Zita Monahan, Emma O’Grady and Emmet Bryne in Mephisto’s The Honey Spike
It isn’t surprising that there’s a lot of buzz about the revival of Bryan MacMahon’s The Honey Spike at the Town Hall Theatre Galway this week (Aug 9-13). The play in itself is very popular, its story of a tinker and his pregnant wife’s journey across the country to give birth in ‘the lucky hospital’ has lived unpublished throughout the years, kept alive as a favourite with amateur drama groups across the country. But what is also exciting is the story offstage. After five years of consistent producing, touring and reinventing, taking cues from an eclectic range of voices from David Mamet to Oscar Wilde to Tom Murphy as well as confiding in their own artistic impulses and originality, local theatre-makers Mephisto have come to the main stage of Galway’s Town Hall.
Some may consider this rather significant – that a company of such size and age may take to that stage for five nights (some of you may remember Zelig’s Appointment In Limbo in 2008 or Truman Theatre’s Sunday Morning Coming Down earlier this year also getting this space. However Limbo only ran for three nights and Sunday Morning one). It is also worth considering that, based on my last crunch of the numbers, the Town Hall’s main auditorium is the sixth biggest theatre performance space in the country, trumping both The Gate and The Lyric. This is quite the sign of faith by the venue that Mephisto can provide the goods, and there is considerable evidence that they could do just that.
Because Mephisto has had an extraordinary year, beginning with the success of company member Tara McKevitt, whose radio play Grenades won the P.J. O’Connor award and a Gold Award at the New York Festivals Radio Drama Awards. Colleagues Emma O’Grady and Caroline Lynch then turned Grenades into a very poignant stage drama, toured around the country, selling out runs at the Cuirt literary festival in the Town Hall’s studio space and in Glasgow’s Tron at Mayfesto.
Last week I interviewed Caroline Lynch, who’s directing The Honey Spike, about their latest production, political correctness, the last five years on the go, and what the future may hold.
How did The Honey Spike come about?
I read the novel and I loved it, and I thought that it’d make a great play. And then I found out it was a play. Myself and Emma wanted to get it and at least have a read of it. It took us a while to track it down because it’s not published. We got a copy of the script off a lady up in Tubbercurry, the drama group up there. She posted us down one but then I also sourced one from Bryan MacMahon’s son, he lives in Dublin and he posted me one after a few weeks and then we had a read of it. It’s very different from the novel but the main spine of the story is there. We read it and thought: “Wouldn’t we love to do this? Wouldn’t it be great”? We were thinking of it for next year but then [Town Hall Theatre manager] Mike Diskin approached us and said “I have a slot on the main stage that’s become vacant. Do you have anything?”
The play itself, it was on the Abbey years ago?
Twice. It was done there in 1961 and then Garry Hynes directed it in 1993. Don Wycherley played Martin. And it has been very popular with the amateur drama groups around the country. It’s such a large cast. It’s very difficult to do it professionally. It’s very expensive.
So, you guys are five years old now. Do you think The Honey Spike is quite an appropriate show for your anniversary considering there’s such a great sense of ‘ritual’ to MacMahon’s work?
I do. It’s something we’ve never done on this scale before. It’s another push outside our comfort zone. Working with such a big cast is very different. We’ve gone from the one-woman show, Grenades, to this, which has thirteen in the cast. It’s great because it’s such a new experience and I feel like once we’ve done this we’ve set a new standard in terms of practice and preparation. If we can survive this we can survive anything. (laughs)
They’re really plays about communities – these medieval, pre-welfare state communities – but there’s something nostalgic about the people as well, isn’t there?
There is. Breda asks her Godfather: “Will they put us off the roads altogether and take our children from us”? As Travellers at that point – it was set in the early sixties – they’re already feeling under pressure as a community that they’re going to have to change their ways, that something is coming that’s going to overtake their way of life and make it much more difficult for them to live the way they want to live. Poll-Poll has a line: “The travelling race is soft”. She’s giving out about Breda having difficulties in childbirth. It’s like: “We were tougher back then than we are now”. It’s a common complaint though. Every generation thinks they’re tougher than the one that comes after them. For them, the change is coming and they can kind of sense it but they can’t do anything to change it. They’re just getting on with their lives – that’s The Honey Spike. With this play there is a sense that no matter how flawed and difficult life is and all the wrongs people do to each other and how much they let each other down, there’s another generation coming and that can be a hopeful thing.
Is there a politically correct term: “Travellers” or “Tinkers”?
We’ve been talking to Bare Foot Pavee and he’s come in to talk to us and the cast about traditions and folklores because the whole play is steeped in them – the very reason Breda wants to go to this lucky hospital is a superstitious reason. Bare Footed Pavee prefers the term “Pavee” because that’s their word for themselves. He doesn’t find it offensive to be called a “traveller” but he doesn’t like it. “Tinker” is used throughout the play and, I can’t speak on behalf of anybody in that community, but I don’t think it’s used in any offensive way. It’s just an identification because at that point they were Tinkers – they were literally working with tin. My father comes from Kerry and he remembers Travellers coming to fix things. They did things like fix plates, like those massive serving plates. They put tin stitches into the plates instead of glue. The craft is just amazing to see. They worked on the farms in certain times of the year. They just had a purpose and a function in the wider community. In the play they’re called “Travellers”, “Tinkers”, and “travelling people”. You can tell that Bryan MacMahon had a huge interest in the way they lived and had a respect for them. I think he saw how tough life was for them and how tough they had to be. But also, he saw that they had a real sense of ‘beauty’ and “freedom” in life. They appreciated their moments of beauty and song and togetherness but he also brings in the other side of it as well, like the fights between the different families. But he gives a reason for those fights too. They’re not just random feuds. He just seemed to have a good understanding of why they were who they were.
It sounds like you have a presentation of the outcast Tinker community on one hand and whatever you call the rest of Ireland on the other.
In the play Travellers call settled people “country people”. They’re Travellers in the play but you also accept them as people in particular situations. You start to tune into their way of thinking and their way of living. Through the play they do meet different settled people. Breda meets a farmer’s wife, they meet a monk, there’s a Guard down at Puck Fair. And you see the settled people almost a little bit boring. The farmer’s wife has this big farm, big house but she has no children. She lacks what Breda has. And you can kind of see that this woman isn’t happy with her wealth. She wants something as basic as what everybody wants: a child. And she can’t have one. You start to see things from the Travellers point of view – insofar as they’re Travellers in the play. They have this really hard life. Breda comes into the farmhouse looking for a bit of milk and the wife’s reaction is: “I don’t have any milk for the likes of you”. It puts you in that position where you rethink your attitudes towards people who approach you and ask for things from you.
There seems to be these empowered female figures in MacMahon’s work. You have Island Funeral, which is about an island’s ritual of grief when a woman dies giving birth to her tenth son. And in O Lonely Moon! you have an entire female conspiracy that nudges a man into marrying the barren woman who adopted his child. I know from Mephisto’s repertoire this is something you have presented again and again. Does it feature in The Honey Spike and if so was this something that attracted you to the piece?
It comes up for us just as a matter of necessity. Because we’re women and we’re actors and we like to get up onstage. But definitely. The play starts off: “This is a tale of the Irish roads, of a Tinker and his wife”. But to be honest, it’s more about the wife than the Tinker. Everything is because of Breda. She’s the one who’s pregnant. She’s the one who wants to get down to Kerry. She’s jealous of Winifred McQueen – the ‘other girl’ she thinks her husband had a thing with before he married her. It’s to do with her struggle, really. It just attracts you. If you’re a woman you want a good part. So, for Emma that would have been extremely attractive. As well as that, Bryan MacMahon seemed to have a real interest in things that weren’t him. He was a very respectable professional teacher man. And he was obviously interested in women and in what makes them tick. And he’s also interested in this community living on the fringes of his community.
Do you think he’s good at writing women? Does he ‘get’ women?
Yeah, really! In the novel, and it’s still there in the play as well, there’s this amazing passage where Breda’s in labour and she has this interior monologue. It’s just heartbreaking. You can feel the pain of it, the pain of labour. You just feel like he really knew what he was talking about.
I spoke to you guys around sixteen months ago and one thing you were saying then was that you felt people were very quick to pounce on you and say: “Mephisto are an ensemble company. They work without directors”. But with Grenades and now The Honey Spike you yourself have stepped in to direct. Did you feel like that was something that was necessary or was something you personally wanted to explore yourself?
With Grenades it was a one-woman show and the part was right for Emma. I wanted to be involved and I knew there was something I could bring to it. I was happy to be the director but to be honest it still felt quite “ensembley” (laughs) even though at the end of the day it was just Emma going out on the stage. I was more like somebody to bounce ideas off in a rehearsal. Then with The Honey Spike originally the plan was to get somebody in to direct but then when the whole thing was bounced forward into August nobody we had in mind or knew to ask was available. So in a fit of hubris, I suppose, I said: “Yeah, I’ll do it!” (laughs). But I had no idea. To go from directing one person to directing thirteen – it’s been really scary. Having Craig [Flaherty] and Róisín [Stack] as well – it’s not me on my own. Róisín is Assistant Director and Craig is the Stage Manager. They’re there to be more eyes looking at the action and to bounce ideas off of. So, I’m not doing it on my own.
Is it true that the action of the play takes place from one end of the country and travels down to the other?
Yeah, it starts off at The Giant’s Causeway in Antrim and it ends in Kenmare.
How are the Design team coping with capturing so many locations?
There are five specific locations. Brendan Savage has designed the set and he’s been great.
And the cast, it’s quite massive.
Yeah, there’s thirteen. We originally thought we could do it with ten but we realised we can’t. There are these crowd scenes. you literally need bodies on the stage. Last week was the first week where we could all get together and it’s been so amazing to see when they’re doing their warm-ups on the main stage this big circle of thirteen people. I can’t remember the last time I saw this. You forget the power of having so many people onstage. It’s really exciting.
Has there been any sit-downs with Tara about Mephisto producing any more of her writing?
No. She’s busy at the moment doing work on the Abbey’s New Writing programme. We know she’s writing but she tends to not talk about it while she’s still writing it. We’d love to do something but it depends on what it would be.
So five years! How do you see Mephisto having evolved since NUI Galway?
I think it’s been a slow sustainable evolution, from people who had different backgrounds and different experiences into something new. The longer we’ve gone on the more common the language gets between us and the more common the goal becomes. I mean, our first production – Glengarry Glen Ross – we did when we were still doing the M.A. It’s really slow to build any kind of a reputation or to feel like you’re gaining any kind of progress in getting your audience and getting your funding. It’s really really slow. Just keep doing the work and you’ll get better at it. In another five years I don’t know how further we’ll have advanced but as long as we don’t wear ourselves out. It’s a fine balance between constantly working and getting sick at the sight of each other or running out of money or running out of steam. How do you strike that balance? I think we’re doing okay at the moment in terms of that. We are planning the next show, which is important for me. Even if The Honey Spike crushes us all (laughs) we’ll still have to pick ourselves up and go on and do the next show.
Is there any intention to tour The Honey Spike?
We would like to tour it because I think it’s a show that would attract audiences all around the country. But it is very big. We’ve invited venues to come and see it. You’d have to apply for a touring grant and get guarantees from venues but on the other hand I’d know it would sell if done properly. But yeah, it’s something we’d have to plan for next year. We’d have to have proper support and the actors would have to be properly paid.
In looking to the next five years, is there anything you’d personally like to see happen with Mephisto? Any particular show or any particular venue?
It’d be great to do another show like The Honey Spike. A big show again, next year. With more time to plan it and more resources available. I really think that there’s too much good talent in Galway. If you consolidate that under one roof for one week and show everybody that there’s a lot of talent in Galway, and it’s ready and available and willing to be utilized. So I’d like to do another, maybe not with me as director, I’d like to be in it (laughs), do a big show, and maybe not with thirteen in the cast (laughs), on the main stage again. That would be great. That would mean we did it and we’ve proved ourselves and we’re allowed back in the building. But also do new work as well. I think the studio here and JOLT is great and we want to use that as well. I’d like us to see us keep bouncing between those two possibilities: established plays that have a recognition to them and the new work that is exciting in a different way. We just have to keep going.