company's founder, Niall Henry. They already produced Clarke's Alice to great success 19 years ago and later Alice Through the Looking Glass.

A week before opening night, Henry was walking towards The Factory Performance Space in a rabbit hole of his own.

"We're stuck," he said on the phone.

He was trying to figure out how to build up and then break down the theatrical rules of their particular Wonderland - not something you or I would understand, but apparently a source of agony for Henry.

He seemed to be almost enjoying it: aware that from being "stuck" the best surprises can emerge. The last time they were "stuck" was earlier this year, making Shackleton. They were telling the story of Ernest Shackleton's epic mission to Antarctica through miniatures, screen projections, chilly lighting, and one day Clarke suggested they strip away all words, all script. Henry freaked, marching his friend down to the train station before giving in.

"It was extremely frightening and extremely enjoyable, to do it without text. It pushed us into a place we'd never known."

It was the highlight of his 25 years (and will hopefully see a revival soon in the Project).

MacBeth, The First Cosmonaut, a Flann O'Brien trilogy - fine shows there have been many. Lately, though, Blue Raincoat have abandoned the theatre building altogether, bringing WB Yeats's plays on to mountain tops and beaches in the wildest of weather.

"Poor old Sligo has been dealing with f**king off-the-wall theatre now for the guts of 25 years," says Henry. "We're bizarrely fortunate coming from a small little town like this, being funded by the taxpayer in our own theatre, doing our own type of theatre.

"I believe that way out in the west of Ireland, getting groups of people together doing good art, matters an awful lot, socially, across the board."

Henry grew up performing in Sligo's amateur dramatics, and even had a short-lived mime company with his school friend Mikel Murfi. One night he saw Jonathan Lambert (son of the puppeteer Eugene Lambert) on The Late Late Show. Lambert had trained in Paris under mime artist Marcel Marceau, and Henry resolved to get in himself. He took off to Paris for five years, training as an actor at the Marceau then Etienne Decroux schools.

Back home, another school friend, writer Malcolm Hamilton, proposed starting a theatre company. At first, Henry recoiled at the thought of staying in Sligo. But he wanted to direct plays, and remembered some advice he'd read from the director Peter Brook: "He said, you go into a bookshop, go into the play section, buy a play, find out the number of people you need in the play, get them, get a room, do the play. You just go and do the bloody play like, you direct it and that's the end of it."

Their first show, in 1991, was Double Cross by Thomas Kilroy.

Twenty-five years and 115 productions later, Henry says he hasn't ever considered closing the company. Not seriously, only "in between jobs when you're not busy, and you end up on some psychological loop of comparing yourself with others." Then they do a play and forget about it.

"You know that phrase? Compete with yourself, get better; compete with others, get bitter."

In survival terms, Blue Raincoat certainly square up to the 'big five' of Druid (40 years), Rough Magic (30 years), Pan Pan (25 years) and Corn Exchange (20 years). But even next to these experimenters, the north-west thesps can seem like outliers.

"We're not able to, or we don't, do plays that you could put on in the Gaiety. That's just not my biscuit," says Henry. Nor have they got near Broadway, yet: their plays take them to Bulgaria, Poland, Romania, and the beach on Coney Island, NYC.

A Blue Raincoat play hasn't yet been seen on the main stage of the Abbey. And Henry isn't keen to work for another theatre. He would miss his beloved ensemble. "Put me in a room with a bunch of strangers and say 'direct them', I would find it unenjoyable, and unwarm."

There must be something in that yellowish-coloured water in Sligo when four of the six actors in the first Alice are reuniting for this Alice, while Alice herself is played by Miriam Needham from Leitrim, who trained at the Le Coq school in Paris.

Alice in Wonderland plays 24 Oct-5 Nov at The Factory Performance Space, Sligo

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