Town Hall Theatre, Galway
Jun 28-Jul 2
My review of Fregoli’s The Secret Life of Me coming up just as soon as I remember every single thing Richard has ever said ...
One of the outcomes of the economic crash has been a trend for young Irish theatre makers to be defined by some engagement with ‘Irishness’. It can bring in good press to have a production that seeks to enlighten our cultural identity in a time of rebuilding. Institutions like the Fringe even encourage it with the use of themes such as this year’s ‘Brave New World’ premise. As I mentioned in my response to Fintan O’Toole’s Power Plays – I do not think an artist should engage a discourse that does not feel natural to them. I don’t want to see a fashion where the next generation are all flocking to the context of Ireland for the sake of being ‘trendy’ and ‘current’. I would rather see practitioners owning their intentions, strengthening their aesthetic and refining the next age of Irish theatre with artistic confidence and vibrancy as opposed to chic cultural critique.
Fregoli have honed a craft over the years levelling prickly and dense texts with athletic physicality. On occasion, the vision of directors Maria Tivnan and Rob McFeely has contended with that of Mikel Murfi and Jose Miguel Jiminez. Furthermore, Fregoli seem to have become the inheritors of the surrealist movement that was prominent in Cork in the late 90s and early 00s, where the likes of Enda Walsh and Raymond Scannell wrote plays about the destruction of individuals intimate with environments invincible and toxic. Furious productions of Disco Pigs and Breathing Water have been the company’s recent call cards. With devised femme The Secret Life of Me it’s a question of whether or not the company can retain high standards with a project they started from scratch.
When we enter the space the three female chaperones of The Secret Life of Me are sitting side-by-side, newspapers held hiding their faces, their shoes the only variable. From these identical postures they launch into individual tales, using female flourishes such as shopping, reputation, and media notions of ‘health’ in their stride. One woman romances theatre and performance in search for ‘her greatest role’, another struggles to be grateful with an early motherhood that smothered her young dreams, and the last a career woman desperate to escape social connotation. When they stumble two musicians are at hand lending melodies on guitar, banjo, melodica, and piano to restore the performers’ grace and ability. Umbrellas are held to shelter from sorrow and thrown over shoulders like rifles to march bravely on. Like other Fregoli shows, this is essentially a struggle for survival.
Interestingly, The Secret Life of Me is not pointedly feminist as one may presume. Whatever injustice occurs is not gender-prejudiced. A man could easily be imagined in these situations. Femininity is really just a consequence, and this somehow strengthens the play’s effeminate embrace. Simone de Beauvoir would get very excited by Maria Tivnan’s character, whose imagination and charm allows her to slip almost supernaturally between character and reality(*). Director Rob McFeely’s eye for choreography and design allows for constant permutation, rarely leaving his stage static. Anna Mullarkey and Donal McConnon’s musical arrangements intervene at the sweetest and most glorious moments, especially when hitched with Tracy Bruen’s vocals(**). The three women are also credited with writing duties. On close inspection one can distinguish between Rebecca Ryan’s cynical dialogue, Bruen’s ironic prose, and Tivnan’s romantic philosophy but an overall tone allows them to complement for the most part. On rare occasion these singular voices can become weighted and restless.
(*) I really enjoyed the scene with Tivnan performing the monologues but there was one or two I didn’t get. I got ‘Playboy of the Western World’, ‘Disco Pigs’, Romeo and Juliet’ and ‘Cat On A Hot Tin Roof’. What am I missing?
(**) Bruen’s singing of Aimee Mann’s ‘Wise Up’ and Newley and Bricusse’s ‘Feeling Good’ was great but what was the operatic number?
A theatrical equivalent to Nina Simone or Simone de Beauvoir, The Secret Life of Me takes on its inquisition with sheer sophistication, opening our hearts and minds with a fresh and gorgeous aptitude for the stage. Unlike Fregoli’s other tales of individual destruction, the subjects here are very much left standing. Possibly taller than ever before.
What did everybody else think?