Tag Archives: Irish play

134: Fred and Jane

2 Aug

What a beautiful play this is. Sebastian Barry’s Fred and Jane is a tender, slow-moving story about the friendship between two nuns. It sounds terribly dull when summarised as baldly as this, but it is anything but dull.

Fred and Jane

Fred and Jane is a short play – it probably runs under 40 minutes – with the title inspired by the Beatrice’s fond memories of Fred Astaire and Anna’s desire to be Jane Fonda. Beatrice is in her sixties and Anna is a young nun at just thirty. The two have become devoted friends, perhaps too close as the Mother Superior decides to send Anna away to a mission in England.

ANNA: England. You’d think it was a land of savages. A mission to England. As if England couldn’t do without Anna Nagle.

BEATRICE: I thought it was a bizarre decision. But of course the English cities are – this was Manchester, and that’s in a right state, so Anna says.

ANNA: You never saw such desolation and withering of the spirit.

The whole play is told in retrospect as Anna and Beatrice remember the past and tell their tale to an invisible interviewer. Beatrice’s calling came in the cinema, when she had a vision of a dove landing on Fred Astaire’s head. Until that moment she’d been wishing for a date, envious of all the kissing going on in the cinema: “that wonderful rich noisy kissing Mullingar couples perfected at that time”.

BEATRICE: I used to wake up when I was a novice in the middle of the night and see Fred standing in the corner of the room, smiling very nicely. I must say he did always smile very nicely. At the back of my mind I wanted Gary Cooper to turn up, just the once, for the effect. Or Henry Fonda.

There is incredible humour and sweetness in this short piece, mixed with a good bit of sorrow as Anna and Beatrice really do love each other. When they are separated they both fall apart…

ANNA: I used to cry – you know those ornamental ponds? There’d be one, in the middle of my pillow. You’d be surprised how much moisture you can produce. But I was a young woman. Beatrice started to come apart like an over-boiled onion. Not that she ever told me. I thought she was doing fine, aside from mere grief.

BEATRICE: I did deteriorate a little.

ANNA: Ha. The lobster speaks. Look at me, I’m all right. Bubble, bubble, bubble. Just going a little red. Hey diddle diddle.

There are no shocking revelations, no outrageous behaviour, just a tender, sweet, funny and incredibly moving story about two women who love each other dearly. A great play for two female actors.

Publisher: Faber and Faber (published with Whistling Psyche)

Cast: 2F

127: Innocence

26 Jul

Frank McGuinness’ Innocence is another wildly imaginative play based on a historical, biographical figure. This time he’s chosen the painter Caravaggio as his central character and what a passionate protagonist he is!

Caravaggio's John the Baptist

John the Baptist, by Caravaggio (1571-1610), from Web Gallery of Art.

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio was an Italian artist in the sixteenth century, famous for getting into fights, spending time in prison, killing a man and having a Papal death warrant placed on his head. It was no surprise that he died young. He drank to excess, flared to temper quickly and loved recklessly.

In Innocence, Caravaggio lusts for young men, acts as a pimp procuring their services for Cardinals, and loves a whore, Lena (Magdalena). No wonder the play caused an outcry in Catholic Ireland.

I love the way McGuinness blends dreams, art, lust, carnality, religion and gender politics in this play. Lena the whore loves and cares for Caravaggio, bathing and washing his wounds. Together they play fantasy games where they marry and have a child, but Lena knows all too well that Caravaggio lusts for boys, not her. In one moment his temper flares with her and she hits him.

LENA: Who the hell do you think you are? Who do you think you are dealing with? Some penny piece of pansy rough you scraped off the streets? By Jesus, boy, you should know better than to try that caper.

Caravaggio does have a penchant for a bit of rough:

CARAVAGGIO: Their shirts were white. The body underneath was brown. I could hear the white of their shirts touch their flesh. I knew they could see me listening in the dark. […] They were as near to me as you are, but in their youth and desire they were as far away as the stars in the sky. I wanted to raise my fist and grab them from the sky and throw them into the gutter where I found them. I wanted to dirty their white shirts with blood. I wanted to smash their laughing skulls together for eternity. I wanted the crack of their killing to be music in my ears. I wanted them dead. I wanted red blood from their brown flesh to stain their white shirts and shout out this is painting, this is colour, these are beautiful and they are dead.

Later he does kill a man, but it’s not one of the young boys he described above. The murder means he has to flee for his life, leaving behind Lena, who loves him still.

LENA: I dreamt I stood in a room, a beautiful room. All bright. Pictures on the walls. All yours. I was in the centre of the room but I wasn’t in the painting. I looked at them and I looked up and I saw you looking down at me. […] And I started to laugh because it hit me you were looking at them from above, so you must see them all upside-down, and I knew then somehow we’d won, we turned the world upside-down, the goat and the whore, the queer and his woman.

Publisher: Faber and Faber (published in Frank McGuinness: Plays 1)

Cast: 6M, 3F

120: Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme

19 Jul

Frank McGuinness put himself firmly in someone else’s shoes when he wrote Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme. The playwright is a proud Catholic Republican, but in this play he immerses himself in the hopes, fears and dreams of the other side: the Protestants.

Frank McGuinness Plays 1

McGuinness has written a historical play peopled with invented characters. After decades forgotten or reviled, he’s given voices to the young Protestants who volunteered to fight in the 36th (Ulster) Division in World War One. The play begins with Kenneth Pyper, the sole survivor, as an elderly man, haunted by the memories and ghosts of his friends. He speaks to the empty air until he slowly conjures their shapes.

PYPER: I do not understand your insistence on my remembrance. I’m being too mild. I am angry at your demand that I continue to probe. Were you not there in all your dark glory? Have you no conception of the horror? Did it not touch you at all? A passion for horror disgusts me.

The elderly Pyper reaches out for his young self and we are propelled into the past and the day the young men met in their makeshift barracks. Kenneth Pyper is an artist, an upper class boy at war with himself and his ancestors. He appears quite mad and with a certain death wish, and yet he is the only one of the eight to survive the Battle of the Somme.

CRAIG: I’d say you’re a dangerous man in a fight, Kenneth.
PYPER: Would you, David?
CRAIG: I’d say so.
MOORE: How do you fight, Pyper?
PYPER: Dirty.

Part of what has driven Pyper to enlist is his homosexuality: he cannot be who he is anywhere in the world, so he might as well cease to exist and take out some of the Huns with him. When he falls in love with Craig, a young blacksmith in the regiment, he is given a reason to live and a reason to want out of this mad war. But they’ve enlisted and the army will let none of them go.

Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme is a play about war and its terrible waste. We see eight young men fighting for one-upmanship in the first part (which McGuinness has tellingly titled ‘Initiation’), forming close ties on leave after their first stint in battle, and then bonding as a team before their final battle.

The middle section, where they are on leave, shows them fractured by what they’ve seen. Some are falling apart, most are terrified, none want to go back to the battle front. It’s the ties of friendship that keep them going.

MOORE: I’m drenched.
MILLEN: That’s with sweat.
MOORE: Not with muck? Not with flesh? Not with blood?
MILLEN: Just with sweat.
MOORE: I think it’s blood. But it’s not my own. I never saw that much blood, Johnny.
MILLEN: It’s not ours.
MOORE: The whole world is bleeding. Nobody can stop it.

Publisher: Faber and Faber (published in Frank McGuinness: Plays 1)

Cast: 9M

111: The Cordelia Dream

10 Jul

I love Marina Carr. Her writing is passion, longing, dark and light, everything fearsome and all our blackest desires, writ out large on the page.

King Lear with the body of Cordelia

King Lear with the body of Cordelia, illustration by Friedrich Pecht in Shakespeare-Galerie, 1876.

The Cordelia Dream is Carr’s own wonderful take on the last act of King Lear. A father and his daughter fight to the death. He’s an elderly composer and musician, locked away in a room with a piano and little else. She is also a musician and composer and has achieved more success than he has, to his great outrage and distrust.

He calls her dog-hearted and a viper and believes that she has sucked the talent from him, leaving him unable to compose. So he blames her for his lack of success and curses her achievements. He believes that only her death will release him to the greatness he is capable of.

MAN: You stopped being my daughter a long time ago.

WOMAN: Yes, I stopped when I felt your claws around my throat, strangling all fledgling aspirations. Yes, I removed myself for protection, protection of this gift you spit on. I watched you. I gave you chances – too many! – to redeem yourself. I let you hold my firstborn. But I watched and I saw you wanted me to be a failure like you.

MAN: I am a great artist.

WOMAN: I’m glad you think so, for no one else does.

MAN: I am a genius. A genius! And you are a charlatan! A charlatan who stole my gift when I wasn’t looking. You are a charlatan who has plagiarised from everyone.

WOMAN: That’s what art is. Plagiarism and cunning disguise, a snapping up of unconsidered trifles.

In the first act of The Cordelia Dream, the daughter comes to visit her father, hoping to at last have it out with him and come to some sort of peace. But there can be no peace between them and he sends her away with only his curse and wish for her death.

The second act is five years later. The old man has gone mad when his daughter visits him again. Madness hasn’t mellowed his memories but he’s gradually able to talk of paternal love, even though he disguises it in fable and keeps the venom at its core. He must always think his child capable of the worst sins, capable of wishing his destruction. So even when he talks of love, it’s love of a viper.

MAN: My wife and I had a goat-faced child. Goat-faced, dog-hearted with the soul of a snake. We buried her under the blue swing in the field of beech trees. But out she came, ate the coffin, clay in her eyes, and we took her in. My wife said, we’ll pay for this. I said no, I had such faith in the heart of God. This is what she sounded like.  (He plays a few notes on the piano.) And we loved this goat-faced, dog-hearted one as if she was our own. I even taught her the violin.

He doesn’t mention that the reason he taught her the violin was that he had locked the piano so that neither she nor her mother, who could also play, could ever rival his talent. Cutting her down is his way of maintaining his place on his pedestal.

The reviews I’ve read of the RSC production of The Cordelia Dream were overwhelmingly negative, but I wonder if this is to do with the production. Reading it on the page there was light and shade, not an unrelenting howl of pain as some seem to have taken it. I’m marking this play as biographical although this may be a complete overstatement on my part. Apparently Carr’s father was also a playwright and the director’s notes for the RSC production said that she was “addressing themes that have long haunted her”.

Publisher: Faber and Faber (included in Marina Carr: Plays 2)

Cast: 1M, 1F

105: Ariel

4 Jul

Marina Carr modelled her play Ariel on Aeschylus’s The Oresteia, compressing the three-play tragedy into one three-act play.

Bernadino Mei's painting of Orestes slaying Aegisthus and Clytemnestra

Ariel is the name of the daughter sacrificed by her politician father, Fermoy. She’s born with the stubs of wings, beloved of both parents, but killed by her father who believes that God wants him to make a blood sacrifice, and that after he’s made it he’ll have the power he craves.

Fermoy believes he has direct access to God as he explains to his brother Boniface, who is a priest. Boniface asks him to describe God seeing as he knows him so well and this is what Fermoy says:

FERMOY: Oh, he’s beauhiful. When he throws hees head back hees hair gets tangled in the stars, in hees hands are seven moons thah he juggles like worry beads. Hees eyes is shards of obsidian, hees skin is turquoise, and hees mouth is a staggerin red, whah the first red musta been before ud all started fadin. I’m noh capturin him righ, for how can ya parse whah is perfect.

A little bit later, Fermoy describes the deal he’s made with God.

FERMOY: I’m on this earth to rule. Was born knowin ud. Timidihy has held me back till now. Ud’ll hould me back no longer. I refuse to spind any more a me life on the margins. I refuse to succumb to an early exih. I’ll give him wah he wants for ud’s hees in the first place anyway.

BONIFACE: And whah is ud he wants?

FERMOY: I tould ya, blood and more blood, blood till we’re dry as husks, then pound us down, spread us like salt on the land, begin the experiment over, on different terms next time.

Fermoy’s wife Frances still mourns the death of her first husband and child. When Ariel goes missing she scours the country for her, but ten years later realises that her now influential politician husband killed her. She stabs him in her fury. For an audience this seems justifiable homicide but, for her surviving children, there’s no forgiving the woman who killed their father, no matter what he did to deserve it.

ELAINE: She killed our father, slashed him till blood ran down the walls. I had to bury him in pieces.

Elaine, the Electra of the piece, has never cared for her mother: her loyalties have always been unswervingly with her father.

ELAINE: Whah my father done to Ariel had the grandeur a God in ud. Pure sacrifice. Ferocious, aye. Buh pure. Whah you done to him was a puckered, vengeful, self-servin thing wud noh a whiff of the immortal in ud.

Ariel is a brave, crazy play. A wonderful blend of myth, legend, dreams and greed. Blood follows blood and revenge just breeds more revenge as a family tears itself apart in one man’s quest for power.

Publisher: Faber and Faber (included in Marina Carr: Plays 2)

Cast: 4M, 5F plus 1M and 1F child (unless doubled with their adult counterparts)

99: On Raftery’s Hill

28 Jun

Marina Carr’s On Raftery’s Hill is a bleak family drama, with a family as dark and twisted as a dead, bonsai tree.

view from Girraween

View from Bald Rock, Girraween (where I read this play)

Red, the father, is in his sixties and rules his family with fear and brutality. His traumatised son Ded refuses to come into the house, sleeping in the cow byre, covered with cow dung and playing the fiddle. Red’s mother Shalome is losing her mind, attempting to leave the house and make her way back to the village on an almost daily basis.

SHALOME: Goodbye Raftery’s Hill. I shall not miss you. (Strews flowers grandly over landing, stairs, kitchen below.) Goodbye disgusting old kitchen and filthy old stairs. I shall never climb you again. Never. Goodbye Slieve Blooms, goodbye Mohia Lane, Black Lion, Ruedeskank, Croggan, Mucklagh. How could anyone be happy in a place called Mucklagh?

Red’s daughter Dinah runs the house, keeping him in whiskey and also keeping his bed warm for him, as she has done since she was a child. His youngest child Sorrel seems to be the only one of them free from the family curse and likely to escape as she is being courted by a young man from the village.

The fields outside the house are filled with the corpses of rotting animals: the sheep and cattle that Red tortures and doesn’t bother to bury, choosing instead to leave them to bloat and fester. But the rot in his fields doesn’t come even close to the rot in his home.

RED: We were big loose monsters, Mother, hurlin through the air, wud carnage in our hearts and blood under our nails, and no stupid laws houldin us down or back or in.

On Raftery’s Hill is a slow extinguishing of all hope. The brutal father destroys everything he owns, and that includes his family. Sorrel is always the one who’s going to get away and be saved, but after the brutal ‘skinning’ Red inflicts on her, she’s caught and trapped like all the other poor animals on the farm. There’ll be no escape or happy ending for anything living on Raftery’s Hill.

Publisher: Faber and Faber (included in Marina Carr: Plays 2)

Cast: 4M, 3F

98: Stones in His Pockets

27 Jun

Marie Jones is a funny writer with a nice edge in irony. Stones in His Pockets is a hilarious, madcap play about two Irish men who are extras in a big Hollywood movie shooting in their home town.

Stones in His Pockets

The two men, Jake and Charlie, play all the characters, including the prima donna of a star, the director, the first and third AD, security guard and other extras on the movie. They leap from character to character and accent to accent in a play that’s an amazing challenge and showcase for any male actor. (Roles for women? None. Although the men have fun playing women.)

Here’s a quick example of the incredibly fast character shifts. Remember there are just two actors playing this:

SEAN: I won’t touch you I just want to look at you.

CAROLINE: Jock … Jock … I am being pestered, get rid of him.

JOCK: (grabs him) Right you out, if I see you back in here I will break your two fuking legs.

FIN: He was put out on the street, out of the pub in his own town … he sat outside on the street, I went with him.

JAKE: And then he watched me go off with her didn’t he?

FIN: Yeah.

The movie business gets the bulk of the digs, with plenty of laughs about its inanities and the ridiculous way the film producers try to get ‘authentic’ Irish scenes from the locals. The two main characters, Jake and Charlie, have aspirations beyond being extras. Charlie has written a film script which he’s trying to get someone to look at, and Jake wants to be an actor. They would seem to be in the ideal place to advance their goals but soon discover that local extras are most definitely second class citizens.

And the lowest of the low on this totem pole are the locals who want to be extras and are rejected, which is what happens to Jake’s second cousin, Sean. When Sean is turned down and thrown out of his own local pub, the indignity is too much for him and he walks into the ocean with stones in his pockets. The death hits Jake hard as he feels culpable. For the film crew it’s another inconvenience as the funeral threatens to delay filming.

SIMON: Aisling break the extras for the funeral … they have an hour and a half … tell them that anybody that comes back smelling of alcohol will be put off the set.

MICKEY: Holy mother a Jasis, a funeral without a drink … never heard of it happening in my life and I have bin to more funerals than the undertaker himself … a dry funeral in Kerry, what is happening to the world?

Publisher: Nick Hern Books

Cast: 2M

90: A Night in November

19 Jun

Marie Jones has written a one-man play about a Protestant dole clerk in Belfast waking up to himself and realising that he is not just a Protestant man … he is also an Irish man.

Soccer boots and book

It all begins one night in November when Kenneth is forced to take his father-in-law, Ernie, to a World Cup qualifying match between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. Ernie is a vicious bigot, filled with racist bile and hatred towards the Catholics and this is echoed throughout the Belfast stadium, making Kenneth ashamed of his own tribe.

Ernie, you are low life at its lowest, you are the foulest human being that I have ever had the misfortune to know … you know if you were dead I wish I could be the first maggot to eat at your festered brain … the first worm to bore into your stinking heart, the first dog to shite on your grave and the last person to see you alive because then I could say all this to you, but I can’t Ernie, because I look around me and there are hundreds of Ernies and I am numb …

And so Kenneth doesn’t say a word, swallows his anger and pretends everything is fine. But something inside him has changed and he can’t keep pretending. Each day gets harder and cracks begin to appear in his demeanor.

Like Stones in His Pocket, A Night in November is a tour de force play for an actor. The solo actor in this play takes on dozens of parts during a two-act monologue. It’s laugh aloud funny in parts and a heavy burden in others. Reading it I felt sure that Marie Jones must be a Catholic, writing this play as a way of getting back at the Protestants. But it appears that she is a Belfast Protestant, just like her protagonist, which makes me wonder whether this play is an over zealous apology for being born on the wrong side of the fence during ‘The Troubles’. It reminds me of the sort of middle class guilt that makes white people write books with evil white oppressors and saintly dark skinned victims.

But perhaps I’m reading too much into what is undeniably a feel good sort of a play. The oppressor realises the errors of his ways, turns his back on his bigoted and small-minded friends, neighbours and family and opens his arms to his countrymen…all through the power of Football in the form of the 1994 World Cup played between Ireland and Italy in New York. But there’s an uncomfortable undertow. To get to the happy ending, Kenneth lies to his wife and family, sneaks a suitcase out of the house and takes off on a plane without telling anyone where he’s going. He leaves his family, his job and his old life behind him in the way you’d discard old slippers.

Earlier in the play he talks about his wife using all her will and determination to do her aerobics, clean the house, make sure the children pass their exams, the endless round of sacrifice:

We are the perfect Prods, we come in kits, we are standard regulation, we come from the one design, like those standard kitchens with the exact spaces for standard cookers and fridges, our dimensions never vary and that’s the way we want it, but what happens when the kit is put together and the appliances don’t fit the spaces … what happens … chaos, mayhem and we can’t cope, we can’t cope.

Kenneth’s way of coping is to run away from it all.

Publisher: Nick Hern Books (published along with Stones in His Pockets)

Cast: 1M

69: Faith Healer

29 May

Fifteen years before Brian Friel wrote Molly Sweeney (a play delivered in three separate monologues with no interaction between the characters), he wrote Faith Healer. The reason I mention Molly Sweeney is that Faith Healer is also a play for three actors and also delivered in three distinct monologues.

woman and play

The danger with a monologue play where the actors never interact is that it can become monotonous or dull. The weight and task of delivering a 20-minute monologue with no one to help you or prop you up if you stumble is huge. I love the challenge of it: it’s almost like a one-person play, but with several viewpoints and voices.

In Faith Healer, Brian Friel tells the story of Frank (the healer), his wife Grace and his manager Teddy at their last gig. We soon know that something’s gone terribly wrong, but we don’t know what or how. What we see is three people tell their stories of their lives together and of that last night, each from their own perspective.

Friel is a brilliant writer. His play Translations is one of my favourites (I intend revisiting it for this blog soon). In some ways Faith Healer hardly feels like an Irish play: Frank and Grace have been away from Ireland for a long time, their time on the road is through Wales and Scotland, and Teddy is a Cockney. But at the heart of this play is Frank’s gift – or his chicanery – depending on your preference.

FRANK: Faith healer – faith healing. A craft without an apprenticeship, a ministry without responsibility, a vocation without a ministry. How did I get involved? As a young man I chanced to flirt with it and it possessed me. No, no, no, no. no – that’s rhetoric. No; let’s say I did it … because I could do it. That’s accurate enough. And occasionally it worked – oh, yes, occasionally it did work. Oh, yes. And when it did, when I stood before a man and placed my hands on him and watched him become whole in my presence, those were nights of exultation, of consummation – no, not that I was doing good, giving relief, spreading joy – good God, no, nothing at all to do with that; but because the questions that undermined my life then became meaningless and because I knew that for those few hours I had become whole in myself, and perfect in myself, and in a manner of speaking, an aristocrat, if the term doesn’t offend you.

The different viewpoints mean that we hear the same events described in completely different terms. We never whose version is the right one, if any of them are. Frank calls Grace his mistress and says he met her in Yorkshire. Grace tells us she is his wife and that she’s from Ireland. She says that describing her as his mistress is one of Frank’s many ways of putting her down and hurting her. And Teddy tells us that the two fight tooth and nail: “and when I say fighting, I mean really sticking the old knife in and turning it as hard as they could”.

I finished this play and wanted to start it again, to solve for myself some of the intriguing contradictions in testimony. To try to work out how it all went so wrong and ended with a body in the morgue and to find out what really happened in the yard at sunrise.

Publisher: Faber and Faber

Cast: 2M, 1F

66: Riders to the Sea

26 May

JS Synge’s one-act play Riders to the Sea was first produced in 1904. It’s set on an island off the western coast of Ireland (probably Inishmaan) and the sea is almost a central character, pounding at the island and churning through the lives of the young men.

Open book

Maurya is an old woman, mourning the loss of the fifth of her six sons to the sea. While scouring the rocks for her missing boy, she’s trying to stop Bartley, her only surviving son, from heading out on a boat.

MAURYA: In the big world the old people do be leaving things after them for their sons and children, but in this place it is the young men do be leaving things behind for them that do be old.

Her daughters Cathleen and Nora try to protect Maurya from identifying the clothes the priest has brought them from a body washed up in the north.

CATHLEEN: Ah, Nora, isn’t it a bitter thing to think of him floating that way to the far north, and no one to keen him but the black hags that do be flying on the sea?

NORA: And isn’t it a pitiful thing when there is nothing left of a man who was a great rower and fisher but a bit of an old shirt and a plain stocking?

The sea roars and pounds around their cottage and, when Bartley leaves to catch the boat, it’s inevitable that his body will be joining those of his brothers. This sea is inexorable, relentless and filled with fury. But, in losing her last son, Maurya finally finds some peace.

MAURYA: They’re all gone now, and there isn’t anything more the sea can do to me … I’ll have no call now to be up crying and praying when the wind breaks from the south, and you can hear the surf is in the east, and the surf is in the west, making a great stir with the two noises, and they hitting one on the other.

Riders to the Sea is a strange, short play. Filled with lamenting, fear and dread, it paints a bleak picture yet ends with a note of satisfaction. Once the worst has happened, there’s nothing left to fear. Strange comfort indeed.

Riders to the Sea is out of copyright. (Can be performed without payment of royalties)

Cast: 3F, 1M (+ a couple of extras)