Saturday 19 October 2019

Vagabones, Civic Theatre, Tallaght: The Witch of Youghal sings out across the centuries


Civic Theatre, Tallaght  Run concluded

Powerful: Carolyn Holt (right) as Florence Newton and Kelli-Ann Masterson as Dónal O’Dare in Vagabones. Photo by Frances Marshall
Powerful: Carolyn Holt (right) as Florence Newton and Kelli-Ann Masterson as Dónal O’Dare in Vagabones. Photo by Frances Marshall

Katy Hayes

Raymond Deane's new opera, based on a 1996 play by Emma Donoghue, is a delight: picky, delicate instrumentation; nimble percussion with church bell echoes; and an accordion bringing everything to earth. Ethereal, with erratic and idiosyncratic melody, this is beautifully shaped music.

Renate Debrun's libretto smartly distils Donoghue's play into a singable form. It is Youghal in 1661. Heavily planted Cork is being administered by English settlers. Mary Longdon, a servant on the make who is hoping to marry her master, the bailiff, develops fits after an encounter with a local old woman. Florence Newton is then accused of witchcraft.

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As with much of Donoghue's writing, the story is rooted in research on true events, but is filled out with her own concerns: injustice, male power and the erotic undercurrents of female interaction. Newton is tortured in the gaol and threatened with drowning; she eventually confesses, finding the gallows less terrifying than the harbour. Once she concludes that she has no more hope, she declares herself triumphantly to be "the Witch of Youghal".

Director Ben Barnes makes the most of this moment of perverse feminine anti-triumph. Carolyn Holt's powerful and earthy mezzo performance as Florence assumes the recklessness of the condemned. Now officially a witch and reconciled to her own death, she intimidates the authorities to free her young cellmate who has been imprisoned for stealing a salmon to feed his sisters.

Baritone Rory Musgrave, as the mayor of Youghal, expresses the conflicted self of the good-hearted pragmatist. Sarah Power creates a delicate Mary Longdon, a singing, powerless doormat. Monica Frawley's Gothic set design is an austere high-walled prison cell, with a screen showing a variety of 17th-century Northern European still-lives and landscapes - a reminder that Ireland was always part of Europe. The Crash Ensemble orchestra is arranged to the fore, conducted by Sinéad Hayes whose busy baton ensures the distinctiveness of each instrument, creating a richly textured sound. My one complaint is about the sung prologue, which takes the place of an instrumental overture. The audience must absorb the opening aria at the same time as tune their ear to the distinctive music. It was simply hard to follow.

This is an exciting offering from Opera Collective Ireland. Deane's music is so sweetly distinctive, and Donoghue's witch narrative creates a perfect scaffold for his dramatic instincts. A bewitching experience, in a 21st century sort of way.


An archaeological dig of the mind


Smock Alley Boys' School, Dublin Until Sept 15

Katy Hayes

Playwright John O'Donovan won plaudits last year with his Ennis-set If We Got Some More Cocaine I Could Show You How I Love You. This new one-woman play, presented as part of Dublin Fringe, stays regional; it's a portrait of an archaeologist sent to the hinterlands of Limerick to assess the finding of a bog body. Ciara's trip west to where her grandmother used to live becomes an excavation of her own fragmented consciousness: "It is not my pain, it was passed to me."

Her drinking, her totalled marriage, her father's alcoholism, all bubble up in her fevered brain. Ordinary professional tasks meld with traumatic recollections and each become part of the other. A Beckettian setting, a tiny platform of grass-covered turf confines the actor's movement; it feels just right for a Beckett-influenced text which occasionally gives way to lyrical, rhythmic trance. O'Donovan is a gifted writer, the lines curl about each other with elegance and depth. Actress Rachel Feeney, making her professional debut, is deeply affecting as the troubled woman. Thomas Martin directs for One Duck with fine-tuned sensitivity. More conventional payoff in the story's climax would have pleased this critic more, but the emotional intelligence gives it an impressive edge.

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