Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Moonfish Theatre, 'Star of the Sea': While the World Was Quietly Dying

Moonfish mast the sail with invention to spare in this reimagining of Joseph O'Connor's famine ship novel. Photo: Marta Barcikowska.

An Taibhdhearc, Galway International Arts Festival
Jul 15-19

My review of Star of the Sea, freely adapted from the novel by Joseph O'Connor, coming up as soon as I claim to know 500 songs ...

The west of Ireland holds a clear reverence to Moonfish Theatre, who seem committed to making the landscape the setting for their stories. In their last production, Tromluí Phinnocchio / Pinocchio - A Nightmare, they gave Italian author Carlo Collodi's marionette an adventure in what easily could have been Connemara, speaking Irish and plunging into a dark fairy realm evocative of sídhe and púcas. Therefore, reimagining Joseph O'Connor's famine ship novel must hold emotional resonance; it's a stark portrayal of when that part of the world was quietly dying. 

It's 1848 and the Star of the Sea is sailing across the Atlantic, carrying refugees from the famine as well as some first-class passengers. Among them is David Merridith, a landlord reviled for his harsh evictions of tenants, introduced to us as he slimily moves his pen in a life-drawing of the fraught maidservant Mary. Meanwhile, an onboard journalist identifies a stowaway criminal, the witted Pius Mulvey, accused of killing his brother. The ship may be making steady progress towards America but Merridith and Mulvey are pulled by the inescapable tide of the past. 

With the rise of tattered sails, the blue-lit Taibhdhearc stage under Lian Bell and Matt Burke's design becomes a hull hoarding invention. These masted canvases become screens for projections of background scenery and English translation penned live by Máiréad Ní Chrónín onstage. Interestingly, the staging communicates all the time in multitudes: a balancing act of spoken Irish and English, shadow imagery and music - Grace Kiely's immemorial vocals, Ionia Ní Chróinín's longing violin and Morgan Cooke's smooth movements on an upright piano. Such a plethora of effects are confidently within Moonfish's mise en scéne.   

What's brought to the surface in this reimagining of O'Connor's epic is the role of the Irish language (O'Connor admits he only has a few words as Gaeilge). When David and Mary joyously teach and exchange words it's hard not to adore Simon Boyle's boundless performance and the immensely charming Ionia Ní Chróinín. Similarly, Zita Monahan winningly rises in song as the plough boy Mulvey learns to sing in English, and earn more money for it. 

It's a complex literary source - O'Connor's narrative is hardly linear as the action shifts between voices and settings. This lends a fragmented structure to Moonfish's staging which doesn't fully hold up over the duration (the approximated two hours running time stretches to 150 minutes). By this time the ensemble's array of devices are well established and can tire. 

Its devastation is still aching, as we see lives effectively turn to dust. While the west would recover from starvation and, in Moonfish's vision, become an unruly landscape bending English language classics to its will, the Star of the Sea's arrival at a New York harbour reminds us that lives and language were changed irrevocably.  

What did everybody else think?

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