Tintown

One of the things that surprised me the most when researching for Tintown was how surprised most people were to learn that the Republic of Ireland maintained, for a long time, a barbed-wire camp into which inconvenient people could be disappeared.

It was a nasty tradition we inherited from the British administration in Ireland, who shoved thousands of men into concentration camps in Ballykinlar and the Curragh (Tintown), as well as Spike island and any other correctional facility that had space; men who were rounded up because of their actions, suspected actions, associations, for being in the wrong place at the wrong time or for having an unfortunate surname.  It didn’t work particularly well for the British; but the Free State ran with the idea anyway, interning Republicans in the Curragh again during the Civil War, and later reconstructing it for use during WW2 and the decade beyond.

Everyone seems to be at least vaguely aware of K-Lines, the Tintown extension where a handful of downed British and German airmen were held during WW2;  yet the larger group of men that were held next door don’t excite the same feelings of romanticism and are not as easy to fit into our national story.  They were not terrorists in the clear-cut sense of the Provisional IRA; many were civil war veterans, some had fought in 1916; those who had participated in the late 30’s bombing campaign in England saw themselves as a legitimate national army engaging military targets.  They still believed in the possibility of an Irish Republic – not just as a geographic ideal, but as a socialist ideal, a secular ideal – and a far cry from the theocratic Free State entity that declared itself a Republic in 1937.  And many of those interned were not directly connected with the Republican movement; some were rounded up because of the actions of siblings, some were left-wing socialists and communist activists.  In the quasi-fascist anti-communist hysteria of the times, simply being a civil rights activist was enough to mark you in the eyes of the law.

The IRA at that time was a complex organisation being pulled in two very different directions.  The leadership were locked into a militaristic approach, determined to attack England – even to the extent of requesting the assistance of the Nazis.  Their choices often now lead to the IRA of the time being labelled ‘nazi-sympathisers’ – although much of the rank and file were anti-fascist, socialist if not downright communist; they had fought the Blueshirts in the streets and some of them had fought against Nazi-supported Franco in Spain.

These two opposing currents within the IRA couldn’t co-exist forever, of course.  If one of the strange ironies of the period is that the Irish would use the abhorred internment method against their own people, it is another that the method finally worked – for all the wrong reasons.  It was not years of confinement, hardship, and separation from family that caused the IRA to begin to crack, so much as being locked up with their own leadership.

Like any aspect of history it is endlessly deep and complex; but it is an area that we don’t speak about, and a key missing part of our national narrative.  State censorship played a large role in keeping it from the public eye at the time, and self-censorship has kept us from examining it since.  It is a stark reminder of many things that make us uncomfortable; the long echoes of the civil war, our complex relationship with terrorism, the insidious hold the church had over Irish civic policy – and it’s ongoing struggle to maintain it – and the state’s viral fear of anything approaching left-wing thinking that persists to this day.  For those of us who like to believe that we inherited a secular, egalitarian, socialist Republic, it is a reminder that we didn’t, and we haven’t made one yet.

As for the piece, the work-in-progress presentation went well, and those who had no knowledge of the topic were engaged and entertained.  There were some present whose parents had been interned (including the children of the main character); some who were connected to the socialist side of things; some who were connected to the Republican side of things; and all seemed to feel that it was done respectfully and fairly.  So we’ll see what happens next.

The work-in-progress reading of Tintown was presented in the Hawk’s Well Theatre on Thurs 20th 2016 as part of its Theatre Artist in Residence programme..

Bless The Mark

I’m still a little taken aback by the overwhelmingly positive response Bless the Mark received at it’s rehearsed reading in the Hawkswell last Friday.  We had hoped for some positive feedback and that people would see some potential in it; but quite a few people suggested that the reading as is could be presented as a finished piece, which was entirely unexpected.  Of course this isn’t to be taken literally; in one sense people seemed to worry that further development of the piece would turn it into a more traditional ‘play,’ and destroy what they thought was unique about it.  But if we do get to take it further, that will be the main challenge; to find a form that conjures the time without depicting it, that allows the audience to experience the image without distracting them with pretence, much as the reading did. (One audience member described watching the reading as like reading a book, in that it allowed her to create the story rather than imposing one visualisation on her).

The most astute comment of the evening came from a youth theatre member, who pointed out that of all the characters spoken of, the one we end up knowing virtually nothing about is Turlough, the last brother; and because we know nothing about him, he becomes a force, an avenging power descending on the men to wreak vengeance.  If we were told, for example, that Turlough’s favourite colour was blue, he would be reduced to a mere character – much like the other brothers are.  The three men on stage can laugh about Eoghan, who they destroyed.  They can talk somewhat about Niall, who eluded them.  But they can say nothing about Turlough, who will destroy them.

But it occurred to me later that there is a greater force in the play that is made powerful by the characters inability to speak about it, and that’s women.  In the early stages of the piece I thought I was writing a play that had no female characters.  Gradually I came to understand that I was partly writing about the absence of women – their absence from the historical narrative, the genealogical narrative, the lives of these characters, the world of the play – not merely absent, but a non-presence, a wound in the world that the play cannot help but probe at and question.  The men speak about their father as if they knew & understood him well – he was

a broken man
a hard man
a battered man
a beaten man
a fearful man
a crooked man

Twisted into a knot of himself that he couldn’t untie it

Wishful
Tearful

An aching heart surrounded by a fuck of a man
He could never say what he wanted to say
He was too deep in himself, you couldn’t reach him.

Spent his life breaking his back to pay the half rent on a siege of herons and a scatter of whins.  And sure where is he now?

But when they speak of their mother –

– your mother is a memory of the sacred heart. She’s the dying embers in the grate where you know there was a warm fire once but you can feel nothing now.  And when you ask the people – ‘what was mammy like?’ they tell you about the man she was a daughter of.  They know next to nothin’, and she the missing piece that you make no sense without her.

And their memory of her is a confused mix of ideas; she rejects any easy image which might be constructed of her.  She’s neither Cumann na mBan nor biddy; neither virgin or whore; she’s what they lost track of, what history did not record.  The lads can’t find their way back to her, and they feel the loss of her.  The play, their world, is incomplete without women and they know it.

What you have of her is good-
The tune of a tin whistle
Or the knitting in the lap
Or the dúidín in the gob
Feck the shawlies and the suffragettes
And feck the greedy priests!
“I’m going now” says he
“Well beir bua agus beannacht dé leat, there’s no use talking to you!”
Sure she was flittered living with him. Her softness wasn’t capable to him.

You were the pulse of her heart.
But she’s lost to you now.

This becomes an undercurrent throughout.  Sean is in love with a girl, but she will no longer speak to him because of what he did.  Tom speaks of the bravery of the women during the Rising – but was he even there to witness it?  Frank’s song is a mother’s lament for her son’s deeds.  The lads reach a safe house, an old woman’s home where the kettle is warm for them – but they’ve missed her, she’s gone.  Perhaps in the dark journey they’ve undertaken she is invisible to them now.

It’s a recurring theme in my work.  Dradin in Love, Jeff Vandermeer’s tale about a priest who obsesses over an imaginary woman; the distant voices in Sonnets for the Cradle; the theme is very often – not women, but men’s disconnection from women, their distance from them, their stubborn attempts to make them into what they are not.  Women so often represent salvation in men’s minds that the virgin/whore symbolism is, though not an accurate way to depict women, often an accurate way to depict a man’s psychology.  A person shedding their illusions about life is often a person shedding their illusions about the opposite sex – and that’s a real and true story to tell.

That said, for The Big Wall in May I’m pretty sure there’s going to be a couple of strong women with rifles, kickass heroes of the revolutionary period.  For the sake of historical accuracy.

Bless the Mark is the first of three works-in-progress that will be presented at The Hawkswell as part of Bob Kelly’s Theatre Artist in Residency 2016

At the Hawk’s Well

Beneath the stage of the Hawkswell Theatre there is an actual well – maybe I was the last to know?  I was informed of it recently by one of the technical staff as we contemplated the small lagoon that had temporarily replaced the front row – the recent biblical weather had caused the river to rise more than it had for a long time.  When the theatre was built there was no need to seal the well off fully – “sure we’ll never let global warming go that far!” the workmen may have been heard to chuckle.  Of course the well isn’t the actual Hawk’s Well of Yeatsian and Saint Patricksian fame – that, as far as I’m aware, is out on a hill in Tullaghan.  I used to live below it and quiet pilgrims would sometimes make their way past the house and up the hill.  When I was a boy, a friend of my mother’s lived in that same house and we went there after school; I didn’t like the waiting and I often slipped away to hike in the hills around Hawk’s Rock and the Hungry Rock, destroying my school uniform on branches and thorns, trying to find a way through close-packed Coillte forests.  This is one of the reasons I feel lucky to have been brought to Sligo as a child and to remain connected to the place; the dolmens, cairns and ringforts that surrounded my childhood; the knowledge that – according to tradition at least – me and my schoolbag were traipsing the same hills that Cuchulain himself had walked.  We drank from the same well.

It was one of the themes of my short film Foxglove, which debuted at the Cork Film Festival recently, and it’s also connected to the first piece of writing I’m doing for the Hawkswell Residency.  Bless the Mark is about the Civil War in Sligo, and it’ll be presented in a rehearsed reading on March 18th – more on that later.  The Theatre Residency is generally off to a flying start, and I haven’t yet been asked to sleep in the well; apart from the work on Bless, we ran workshops examining one-actor performance (from the starting point of Lecoq’s Langue du Geste) in connection with the tour of Bryan Burrough’s Beowulf: The Blockbuster – and Bryan was good enough to participate in a post-show chat.  We’ve also had courses for performing arts students, and next Monday acting courses for beginners are starting again.  The New Year will see lots more, including postshow talks with Mikel Murfi on The Man in the Woman’s Shoes, and with the cast of The New Theatre’s Madame de Markievicz on Trial; and there’s two pieces of new writing to come.  It’s going to be an interesting year.

Artist in Residence at Hawkswell, Sligo

Well, its official – in September I’ll be taking on the role of Artist in Residence at the Hawkswell Theatre in Sligo.  The year’s looking busy – between Once in the Olympia for the summer, a tour of Playboy of the Western World, the residency, a research project for a site-specific performance in Sligo Gaol and a commission to write a play about Sean MacDiarmada, things are going to be interesting!  It’s not yet clear how or where Tribe projects will feature; but hopefully some of the work or it’s offshoots will find expression under the Tribe heading. Watch this space!

Performing Yeats

On the opening night of L’Ecrivain Public in Paris, Juliet O’Brien – the writer/director – presented me with a slim bilingual volume of Yeats’ poetry. The play contained a reference to He Wishes For The Cloths of Heaven, and Juliet knew that I was from Yeats’ heartland in the northwest of Ireland.

That volume had quite a bit of solid advice on life & love; though I’ve wondered of late whether the poetry that resonated most with me in my youth were not the truths, but rather the ideas I wished were true. Pablo Neruda’s first volume of love poetry, resplendent in it’s worship of, not women, but a young man’s idea of women. Yeats’ vision of his own intellect, choosing the perfection of the work over the perfection of the life, and therefore ‘refusing a heavenly mansion, raging in the dark’…. a beautiful and romantic image that always chimes with my inner martyr, but which also conjures up a warning image seared into my childhood mind – Uncle Andrew from C.S.Lewis’ The Magician’s Nephew, staring down at little Digory from his filthy attic room wherein he practiced dark and selfish magic. “Ours, my boy,” he told Digory and me, “is a high and lonely destiny.” Perhaps as I grow in my own wisdom the elements of Yeats that he & I wished were true will drop away and something simpler, truer and rarely quoted will remain.

Brown pennies, ivory towers and unattainable women aside, there’s also Yeat’s biographical reminisces, which offer a pleasantly readable insight into a very likable man. It wasn’t till I read them that he started to offer me some strongly worded advice on how I should do my job.

Heron Allen had the wisdom to reduce his acting to a series of poses, with not more gesture than was needed… when some other player opened his mouth, breaking up the verse to make it conversational, jerking his body or his arms that he might seem no austere poetical image but very man, I listened in raging hatred. I kept my seat with difficulty, I searched my memory for insulting phrases, I even muttered them to myself that the people about might hear.

– The Trembling of the Veil

Yeah ok, we’ve all been W.B. raging in the middle row – not long ago I left a show outright because a particular performance was driving me round the bend (awards were won – shows what I know). It’s not like me to leave – we learn the most from work we don’t agree with, and theatre tickets aren’t cheap for those on theatre wages. But the ferocity of Yeats’ hatred for naturalism surprised me when I read it first, and made me a little nervous: I was rehearsing for Cuchulainn in On Baile’s Strand at the time, and much of our efforts were spent searching for ways to make the text more real, more vivid, more natural.

Yeats does seem to have broadly agreed with Michael Chekhov that “style is the most precious thing [the actor-artist] brings into his work,” and that “the legacy that naturalism will leave behind will be a coarsened and nervously disordered audience that has lost its artistic taste.” But where Chekhov backs it up with a skilled and subtle understanding of the range of styles and form available to the actor, Yeats is – quite frankly – a woeful performer of his own work, his readings being roughly on par with my poetry. He sought a particular style –

how great might be the effect of verse spoken by a man almost rhythm-drunk at some moment of intensity, the apex of long mounting thought….that voice, whose beauty was half in its harsh strangeness, nobility and style…

…which when heard today – at least in his rendition – sounds anachronistic, stuffy, unfeeling.

My first real encounter with performing Yeats was, interestingly, an attempt to recreate things as he would have done it. The Royal Ballet & Royal Ballet School staged a version of The King of the Great Clock Tower (I played the King) which was an exercise in theatrical archaeology – costumes, set, masks all recreated from photographs; the earliest draft of the script possible; ballet choreography (the real centrepiece) as close to Ninette de Valois’ style as possible; and my performance was, shall we charitably say, old-fashioned…. or – to borrow a bizarre phrasing from the recent controversial Abbey report – the acting style was not in keeping with ‘modern best practice.’ (Seriously?)

RBS-The-King-of-the-Great-Clock-Tower-Photo-Patrick-Baldwin-2011[1]

Photograph © Patrick Baldwin (2011). From: The Royal Ballet School Collections, White Lodge Museum

Later came the complete opposite – Blue Raincoat had already staged Sanctuary on top of Knocknarae mountain, and now they were to stage On Baile’s Strand on Cummeen Strand, a strip of lowland between the shore and Coney Island that’s exposed when the tide is low. This huge stage was framed by Benbulben to the east and Knocknarae to the west, and to the south, the Rosses road that Yeats wandered in youth and old age.

Here you hit certain problems. Yeat’s writing is of course stylised; and the performance style demands stylisation. But as anyone who has seen outdoor Shakespeare can testify, style usually fails outside the formal frame of the theatre. On the stage, reality has been temporarily barred entry, so that the actors can propose a new reality. In a realistic setting, your proposals for an ‘other’ way of speaking, of behaving, come up against the real world and lose. You look silly. Beneath the lights, you are a Roman emperor beset by tragedy. On O’Connell Street, you are a man in sheet doing a funny voice.

But Cummeen Strand is not O’Connell Street. It’s a huge natural arena, framed by mountains; miles of flat sand; an island as your backdrop, the sky as your auditorium. Even to get there required a half-hour on-foot trek from the coast, the audience entering that ritual theatrical elsewhere with each step they took across what is essentially the sea bed. As far as the real world goes, this was more real than people’s daily lives – and so it had the potential to be a powerful ‘elsewhere.’

Certainly one of the first things that we discovered about the necessarily strange blend of naturalism and heightened style was that we couldn’t compete with the landscape. Where in a theatre you speak of mountains, the land, the sky, in a way that conjures them in the audience’s mind, a way that evokes them, here you can’t. They’re present, and more real than you, and to speak poetically of them feels daft. True even for the mythical elements of Cuchulainn’s story – Aoife, the warrior-woman of Scotland, no longer a character but someone who is beyond that sea; the witch-women, floating in the air, are not ideas that we ask the audience to buy into, but are here now in this air. The location, being both real and ethereal, opened up strange and fascinating possibilities for performance.  I’d like to think it would have given the big man something he hadn’t seen before. It also opened the door to some very interesting staging – like entering the scene from a mile and a half away, possibly the most fun stage entrance I’ve gotten to do yet.

Yeats has never been far from the public consciousness – particularly now with the ongoing Yeats2015 celebrations – and his poetry remains as vibrant, honest and heartbreaking as it ever was; for me it’s always and forever a thing of home, both of Sligo and of Ireland…. growing up, those of us with fires in our heads often went out to the Hazelwood, whether we’d read him or not. Keep an eye out for Blue Raincoat’s upcoming contributions to Yeats 2015 – no doubt there’ll be more creative staging afoot, although without me on board – I’ll be playing my geetar in the Olympia all summer.