Saturday, August 13, 2011

Mephisto, ‘The Honey Spike’: Signs

Town Hall Theatre, Galway
Jul 9-13

I already wrote about Mephisto’s road to The Honey Spike. My review coming up just as soon as I show you the alphabet ...

“Cry I say. Cry until all the earth and sky are filled with Traveller’s tears”
-          Winifred McQueen

Here are a few stories from my travels across the country.

Last month I was in Dublin. I went to see Conall Morrison’s production of Translations which was snug at home in the Abbey theatre. The production was perfectly fine, performed by some of the best talents in the country but it ultimately lacked an interpretation that corresponded with our times. The value of The ‘Irish Peasant Play’ has become commodity more than anything else as curators bank on its sentimentality to succeed at the box office as opposed to any resemblance to life as we recognise it(*). Nostalgia is not basis enough for allocating limited resources to the likes of the Abbey to produce something as inconsequential to our times as Conall Morrison’s archetypal Translations.  

(*) Last year’s Christ Deliver Us! by Thomas Kilroy at the Abbey is a perfect example of a ‘peasant play’ that resonated with the present. Its portrayal of a mid-twentieth century Ireland where young people’s sexual curiosities were referred to prayers as opposed to communication with their parents offered a reassurance of self in the country’s current crisis of faith in the wake of the Ryan and Murphy reports.

Last night King Puck was lowered from his cage in Killorglin, signalling an end to the centuries-old Puck Fair for another year. I was not there.

Last night I was in Galway where Mephisto were raising the goat back up. In Bryan MacMahon’s The Honey Spike, which in its unpublished state has been kept alive by drama groups across the country, Mephisto have chosen a ‘peasant play’ that understands a presence in society that is largely unknown to us today. As Oein DeBhairduin, a.k.a. BareFoot Pavee – chronicler of Irish Travelling traditions – put it in the show’s programme: “It is not unusual that in the passage of time and shared experiences there comes about some work, be it poetry, song or theatre about ‘Irish Travelling people’. However on very rare occasions there comes about a treasure regarding people who are Irish Travellers”.

In the opening scene of The Honey Spike Martin Claffey watches his pregnant wife look out over the cliffs of the Giant’s Causeway. He asks her to read the road-sign in front of him as he is unable to read himself. Pride overwhelms him as he realises that his family has accomplished the three hundred miles that make the length of Ireland, a tale that will pass into Traveller legend. Breda Claffey’s thoughts though are with her mother, whose dying words on delivering her into the world were that she were to have her own child in the lucky hospital, or ‘spike’, in the mountains above Dunkerron. Breda is as suspectable to signs as her husband but she can read them, and when a gull passing overhead flies southward she knows that in the best interests of her unborn child she has to travel three hundred miles back to Kerry.

MacMahon saw the mysterious traditions that underlie the culture of the Irish Travelling people, witnessing the series of codes by which they live out their destinies on the edge of conventional society. Breda must have her baby in the lucky spike, she must acquire a cord from the monk that will protect her child, Shone McQueen must have a ‘proven match’(**) to validate Winifred’s history with Martin before he can marry her, the Claffeys must indulge in a day at Puck Fair despite the imminent arrival of Breda’s baby. These codes dictate actions in such a way that individuals, in between abiding by them, are constantly struggling to have their own moments of freedom and happiness.

(**) Can anybody tell me what a 'proven match' entails? 

Emmet Byrne comes to mind here as young Martin Claffey, who realises not only when his character is powerlessly neck-high in these cultural instructions but also when seizing action and catching a salmon or stealing a peach can bring a simple but needed smile. Emma O’Grady catches hold of the hurricane of emotions that is Breda Claffey, bringing sweet humility to the woman’s darting emotions and fears (***). Helen Gregg and Daniel Guinnane are instant comic marvels, portraying Martin’s parents Poll-Poll and Mickle Sherlock with savage nostalgia. Byrne and O’Grady’s chemistry is more latent, realising its potential in the play’s third scene wherein both characters take The Honey Spike off its laughable road and into an unprecedented tender sunrise evoked by Mike O’Halloran’s slick lighting design. Zita Monahan, well-versed in subtleties, struts Winifred McQueen through her manipulations until reaching an unexpected kindness (****). Indeed there is no hangnail to this cast of thirteen, all of whom I look forward to seeing more of on the stage.

(***) At one moment where Breda apologised to Martin for her spontaneous change in emotions, I heard the man behind me say:  “(tut) women”.

(****) Did anyone else notice that the Claffeys kept referring to Winifred McQueen as “the gypsy girl”? Does this mean that she wasn’t considered as the same type of Irish Traveller as the others or was “gypsy” just a description of her character?

Caroline Lynch doesn’t waste the opportunity to make use of the Town Hall main stage. In addition to Brendan Savage’s large set, which captures a changing landscape with minimalist effort, Lynch has her show begin and end with the cast in a procession of song around the audience. This acknowledgement of the spectator invites them to feel more involved, and our investment in The Honey Spike is made quite early on. The staging of Puck Fair was a highlight, juxtaposing the raising of the goat and the celebratory singing of the crowds with a thumping drum that signified Breda’s going into labour. The only aspect of the production I found discordant was the decision to project Breda’s last lines over the sound system. I can understand why Lynch would have wanted to emphasise the pain of this final passage but it felt unauthentic and ultimately cheated the audience of the emotional conclusion they’ve been waiting the previous two hours to reach.

MacMahon lays out these codes and traditions that make The Honey Spike an enjoyable and intriguing piece, however, at the gates of Dunkerron he goes a step further. Plucking what could have been a possible moment of history, we see how these codes are ultimately flawed as the child-birthing secrets Poll-Poll (*****) has inherited fail to save Breda’s life, proving the luck of the honey spike false. When Breda’s people keen at the end they lament not only her death but the death of a sacred way of life. As they leave the stage in their song procession we realise that what we are witnessing is a guard of honour grieving a fallen practice of life.     

(*****) Just when I was about to pigeonhole Helen Gregg as a comic ... Her emotional range is spectacular.   

In the hands of Mephisto the ‘Irish Peasant Play’ feels rather refreshed. Unlike their more wealthy peers, they have occupied a perspective not for the sake of sentimentality but so they can look at the Ireland of the past from the Ireland of the present, travelling along cultural frontiers that still persist to this day. First with Grenades and now The Honey Spike, Mephisto seem to be surveying the fractures of a social Ireland as opposed to the easier target of a political one.  

A true milestone for an organisation that can no longer be labelled as “another young theatre company”.

What did everybody else think?

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