Bookish and Not so Bookish Thoughts

 

As I’m still getting back into the swing of things after Reading Ireland Month, I thought I would ease myself in with a Bookish and Not So Bookish Thoughts post which is hosted by Christine at Bookishly Boisterous

  • Anyone who has read my blog for long enough will know I’m a bit of an 80s baby, so imagine my delight when I got to meet JOHN CUSACK last week. Yep, you read it right. Me. And Mr John Cusack! John came to the Belfast Film Festival for a special ‘In Conversation’ event was as intelligent, funny and witty as you would expect. After the event, he was signing copies of his book Things That Can and Cannot Be Said, written with Arundhati Roy. My friend bought me a copy so I wouldn’t miss out on the opportunity to speak to my favourite leading man, although when it came my turn to get my book signed, I found myself completely unable to speak at all. I was so totally star struck that when he asked me if I spelled my name with a ‘K’, I said ‘Sure!’
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I know you can’t see much under that baseball cap, but I SWEAR that’s John Cusack….

 

Now, if I could just meet Kevin Bacon, I could die a happy woman…

  • Can we just for a minute talk about Big Little Lies and how bloody AMAZING it was? I hadn’t read the book, but I inhaled the TV show which was smart, thrilling and completely refreshing. The finale was one of the best hours of television I’ve ever seen. I got into a lengthy discussion with friends on Facebook about how this show would have got so much more attention if it had featured the same story but with four male protagonists, played by Oscar nominated/ winning actors. I saw Big Little Lies being disparaged and called trashy in a way it simply wouldn’t have if it had been about the messy lives of four men. I, for one, would love more television like this – I’ve never seen domestic violence depicted with such intelligence, insight and sensitivity. Brilliant, brilliant television.

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  • I’ve booked the family summer holiday to the West of Ireland again and, of course, that gets me thinking about the 20 Books of Summer Challenge! I wasn’t sure if I would do it again, but I think I will. I need to shave off some of the TBR and it is always a great incentive to read, read read! Anyone else planning on joining in?

 

  • Last night I went to see the Lyric Theatre Belfast’s fantastic production of John Logan’s Red, which is based on the artistic life of Mark Rothko. It was a really wonderful, passionate and often thrilling show which made this hardened Rothko detractor think again about his work. I reviewed the show for No More Workshorse and you can read my review here

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  •  And finally this week, it was Mr 746’s birthday so there was cake, chocolate, cake and more cake. And some wine. Of course!

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What has been the highlight of your week? Do share!

Dancing at Lughnasa at The Lyric Theatre Belfast

 

For it’s so clear that in order to begin to live in the present we must first redeem the past, and that can only be done by suffering, by strenuous, uninterrupted labour.

Chekhov

 

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In 1990, my parents took me to the Abbey Theatre in Dublin to see a new play by Brian Friel. That play was Dancing at Lughnasa, and that landmark production went on to take London, New York and Broadway by storm.

 

 

The play is undoubtedly a masterpiece, with Guardian critic Michael Billington recently including it in his 101 greatest plays of all time. I saw Dancing at Lughnasa again on Sunday in a 25th anniversary production presented by Lyric Theatre Belfast in association with the Lughnasa International Friel Festival. In the intervening 25 years, the play has lost none of its power, and this production, directed by Annabelle Comyn suggests that it still has something new to offer audiences today.

The setting of Dancing at Lughnasa is Ballybeg, literally a ‘small town’ in Donegal, where 7 year old Michael is living with his aunts and mother for one last summer. It is 1936, Michael’s Uncle Jack has returned from working as a missionary in Africa and events both local and international are about to converge on the delicate structure of their home and change all their lives forever.

The play is narrated by Michael (Charlie Bonner), now in his 30s and is effectively a memory play as Michael tries to make sense of the tumult of that last summer and what it meant for the lives of these five women and in turn, what it means for his own life.

Charlie Bonner as Michael Evans Photo: Ros Kavanagh/ Lyric Theatre

Charlie Bonner as Michael Evans
Photo: Ros Kavanagh/ Lyric Theatre

Friel’s work often explores the tenuous links between fact and memory, questioning whether the events that we feel are central to our lives are as we remember them. From Gar in Philadelphia Here I Come! To Frank Hardy in Faith Healer, the mutability of memory is a constant theme. As Michael says

But there is one memory of that Lughnasa time that visits me most often; and what fascinates me about that memory is that is owes nothing to fact. In that memory atmosphere is more real than incident and everything is simultaneously actual and illusory.

However, there is little rose-tinted sentimentality in Comyn’s production. The world of the Mundy sisters is rooted in domesticity and daily work. The smell of turf wafts over the auditorium. Soda bread is made on stage and ironing and laundry is done. The plight of unmarried women in 1930s Ireland is always to the fore and there is a strong sense that their lives are held together by the thinnest of threads, where three eggs must provide dinner for 8 people and the reputation of the entire family entirely rests on the behaviour of each individual. Earthy Maggie regularly jokes about where five men can be found for them all, but the banter hides a growing desperation with regard to the lives they are sliding towards.

Cara Kelly as Maggie Mundy  Photo: Ros Kavanagh/ Lyric Theatre

Cara Kelly as Maggie Mundy
Photo: Ros Kavanagh/ Lyric Theatre

All the aunts have their troubles: Maggie (beautifully played by Cara Kelly) is the joker and entertainer, ready with a riddle or a song when tensions get fraught, but realising that, unlike her old friend Bernie, her pleasures will remain small ones in comparison to a life of glamour and family. Rose (Mary Murray) may be slower than her sisters and the one they all worry about, but she yearns for a life outside the Mundy household like the rest of them and sees her opportunity in the form of married suitor Danny Bradley. Chris (Vanessa Emme), Michael’s mother, is still infatuated with his father, the charming but feckless Gerry Evans (Matt Tait), yet her infatuation is hopeful rather than believing. Agnes (Catherine Cusack, in the performance of the night) seems most at peace with her situation, but hides a passion of her own and as it turns out, an unforeseen courage.

Catherine Cusack as Agnes Mundy Photo: Ros Kavanagh/ Lyric Theatre

Catherine Cusack as Agnes Mundy
Photo: Ros Kavanagh/ Lyric Theatre

Kate, the eldest sister (Catherine McCormack) is the strait-laced religious wage earner, desperate to maintain a veneer of respectability for the family, despite the presence of her ‘love-child’ nephew. Her brother’s return from the missions was supposed to be her saving grace, but the circumstances  of his return are as cloudy as his malaria-ridden mind. She feels the responsibility for them all most keenly,

You work hard at your job, you try to keep the home together but suddenly you realise that cracks are formin’ everywhere. It’s all about to collapse.

It may be because this is the first time that Dancing at Lughnasa has been directed by a woman, but what struck me most about this production was the sense that these were five strong, brave and resilient women who did not conform to the society they found themselves in and suffered for it. They paradoxically wish to be accepted by their community while at the same time wishing to be away from it. Their decision to accept Chris and Michael as they are isolates them, but they are proud of that decision. The discussion about whether or not to go to the Harvest Dance shows just how quickly their hope can be quashed in the face of hostility from the community of Ballybeg. A desperation is palpable and it finds voice in the now famous scene where the sister dance together to the music from ‘Marconi’ the radio.

Vanessa Emme, Cara Kelly & Mary Murray Photo: Ros Kavanagh/ Lyric Theatre

Vanessa Emme, Cara Kelly & Mary Murray
Photo: Ros Kavanagh/ Lyric Theatre

There is both joy and pain in this moment as their frenzied dance builds with a rising level of anxiety and panic. As Friel’s stage directions say

the movements seem caricatured; and the sound is too loud; and the beat is too fast; and the almost recognizable dance is made grotesque

The scene feels like an almost primal scream against their collective situation, their final pagan howl for lives that have slipped through their fingers. Words have become redundant to express what they themselves cannot fully express.

Mary Murray, Cara Kelly & Catherine Cusack Photo: Ros Kavanagh/ Lyric Theatre

Mary Murray, Cara Kelly & Catherine Cusack
Photo: Ros Kavanagh/ Lyric Theatre

Dancing and ceremony loom large in this production and Liz Roche’s choreography is seamless and integral to the action. Kate’s attempts to stem the tide of secularism from her house cannot hope to succeed and the off-stage pagan rituals of the festival of Lughnasa seep through the cracks, infiltrating the home along with Uncle Jack’s tales of pagan ceremonies in Uganda.

Language is failing. Riddles can’t be solved and it becomes apparent that this is not just the end of a way of life for the Mundy’s but a way of life as a whole due to war, secularism and the coming industrial revolution.

And even though I was only a child of seven at the time I know I had a sense of unease, some awareness of a widening breach between what seemed to be and what was, of things changing too quickly before my eyes, of becoming what they ought not to be.

This Lyric production carefully harnesses Friel’s themes of memory, guilt and family but is a somewhat sombre affair. There are some accent issues, but it also includes some performances of quiet grace, particularly from Charlie Bonner as the omnipresent narrator, Declan Conlon as the confused but ultimately composed missionary and Catherine Cusack as the quiet, hard-working Agnes, whose fate unfolds with devestating dramatic irony where we must watch her yearn for a life we know she will never have.

Paul O’Mahoney’s set is both realistic and thematic, the typical working Irish kitchen over hung with gauze and mirrors, creating a sense of claustrophobia and containment. Scenes change with the flash of a bulb and the interference on the radio, capturing these moments as snapshots offered up to us by Michael. Yet these five women are always front and centre, with their strength and endurance forming the back bone of the play.

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Catherine McCormack, Vanessa Emme, Catherine Cusack, Cara Kelly & Mary Murray Photo: Rios Kavanagh/ Lyric Theatre

Twenty five years on, Friel’s Dancing at Lughnasa still has something to tell us about how we remember and those we love.

When I remember it, I think of it as dancing. Dancing with eyes half closed because to open them would break the spell. Dancing as if language had surrendered to movement– as if this ritual, this wordless ceremony, was now the way to speak, to whisper private and sacred things, to be in touch with some otherness. Dancing as if the very heart of life and all its hopes might be found in those assuaging notes and those hushed rhythms and in those silent and hypnotic movements. Dancing as if language no longer existed because words were no longer necessary…

Dancing at Lughnasa continues at the Lyric Theatre Belfast until 27 September and will then run at The Gaiety Theatre Dublin from 6 – 11 October as part of the Dublin Theatre Festival.

 

No 724 Quietly by Owen McCafferty

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Poster for the original Abbey Theatre production of Quietly

In January of this year, an event was held in a community centre in East Belfast called Listening to Your Enemies. The Brighton bomber Patrick Magee was appearing in conversation with Jo Berry, who lost her father in that atrocity as part of the Forgiveness Project. Rioting broke out over several nights in protest at the event, with police officers injured and the centre damaged.  It’s safe to say that while the Troubles may be over, Northern Ireland still has a long way to go to make peace with its collective past. In today’s news it was reported that inquests into more than 70 killings during Northern Ireland’s Troubles have still to be concluded, owing to delays that are causing anger among relatives of the dead and raising concerns about the ability of coroner’s courts to cope with the conflict’s legacy.

Owen McCafferty’s new play Quietly examines how the legacy of the Troubles is being dealt with on a personal level and what truth and reconciliation means for ordinary people who are trying to walk forward with one foot still in the past.

Quietly premiered at The Traverse Theatre last year in the Edinburgh Festival to great acclaim and thinking it wouldn’t make it to Belfast for some time, I bought a copy of the play and counted it in the 746. Thankfully I hadn’t read it before being privileged to see the original production yesterday afternoon at the Lyric Theatre in Belfast. Because privileged is what I was. This production left me reeling and having read the play this morning in the aftermath of that emotion, I believe this is one of the best plays to come out of Ireland in the last 10 years.

Two Belfast men in their 50’s, Jimmy (Patrick O’Kane) and Ian (Declan Conlon), have arranged to meet in a pub for the first time to talk about the events of one day in 1974, when they were both 16. On the pub television, Northern Ireland are playing Poland in a World Cup qualifier, just as they were on that day in 1974 when Ian’s actions would have devastating consequences for Jimmy and his family. Their intertwined lives have come full circle. Robert (Robert Zawadzki), the Polish barman, becomes their reluctant witness as they tell their version of what happened in alternating speeches, sometimes interrupting with bursts of anger and rebuttal  but ultimately making an attempt to finally hear one another and come to some sort of acceptance of the past.

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Declan Conlon and Patrick O’Kane in the Abbey Theatre production of Quietly
Photo credit: Anthony Woods

On paper, it sounds contrived, too well plotted, but McCafferty’s success is in presenting this story not simply as a microcosm of the truth and reconciliation process, but as a character study of people touched by their life experience –  as we the audience are.  In a recent interview with Ryan from NI Theatre he said

All I’ve ever wanted to do is tell stories about people who go unnoticed through life

This is a play of unburdening, these two unnoticed men need each other to hear their stories so they can let them go. So they can stop being either victim or perpetrator and find away to move past this defining moment. They talk and they listen and we listen. Oh how we listen. Under the taut and skilful direction of Jimmy Fay, their monologues are mesmerising, due to some outstanding acting from Patrick O’Kane and Declan Conlon, and the audience in the Lyric appeared to be collectively holding its breath, riveted by the pain and grief that many can too readily relate to.

“I’m beginning to realise that no matter which side of the conflict you’re on, had we all lived each other’s lives, we could all have done what the other did.” Jo Berry’s comments on the events that lead to the death of her father echo the point being made in Quietly. This is a play about the catharsis that can come from emotional self-evaluation, from listening and most importantly, from hearing. As Jimmy says near the end of the play

You know nothing do you – some good did

come from it – we met – we understand each other

– that’s enough

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Robert Zawadzki as Robert in the Abbey Theatre production of Quietly
Photo credit: Anthony Wood

But as the lights fade towards closing time, Quietly also ends with a warning, as Robert the Polish barman discovers when his bar is pelted with stones from rioting football fans outside. That while there can be reconciliation for some, there may be no easy peace and hatred of the ‘other’ finds an outlet where it must.

Living in Northern Ireland, it’s easy to become a bit jaded by ‘Troubles’ plays, but yesterday as I wiped away tears and joined in the standing ovation for this wonderful production, I realised that we all have our stories and our hurts and we all just want to be heard, to be acknowledged.

Quietly is an outstanding acknowledgement.

If you are interested in finding out a bit more about Owen McCafferty’s work, or theatre in Northern Ireland in general, head over to Ryan T Crown’s fantastic blog http://www.nitheatre.co.uk, it’s a great resource for theatre and culture in Northern Ireland and well worth a read.

Click here to see the trailer for the Abbey Theatre production.

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