Sunday, August 4, 2013
Theatre Roundup at the Big House Festival
Yesterday I teamed up with my mother for the Big House Festival - the cultural carnival of music, theatre and dance that is occupying the grounds of Castletown House this bank holiday weekend.
While consulting our festival programme and making our game plan for the day, an elderly man in sharp dress sat opposite us. He gently mentioned that he didn't mean to cause offense by sitting with his back facing us - he was hungry for a bite to eat and wished to study the menus of the nearby food venders.
My mother struck up conversation with the gentleman, remarking on the beautiful scenery. He seemed to know a lot about the property and its different stages of refurbishment. This made us both curious as to who he was, and it was my mother's investigative skills that called it: "You're a Guinness, aren't you?".
Mr. Desmond Guinness bought the Castletown House estate back in 1967. As an author and conservationist of Georgian art, he had bought the property to protect the house and preserve its majestic architecture. However, the costs of such were monumental, as he sadly recalls to us how the building had to remain empty for a few years. Today it is a heritage site maintained by the Office of Public Works.
Desmond's attention seemed to keep straying past our heads and towards the lively crowds of people entering the site. Director Jo Mangan of the Performance Corporation is reputed for animating public spaces, and her Big House Festival has converted the heritage site into the grounds for a fabulous pageant. It seems to make Mr. Guinness smile.
We say our goodbyes and head towards the meadow for Pillowtalk's Catch of the Day. Here we meet a story-telling sailor spinning tales from his canoe in a lake. The actor comes off as sharp and charming in what is a combination of rehearsed performance and improvisation. Director Rosemary McKenna hands you a net to fish out a message in a bottle that when read aloud prompts the actor to tell stories of the sea in tuneful rhyme and verse (from the pen of playwright James Hickson, I'm guessing, who we see scribbling into his notepad under a nearby tree).
It's a small and sweet number, which feels a little strange from a company who usually drive for more provocative material such as Philip Stokes's Heroin(e) for Breakfast and the devised Anna in Between. Like all the performances at the festival, they have to be kiddie-friendly, but this criteria seems to have muted their more dramatic devices.
A new dance performance choreographed by Emma Martin shows that you can stage a dance performance at a family festival while being unafraid to challenge minds. Come Dance With Me is performed by a cast of dancers with intellectual disabilities from Celbridge's St Raphael's centre.
We immediately question what to scrutinse in this work: the skill set of the performers? What Martin is seeking to project about intellectual disability? But over occasionally broken lines of choreography we are drawn into the faces of the performers, who are having a blast - a beautiful presence that is pure and un-rigid. In dazzling ballroom costumes they strut and waltz to sweet arrangements (gathered by competent composer Tom Lane, I suspect). A narrative begins to take shape with scenes humorous but also completely moving. A romantic waltz unveils an intimacy that has remained invisible to us all our lives.
The Big House also saw the relocation of WillFredd's fantastic FARM from its origins as a rural space disrupting the urban world to the environs of an actual farmyard.
As performer Emma O'Kane removes the harness from Ralph the Pony, I overhear a spectator asking a friend: "Is this a part of the play?". The segment has always been presented candidly, respecting the verbatim source of the scene. But when queen bee Marie Ruane and the boys perform their barbershop quartet, FARM dazzles both child and adult alike. And the line-dancing scene being performed at the front steps of Castletown House is a pretty cool sight.
I was wondering if director Sophie Motley would go for a more naturalist staging now that the show was being performed on a farm site but its gaps in its illusions are still here. Perhaps the biggest example of this is the scene with the allotments where the plots are empty despite being described as being full of carrots. But when a child says that he can't see any carrots, his mother tells him: "Use your imagination".
I think this is what this show is ultimately telling us to do. You have to fill in some of the realism for yourself, and that requires some internal questioning. As it is said in Paul Curley's powerful monologue at the end, "the land doesn't lie", and finding our way to our own relationship with the land may require some play in between the literal and the representational, the farm and the theatre stage (neither of which FARM can probably be performed), to somewhere deeply personal.