Monday 20 November 2017

Theatre: Women of two Irelands

Explosive moment: Mary Murray, Cara Kelly and Catherine Cusack in Dancing at Lughnasa by Brian Friel. Photo: Ros Kavanagh.
Explosive moment: Mary Murray, Cara Kelly and Catherine Cusack in Dancing at Lughnasa by Brian Friel. Photo: Ros Kavanagh.

Emer O'Kelly

There is darkness at the heart of Annabelle Comyn's production of Brian Friel's Dancing at Lughnasa that is as unexpected as it is puzzling. As Friel wrote the play, the adult Michael is recalling the month of August 1936 as a time frozen in sunlight and music, before the darkness of reality hovering over the Mundy family finally descended and destroyed it.

But in Comyn's production for the Belfast Lyric Theatre and the Dublin Theatre Festival there is no sign of light, only gloom and profound weariness. It begins with Paul O'Mahony's set, a kitchen isolated beneath a dark canopy behind which the action is reflected uneasily back on the characters as they move around. Michael watches from the shadowy sidelines, a gaunt figure implying that his seven-year-old self already sensed the fate approaching for his mother and his aunts.

As a result, the explosive moment when the sisters break into their wild dance of longing for their lost girlhoods is a thing of profound despair: through their director's interpretation, they already know that hope is beyond their reach.

And Father Jack, rather than being the catalyst who breaks the mould of family certainty, seems not to impinge in any way on the world he has returned to.

Again, Friel's intention was to give us an enormity of discovery: the missionary priest who has lost his faith, his mind, and his purpose in life, his presence a reproach to the people of Ballybeg who have revered him for a generation, and who now use his presence as a further whip for the sisters who have transgressed against the certainties of their code.

With this approach, perhaps sprung from a laudable attempt to see the play anew, Declan Conlon seems profoundly uneasy in the role of Father Jack, while Kate, the eldest sister whom the burden of family responsibility has turned into a termagant, seems bereft of authority and influence in Catherine McCormack's playing. And Catherine Cusack's physical rigidity as Agnes still does not manage to convey the simmering resentment written into the part. It leaves only Cara Kelly and Mary Murray as the ebullient Maggie and the slow-witted Rosie respectively, seeming to be the only portrayals true to Friel's intent. (Vanessa Emme's Christina is largely inaudible and so lacking in presence she seems invisible for much of the time.)

Charlie Bonner tries hard with Michael, but the director's physical side-lining of him for much of the action is simply too difficult to overcome, while Matt Tait's playing of the admittedly close to unplayable Gerry Evans is without conviction as a weakling rotter ... or a vestige of Welsh accent.

And Joan O'Clery's costumes are more 1950s than 1930s.

The production is not Comyn's finest hour, but it is still fitting that the play has been produced for the week when its author finally left Ballybeg behind.

* * * * *

An Arthur Riordan musical has become something to look forward to in Irish theatre; and when his book and lyrics are teamed with music composed by Bill Whelan, it can be expected to be a winning combination. And that is what we get with The Train, the musical theatre account of the day in 1971 when a group of Irish women decided to stage a stunt ... or make a brave gesture against a sexually repressive authoritarian state: whichever represents your point of view.

The organisers were the members of the comparatively newly-formed Irish Women's Liberation Movement, headed by people such as journalists Mary Kenny and Nell McCafferty (McCafferty has remained a consistently radical feminist over the years; Kenny has done a 180 degree turn, and is now a champion of Catholic family values).

They announced publicly that they would travel to Belfast, purchase contraceptives, declare the illegal contraband to the customs at Connolly Station on their return, and see what happened.

In the year 1971 in Ireland there were (and still are) many women, and indeed men, who fully supported freedom and equal responsibility for women, sexually as well as in other areas of society. And many of them shied away from the words "feminist" and "womens' liberation" seeing them as representative of a kind of radicalism which was part of a larger, anarchic approach to society.

Publicly importing illegal contraceptives was small potatoes in comparison. But for Ireland it was a big deal, and the "contraceptive train" has gone down as a sexual milestone in our history.

People were smuggling contraceptives across the border all the time, of course. But for others, possibly those most in need of them, it wasn't a possibility. Women were on the pill, of course they were: but they and their doctors had to have their tongues in their cheeks, and use it as "menstrual regulator." And always, particularly for young single women, there was the sense of shame.

It seems difficult to believe that the "womens' libbers" who travelled on the train to Belfast that day weren't aware that you needed a doctor's prescription to purchase the pill, since most of their unliberated sisters in the republic were well aware of the fact. But it is now known the pills swallowed in the face of the sweating customs officers at Connolly were aspirin, because the "conspirators" were politely refused service of the genuine article in the Belfast pharmacies they visited.

Riordan has turned the story into an hilarious musical pastiche in Lynne Parker's production for Rough Magic, with Whelan's music echoing the sounds of the Seventies, and it makes for a thoroughly entertaining evening. The writing is by no means one-dimensional, and diverse points of view are explored, before the Catholic Church (understandably) emerges as the villain of the piece, a villainy, Riordan's script suggest, that is still swingeing its way across a society which "debates the morality" of the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution. There is also a serious and merited paean of praise for young lawyer Mary Robinson, who was not part of the movement, but (certainly in this critic's view) is arguably the greatest Irish woman of the 20th century, and has made the greatest contribution of any Irish person to the liberation of women.

The cast, headed by Clare Barrett and Lisa Lambe in the main female roles, with Darragh Kelly and Emmet Kirwan as soutaned villain and secular wimp respectively, all do a splendid job in superb costumes by Joan O'Clery, the music directed from the keyboard by Cathal Synnott, and choreography by Muirne Bloomer.

Even if you have no interest in sexual politics, it's a terrific show.

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