The 1984 premiere of Bailegangaire has been passed on like a folktale by those who saw it. Alongside the new prequel Brigit, will Garry Hynes' revival be as momentous?
Town Hall Theatre, Galway
Sept 14, 17, 19, 20, 21
My review of Bailegangaire by Tom Murphy coming up just as soon as great rumbles start risin' in the barrel of my chest ...
The most that a theatre performance can hope for is that long after the final curtain it will be retained in the minds of those who saw it. In describing the event afterwards, it might be passed on for years, in a form more like a folk story.
Taking our seats, the punters sitting either side are busy trading recollections of the 1984 premiere of Tom Murphy's play Bailegangaire, produced by Druid Theatre Company. What has resonated for a lot of people has been the image of the bed-ridden character Mommo, in a turn by actor Siobhán McKenna so momentous it has passed into local legend.
Set in 1984, the scene is a cottage kitchen where Mary (Catherine Walsh) tends to her senile grandmother, to whom she is unrecognisable. From her bed, Mommo (Marie Mullen) projects the particulars of a story, fussily sombre and never fully delivered, about a stranger who gets diverted from his journey home one night to compete in a laughing competition in a town called Bochtan. When Mary's sister Dolly (Aisling O'Sullivan) arrives, they both clash over whose responsibility their adrift grandmother should be. Mary suspects that if there is peace to be found for her family, it's in getting Mommo to finally complete the telling of her story. The drama then becomes focused on the rendering of the tale in full of how the town Bochtan became renamed Bailegangaire, or 'the town without laughter'.
Bailegangaire struck a personal chord with audiences when it debuted, conveying the mythic timelessness of Irish storytelling and its ability to preserve the past. Director Garry Hynes' revival coincides with the premiere of Murphy's new play Brigit, a prequel set 30 years earlier. In Francis O'Connor's set design, which communicates discreetly between the two productions, that tradition of storytelling feels more endangered than ever, as the once burning hearth is boarded up and the scene is impeded upon by technological conveniences such as a buzzing radio and the lights of passing cars that, in Rick Fisher's neat design, slice through the cottage.
Dominating the scene is Mommo's double bed, which is part Lear's throne (to rage tyranny), and part Fool's stage (to ease the truth). It was only a matter of time before Marie Mullen would take on the labyrinthine role, having played Mary in the original production 30 years ago. In a turn that doesn't rosily summon the seanachaí as much as drags it spurting into the present, Mullen, with help from her Druid partner Garry Hynes, conveys the tugs and flows of Mommo's consciousness as she goes in and out of her saga. In its awesome surf, you will faithfully follow every tributary.
We are reminded that Bailegangaire is a play to be heard just as much as it is to be seen. Aisling O'Sullivan plays the scornful Dolly as if an angle-grinder has been dropped in her throat, sawing off the edges of words and releasing them in utterances that, in their strangeness, sound primitive, as if they could have reverberated from the earliest point in our history. In a furious moment, O'Sullivan surveys the blast radius of Dolly's pure contempt against her deserting husband, and in her circling movements the downfall, in the same curve of her grandmother's, feels cyclical.
The production is wrought and sometimes otherworldly but always Catherine Walsh's turn as Mary reminds us of the stakes. Dutifully and beautifully, Walsh performs with modesty, showing the bite marks of Mommo's cruelty but ultimately drawing out Mary's hope, and the audience's, that she will be recognised in her grandmother's eyes. "She may hate me" delivers Walsh tenderly, "But I don't hate her. I love her for all she's been through, and she's all I have".
Bailegangaire will always remind us of what we have, specifically an art that has been passed between Irish people through centuries. At the same time, the play sadly shows how increasingly removed we're becoming from that tradition. Where once someone spun words in front of an open fire, nowadays they are doing the same in the dull glow of a computer screen (like this reviewer at the time of writing). However, if someone can tell a good story and finish it, like the artful Mommo and now Murphy with his accompaniment Brigit, people might pass it on for years to come.
What did everybody else think?