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.
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.