Entertainment Theatre & Arts

Friday 18 October 2019

Triumphant Tom Murphy and the story of Bailegangaire

Bailegangaire starring Aisling O’Sullivan, Marie Mullen, and Catherine Walsh
Bailegangaire starring Aisling O’Sullivan, Marie Mullen, and Catherine Walsh

Emer O'Kelly

Tom Murphy has waited until 2014 to allow Mommo to complete her story.

Bailegangaire, the play in which a senile old woman tells the endless, repetitive story of  how a town cursed by the cruelty of laughter became a town without laughter, had to have a prequel.

How did a strong if unhappy woman end in such dire straits, even if  her rambling showed us that there had been tragedy and betrayal in her life? How did the granddaughters whose lives she was stifling continue their grim task of caring for her, even if the  travail did lead to a resolution, even a kind of benediction?

The story of Mommo and the night she finally completed the story to give exhausted surcease to the unwitting Calvary she had imposed on Mary and Dolly was the eerie, soaring magnificence of that play, written in 1985 for the youthful Druid Theatre Company under Garry Hynes and set in that era. The role of Mommo was created by Siobhan McKenna in her last stage appearance, and has been played with varying degrees of success since then by a number of actors.

Now Murphy has gone back to the 1950s with Brigit, when little Mary and Dolly danced in the same kitchen and watched life unfolding there. It was before their little brother Tom would, literally, be consumed by flames when he threw paraffin on the fire in imitation of the way their grandfather "got it going."

And it was there they watched grandfather, Mommo's husband Seamus, embittered at being denied work because of his anti-clericalism, try to gain redemption by carving a statue of St. Brigid, the "Irish Blessed Virgin" for the local convent, only to have his art desecrated by the philistinism of the nuns.

Brigit is a glorious piece of work, lyrical, heartbreaking, and howling the sturdiness of unyielding principle. But nonetheless Seamus fades into the shadows of his own making when he "betrays" his marriage to Mommo, and seeks companionship elsewhere.

The increasing distance between them as she comes to believe he has even forgotten her name precipitates the bitterness of a tragedy which will cause his death, ultimately unhinge his wife, and set his granddaughters on a bewildered path through the ugly undergrowth of duty.

Garry Hynes has made a new production of Bailgangaire for Druid, playing it with the premiere of Brigit, and the two make for a devastating evening's theatre delivered by soaring performances from Bosco Hogan as Seamus, Marie Mullen as the younger Mommo, Marty Rea as Father Kilgarrif and Jane Brennan (a particular gem) as the Reverend Mother who manages at a stroke to destroy Seamus's dignity and pride in his achievement. The children are played by Lily McBride, Ailbhe Birkett and Colm Conneely.

Mullen gives perhaps too much stridency to the role of the mind-wandering Mommo in Bailgangaire, but it is still a fairly triumphant delivery of the now classic role, and Catherine Walsh and Aisling O'Sullivan each separately make the blood run cold in their portrayal of despair for lost hopes.You feel an actual physical need to escape the horror as Dolly grovels in an abandonment of desperation at the feet of the grinding stoicism of her equally unhappy sister. These are souls laid bare. And they make for a triumphant night for Tom Murphy and for Irish theatre in Galway.

Brigit and Bailegangaire will play in Dublin during the forthcoming Theatre festival.

It's not often that you leave a theatre performance feeling that you have been privileged to be present. But I felt that after Company SJ's adaptation of three of Beckett's Fizzles, (1, 7, and 3 in that order) as part of their "Beckett in the City" project.

Brief, bleak prose pieces, most of them written in French in 1960, and later translated into English, they have been brought to quivering, agonised life by Raymond Keane under the direction of Sarah Jane Scaife. The sound is a voiceover from Keane, more a sensation than anything else as it embeds itself in the consciousness, planting itself there almost without being comprehended.

It's a oneness with the shattered, almost racked body portrayed by Keane, dragging itself deliberately into nothingness in the darkest, dank corner of one of the echoing derelict rooms of 14, Henrietta Street in Dublin, a scarcely more active version of himself projected in grey intensity on patched and crumbling walls. "I gave up before birth; it was not otherwise possible for birth to be" thinks the figure, all its strength concentrated on non-existence, (1; He Is Barehead).

Then, moving into another room's filtered light, we are confronted by the man facing away from us, catatonic, shoes neatly placed beside his wicker chair, a figure from a nursing home of nightmare (Still). "Eyes close again in what is not quite a single movement:" Given what has preceded, it's almost an act of reluctant energy, as an almost hopeful slow twist of the hand gives the lie to previous nothingness. Humanity close to death, but unwillingly, almost comfortably alive when contrasted with the previous deathly crawling scarecrow.

And finally, we are back in the depths, as he shrinks into yet another corner, unwilling to live: "…someone divines me, divines us, that's what he's come to, come to in the end….it's he will die, I won't die, there will be nothing left of him but bones, I'll be inside, nothing but a little grit…." Its "title" is Afar a Bird, and indeed the bird is far away in this desperate hope for the quelling triumph of nihilism. And thanks to Keane's extraordinary portrayal and Scaife's directorial vision, we can understand through our tears why Beckett also wrote on another occasion "I must go on." This was breathtaking, paradoxically life-affirming theatre.

When George Orwell went "underground" in pursuit of the reality of humanity, he had not even fully formulated the philosophy which, 15 years later, would produce that savage attack on totalitarianism, 1984. Down and Out in Paris and London traced his experiences in 1933 as a dishwasher in various Paris restaurants, and on the road as a tramp in the London environs.

The people he met during both investigations had no alternative: dire poverty, misery, hunger, and the contempt of society were their daily lot. Orwell on the other hand, could (and did) go home to Mummy when his health broke down under the strain. And while writing of having to live on slops for a few days in Paris, he also had the knowledge that there was a considerable sum of money in his bank in London.

But despite the innate falseness of his position, Orwell produced a fascinating study, and it has been equally fascinatingly adapted by Phelim Drew for the "Show in a Bag" series for Fishamble (playing at Bewley's Cafe Theatre in Dublin.)

Drew dominates the stage, using every inch of space, his beautifully modulated voice making the most of the pen pictures he paints, his mobile face contorting into a range of emotion from rage through wry humour, into cowering endurance (however false the latter is in the true context of Orwell's circumstances in life.)

George Orwell was a meticulous observer and a superb writer. And Phelim Drew has done a theatrical job on his work which might well bring Orwell back into fashion.

Sunday Independent

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