An outdoor performance of Yeats' 1904 play about Cuchulain's madness feels like an old treasure washed ashore.
My review of On Baile's Strand by WB Yeats coming up after the jump ...
On Baile’s Strand, the 1904 play by WB Yeats, is a dramatisation of a story from Irish folklore. The warrior Cuchulain, descended into madness, runs into the sea to fight the waves. In Blue Raincoat’s production the audience are also sent to meet the sea. A tempestuously threatening sky hangs low over Cummeen Strand, obscuring the surrounding hills with cloud. For an outdoor performance you clutch your umbrella and hope for the best but the fog befits the scene: a seaside dwelling shrouded by mist. At least 300 people walk, mostly barefoot, across the beach, and there is a sense of pilgrimage, of discovering an old treasure washed ashore.
Even in the soft sand Niall Henry’s staging is grounded in discipline and tuning. With the beating of a drum the crowd gathers to watch the drama. A Fool runs skittishly across the strand in search of food while a Blind Man stumbles across a wooden chair. It is the seat of King Concobar, who will soon put on an oath on the heedless hero Cuchulain. Will the soldier fall in line?
There is also the lawlessness of that empurpled writing that rings through Yeats’ drama. Here the actors sound it off with big voices and send it powerfully against the wind. Barry Cullen’s Blind Man is particularly impassioned, while John Carty wises it up for comic affect as the Fool. Sandra O’Malley’s spell-caster has to do little to mesmerise as she huddles over a bowl of fire, rising and turning elegantly in movements indicative of the ensemble’s physical theatre background.
Cuchulain has always been known for his ego, and Bob Kelly rounds it off with roaring ferocity. Yet there is something stately about his performance, more reasoned than instinctive, that allows you to better understand the hero’s frustrations and unwillingness to settle with a woman or have children. However, the arrogance with which he defies Concobar - played mightily by Ciaran McCauley – and his command to kill a soldier from an enemy land (Brian F. Deveaney) prompts protests from chorus members in the audience. Sadly, our protector has become a law onto himself.
Despite voicing otherwise, the warrior was in love once, an affair that sets him on path to his most damning crime. It leaves Blue Raincoat’s elemental production achingly elegiac. Yet, as you walk back across the beach, you feel that you can never truly condemn Cuchulain.
What did everybody else think?