THURSDAY, OCTOBER 10
Thursday’s TalkBack opened with a discussion about adaptations of classic scripts. The Corn Exchange production of Eugene O’Neill’s DESIRE UNDER THE ELMS was not only set in a contemporary Appalachia (as opposed to 1850 New England) it also excised about a third of the script and all but the family characters in the play. What emerged was a strong statement about the destruction wreaked on a family by the desire to own land. This story has a deep resonance in a country (Ireland) where small patches of land were passed to elder sons, where survival was attached to land ownership. One audience member was heard to say after the performance “Of course, it’s always about the land.”
The production, which was characterized by Corn Exchange’s passionate commitment to physical theatre, was deeply charged emotionally and landed powerfully, particularly on the Irish members of the audience we spoke with after the performance. So, without question an effective theatrical event.
However, as residents of rural New England we were in a unique position, perhaps, to see the production was telling a rather different story than the original, to know that while New England is part of the Appalachian range, it’s not the reclusive hollows of Kentucky.
New England towns of the 1850‘s were post-Puritan communities with churches and schools and town halls — the machinery for the propagation of propriety, where one’s life was lived in the context of community judgment. An excellent setting for a retelling of the Phaedre myth, a story of illicit love between a wife and her stepson. By cutting all the non-family members from the play this context was lost and a different, though still powerful, story was told.
This led to a fascinating discussion of the responsibilities of a group of interpreters to the original script. How does a director either infer or honor the intent of the writer? What are the freedoms and perhaps limits to re-imagining the classics? At what point does DESIRE UNDER THE ELMS become something else?
One of the glories of the production was the acting company’s commitment to a very physical approach. You felt the crushing load of daily field work, you felt the hunger for a simple meal of bacon and potatoes, you felt the blessed relief from a jar of raw alcohol, you felt the dirt under the fingernails. These realities weren’t indicated, they were inhabited. While we can’t know without contacting the company, our impression was that their rehearsal process didn’t begin with actors around the table doing text work, but with a series of physical improvisations and exercises. It’s easy to see why the work of this company has made such an impression on the Irish Theatre scene.
After our TalkBack, a good sized portion of the group headed out to Kilmainham, to visit both the Kilmainham Gaol and the Royal Hospital.
The Kilmainham Gaol, which was de-commissioned by the the Irish Republic in 1924, occupies an analogous place in Irish history as the Bastille does in French. Over the years, many leaders in the fight for Irish independence were imprisoned or executed there by the British. However, after 1924, the building languished for many years before efforts coalesced to turn it into a museum. Today, a visit is at once a look into a visceral slice of Irish history and a disturbing and melancholy exploration of mankind’s capacity for cruelty. No understanding of the history of Ireland during the British occupation is complete without including this national monument.
Leaving the Gaol, one can proceed up a long allee of trees to the Royal Hospital Kilmainham, which like the Royal Hospital Chelsea (London) was erected not as a hospital as we know them, but as a home for military pensioners. It is widely considered the finest example of Georgian architecture to survive in Dublin. Its cobbled courtyards, terraced gardens and long galleries now serve as a home to the Irish Museum of Modern Art. And as such, function as a welcome transition from the gloom of the gaol to a celebration of our cultural aspirations.
Taking the LUAS, Dublin’s clean, quiet and modern tramline back and forth from central Dublin is one of the joys of the Kilmainham excursion. And, it left us plenty of time to have a quick bite before the 7:00 curtain for one of Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s lesser known satires, THE CRITIC to be presented in Temple Bar by Ireland’s Rough Magic company.