Monthly Archives: November 2016

‘Take this sad tale where you will….’

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Orla Tubridy,Michael Irwin and Catherine Denning

What a fascinating exploration and discovery is The Sacrificial Wind, this small hard diamond of a piece by Lorna Shaughnessy,  which I directed at the New Theatre Space at the National University of Ireland Galway, which is shortly to be revived for the Cuirt International Festival of literature 2017 and playing in the Town Hall Studio Galway from the 25th-28th April .Tickets available at http://www.cuirt.ie or http://www.tht.ie

It is an absolutely thrilling piece to revisit.

Like all Greek theatre, Lorna Shaughnessy’s examination of the characters around the story of Iphigenia in Aulis asks big questions; in this case about our sense of helplessness in the wake of war and cruelty, our collusion in those events and our sense of shame in that collusion. It asks what can artists do to affect these horrors? What have we to offer? It takes us through a panoply of heroes, soldiers and victims and all in fifty minutes and with three performers. Interestingly one of the rules of the Ancient Greek Tragic competitions was that there were only three actors who played all the speaking roles.

What’s interesting about working with a set of poems as opposed to a play, even when the poems are dramatic,  is that the structure is more subtle like music and we have to understand that. Each poem is like an aria , changing the energy and movement of the piece suddenly for two or three minutes before a new character twists the story, often violently, in another direction. This is incredibly challenging for both actors and director as each poem exudes its  own particular atmosphere. A number of the poems, like the final set where the family and the playwright Euripides are all devastated by the sacrifice of Iphigenia, work together as a distinct musical movement.

So unlike a conventional play where the structure of the story limits the choices to a certain extent, a body of poems has a much more serpentine structure with many more possibilities. It means you could go on and on and on exploring but we had a short time frame. The poems gradually revealed themselves . We had not only to consider character but, like a song, a style of delivery which depended on how each poem was written. this work was greatly enhanced by the soundscapes of Aranos, and lighting by Bryan Rabbitte.

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Catherine Denning as Clytemnestra

One thing I ditched very early on was the idea that any of the pieces would take place as ‘scenes’. The characters addressed only the audience. This did not mean that the other performers did not support the main actor but the principal acting partner was always the audience. This kept both a feel of Greek drama and a palpable collusion in the audience as to the Sacrifice and other decisions that the characters made. It was very direct.

This is not the same as doing a monologue to the audience, much beloved device of many modern playwrights, but a more Shakespearean take where the audience are asked to consider their role in the actions of the play . Shakespeare monologues are less reflective and more active. they are asking questions. Look at the ‘It must be by his death’ Brutus soliloquy  in Julius Caesar for one of many  examples . I was very aware of how our crisis – riven world is provoking the very kind of questions the characters ask.

Thanks also to Catherine Denning, Michael Irwin and Orla Tubridy , the actors, who made such an incredible job of the work.

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Poetic Power

When I won the first Apples and Snakes Performance Poet of the year back in ’94, in truth I was joint winner, I knew then that there was another exciting way to combine rhythm and poetry and theatrical performance. Of course I was not the first to discover it (grin) but right then anything like poetic drama seemed to be either from another time or extremely avant garde, pretentious and have nothing to do with the real world . It was around that time that things started to change, especially of course with the advent of rap.

Poetry makes a small cast into an epic production. The heightening of language takes us to places naturalism cannot go easily. It is so thrilling and powerful and really digs in to the stuff that is going on underneath. Naturalism is powerful because it dwells on the specific realism of a situation but poetry helps us to find a myriad of truths and levels.

In 1996 I wrote a radio play about racism for the BBC called Albion Tower which went on to win a Sony for best production and an award from the Commission for Racial Equality for best radio play on racial issues. The play which had Peter Jeffries, James Ellis, and Nicholas Bailey in the leads took place in a tower block in the Midlands of the UK . It was almost entirely in verse and had a story based around the Tower of Babel. The young black British boy Edison at the centre of the story played loud rap and reggae in his hard-to-let tower block flat, driving his neighbour Bill, an old white widower, mad. In order to fight back, Bill starts to play World War 2 themes through the wall and slowly but surely everyone in the block adds their own music creating chaos. Eventually the music stops after a distraught child throws herself off the roof of the block. Edison, the young boy, thought entirely in rap, though his ‘realistic’ dialogue was everyday. This was very experimental at the time and was unusual in its use of poetry in a realistic setting.

Subsequently in Ireland I wrote a play for youth theatre called Alien Nation, published by the National Association of Youth Drama in Ireland about racism amongst young people and used a whole range of rap and rhythm in conjunction with short sharp scenes to explore the subject. I still find now that when I am working with young people they key in to this rhythm work quickly and easily.

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Right now I am working as a director with poet Lorna Shaughnessy and three actors on a series of her poems about the Sacrifice of Iphigenia, The Sacrificial Wind. What’s fascinating here is the way it melds the universality of themes with strikingly relevant and beautiful imagery. Interestingly Greek tragedy only allowed three speaking actors (though there was also a chorus). The actors wore masks of course so one actor could easily play many roles, and it is another connection that our piece also has three performers too.

It is powerful stuff and relevant; beginning firstly with Euripides the playwright in exile pondering on writing a version of the Iphigenia story in order to say something about war and his time, he asks us what can we actually do in times of cruelty and war? Does he show her sacrifice in all its gory detail to shock his audience or does he show the other version where Iphigenia is snatched away by a goddess just in time to spend the rest of her life as a priestess in a foreign land to make them feel more positive about the story? The poetry takes us through the sacrifice and all the major players in that decision; how they collude, permit and act so that the engine of war and vanity can be pursued. Like many acts of unbelievable brutality a juggernaut of violence is set in motion that no one seems interested or able to stop. It sounds grimly familiar. The second half and I believe the heart of the piece deals with the consequences, most especially for the damaged women of Agamemnon’s family.

It is having one performance on November 24th at 1pm in the Centre for Drama Theatre and Performance (next to the Bank of Ireland Theatre) though we are expecting to have more. It is part of the Arts in Action programme at NUI Galway and entrance is free.