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Fringe Report is now closed. Fringe Report closed on its 10th anniversary, Thursday 12 July 2012. It remains online as a record of 10 exciting years in the arts. Till July 2013, previously unwritten content is being added to the site from the past 10 years, but we are no longer reviewing new material. You can still write to us on the existing email addresses. Good luck with your shows.The Tailor And Ansty
Verdict: Book burning, no spark
Stage lights come up on a homely cottage interior. There is an old man in bed with an open book, and underneath the bed, a chamber pot. There's a teal-blue dresser adorned with lace and stuffed with china plates, earthenware pots, a copper pan, a statuette of the Madonna, and a wireless. A brown teapot sits on a kitchen table sits; in the background there's a painting of the Madonna and Child, and a St Bridget's Cross made of dried rushes pinned above the doorway. A garish gold bust resembling the old man grimaces in an alcove. There's a kettle above an open fire. All these grand, base and mediocre elements jumble together in a slightly jarring attempt at order, rather reflecting the action to follow - messy but contrived with noble intentions.
The cottage depicts the home of two rural Irish people, Timothy Buckley (1863-1945) the tailor (Ronan Wilmot), and his wife, Ansty (Anastasia, 1872-1947) (Nuala Hayes), real people who lived in Gougane Barra in the 20th century. According to records, Seanchaí (storyteller) Timothy Buckley attracted many locals to the cottage with his gift for spinning a saucy yarn. Such was the couple's fame that, in 1942, author Eric Cross (1905-1980) wrote a book about their lives. It was banned by the Irish Senate for Buckley's 'sex-ridden, sex-besotted tales' and 'foulness of mind concerning sexual relations'. The tailor was forced by three visiting priests to burn his own copy of the book in his fireplace, thus purging his sins. The stage adaptation by PJ O'Connor presents the couple's everyday domestic life, and reveals how the publication of the book, its subsequent ban, and the pair's humiliation before the Gougane Barra community, all served to taint a simple and harmless existence with shame, and even fear.
The New Theatre Dublin company makes a brave stab at tackling PJ O'Connor's play, but theatrically speaking, it does not overcome the difficulty that the most dramatic events happen offstage. The couple are merely hapless victims of censorious times, and voices of condemnation are expressed only via a newspaper announcement and a letter - external forces against which they do not fight. If they complain of their lot, it is with resignation and incomprehension rather than fiery resistance. In between the three main events of the tailor waking up (that constitutes an event, here), his discovery of the book ban in the newspaper, and the burning of the book (which 'happens' in the interval), the substance of the piece relies on a proliferation of meandering tales – good, bad, indifferent – which are not sufficiently dramatised to exploit either the actors' or the subject matter's potential.
Nor is there any hint of suspense. No piece of theatre needs an introduction to tell its history, or what is about to be seen - but this is what happens before the play begins. The spoken introduction by stage manager Lisa Krugel reiterates what is already written in the programme. Shouldn't the play be enough without intros, adjuncts and aids? At best it suggests over-exuberance and at worst a lack of confidence in the audience's ability to grasp the 'specialness' of the story. Better just to dim the lights and house music and get on with it - let the audience dine, without being told to 'enjoy' first.
The songs, stories and observations range from the sublime to the ridiculous and are, on the whole, gently amusing, but do not contribute to any overall coherence. To pick out a few stories and songs: there is the tale of a married woman who does not know the difference between bulls and cows; of a heron that simultaneously swallows and defecates eels thanks to the insufficient length of its digestive system; of 'all the old women in the range of the valley' who enjoy the attentions of a naughty welder performing his 'clicky-clack-click on their ticky tattoo'; and of why animals lost their power of speech (a minion of the Devil in the shape of a cockroach betrayed Jesus to Roman soldiers by telling them which way he went).
Some of the stories are delightfully observational - the Englishman who naively announces he will pay in whisky to see a traditional Irish wake lasting 3 days and 3 nights, not imagining what lengths people will go to for a drink. Others are just opinionated musings. Recurring themes include views on women's (lack of) common sense and their need for sexual attention from men to be happy (even if they are prostitutes), and the uselessness of education since some educated people remain foolish whilst some uneducated people are wise. The observations may derive from Eric Cross's or PJ O'Connor's views, or they may be a patronising demonstration of Timothy Buckley's rural provincial attitudes - but neither alternative presents interesting insights.
Nuala Hayes plays Ansty and also directs the piece. Donning grubby hat and dun-coloured jerkin as Ansty, she plays a hunched, hardworking housewife who performs all the domestic chores whilst her husband sits, pipe-smokes and orates in bed. The actress creates a bustling personality but her physical interpretation of this oppositional character manifests itself in an internalised and tense persona that seems to interfere with her vocal clarity and stage presence. However, the problem may be something to do with the way the part is written. It seems that PJ O'Connor's idea of an argumentative woman is one who disagrees without solid counter-arguments, who reacts and rarely initiates, and whose main mode of communication is to repeat her husband's last utterance as an exclamation over and over again. Perhaps this last characteristic is meant to be an amusing quirk, but if so, it doesn't work and is irritating. With such one-dimensional material, the actress can't really take the character on any meaningful journey. As a director, Nuala Hayes draws a fine performance from Ronan Wilmot, though she could have been a little more inventive in the staging. Whereas the tailor enjoys a number of key spots around the stage for tales and songs, Ansty largely pops in and out of the upstage left door like a character in a Swiss cuckoo clock. Additionally, some passages where the two characters talk over one another seem contrived and incongruous. Credit is due for some effective mood contrasts however, such as when a touching, contemplative fireside scene is offset by the comic winding-up of an alarm clock, absurdly kept in a box on the dresser.
Ronan Wilmot is well cast as Timothy Buckley. Rosy-cheeked and twinkle-eyed, he portrays an obsessive and skilled serial storyteller for whom every word or incident is a violent trigger for yet another tale. Grand or low, curious or mundane, exaggerated or observational, realistic or allegorical, sexual or satirical – no scrap of raw material escapes this storyteller's notice, though the resulting stories vary in entertainment value. The actor is clearly at his ease as the character kisses the Blarney Stone with charm and fluency, interjecting opinions and observations here and there. Such is the smoothness of the actor's delivery, it's scarcely noticeable that he is eating, shaving or dressing whilst talking - his uninterrupted focus holds attention. At the end of the play, the tailor thinks he hears someone creeping around outside the cottage, a reminder that, in spite of his jolly demeanour and naughty tales, he lives in fear of further condemnation. Although the quality of the material is inconsistent and some of the tailor's views fall on barren ground in the 21st Century, Ronan Wilmot manages to infuse his words and movements with warmth and poignancy.
New Theatre Dublin with the Old Red Lion Islington's production explores Timothy Buckley's attitudes to life, love, marriage, sex, death, women, education and religion. Blended with earthy Irish humour, folkloric overtones, cheeky songs and turns of phrase, the subject matter should make for a potent mix. Disappointingly, the patchy writing and uninspired staging mar the production. PJ O’Connor's adaptation, as presented here, poses insurmountable challenges for the cast. But for the title, the piece could work without Ansty altogether, making for an unbalanced feel that undermines the spirit of a two-hander and puts strain on performers who are no doubt used to working with more successful dialogue. The production crew does a reasonable job, though, with the provision of decent quality props, Marie Tierney's unshowy costume design, Eamon McDaid's and Mark Smith's sturdy, functional set, and Mannix McPhillips's atmospheric lighting design. Particularly effective is Mannix Phillips's creation of a crimson fireside glow towards the end of the play.
When the revival of the 1975 production was performed in 2005 in a packed-out marquee near to the couple's burial place in Gougane Barra, the piece would have had a particular resonance with its audience and the structural deficiencies of the writing might have mattered less. But slotted into a venue where audiences are probably less familiar with its regional cadences and significance, the production needs something extra to make audiences laugh, cry, or just care. Mercifully, there are moments that suggest it should not be taken too seriously. The tailor says of the book that it was a 'good book' because 'it made a great blaze'. He goes on to note that the 'best fun' happens around the fireside and that 'great fun has gone up the chimney and very little harm in it'. Sadly, in this production, much of the great fun has also gone up in smoke, leaving a gentle glow but no spark.
Cast Credits: Cast Credits: (alpha order): Nuala Hayes - Ansty. Ronan Wilmot - Timothy Buckley.
Company Credits: Author - Eric Cross (1905-1980). Stage Adaptation - PJ O'Connor. Director - Nuala Hayes. Stage Manager - Lisa Krugel. Stage Director - Fiona Hurley. Sound Design - uncredited. Costume Designer - Marie Tierney. Design Assistant - May Gaffey. Lighting Designer - Mannix McPhillips. Set Construction - Eamon McDaid & Mark Smith. Technical Operator - uncredited. Company - New Theatre Dublin & Old Red Lion Islington. Thanks to: Kevin Cronin, John Minihan, Manus Walsh, Carmel White, Neil Lucy, Katie Lucy, Gougane Barra Hotel, Richard Ryan; Helen Devine, Artistic Director Old Red Lion.
(c) Tara Paulsson 2008
reviewed Wednesday 9 July 08 / Old Red Lion Theatre Islington
Fringe Report (c) Fringe Report 2002-2013