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BWW Review: DRUIDGREGORY at Coole Park

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Druid weaves voodoo magic in resonant setting

BWW Review: DRUIDGREGORY at Coole Park The most famous lines associated with the play Cathleen ní Houlihan (1902) aren't actually in the script. In his 1938 poem, The Man and the Echo, WB Yeats hubristically asked "Did that play of mine send out/Certain men the English shot?" as he speculated whether Cathleen ní Houlihan inspired the leaders of the 1916 Rising - a failed rebellion in Dublin against British rule which sparked a chain of events that ultimately led to Irish independence.

Although the play was not credited to her during her lifetime, Cathleen ní Houlihan was co-written with Lady Augusta Gregory, a playwright, folklorist, and co-founder of Dublin's Abbey Theatre. The play forms the centrepiece of DruidGregory - a programme of five of Gregory's one-act plays by Druid Theatre.

BWW Review: DRUIDGREGORY at Coole Park While the decision to stage the DruidGregory tour outdoors stems from the Covid-19 restrictions imposed on theatres, the opening night's venue of Coole Park in Galway is richly resonant: it was the home of Lady Gregory and the location of her literary salon where she hosted the leading luminaries of the Irish Literary Revival, including J.M. Synge, Seán O'Casey, and George Bernard Shaw. The latter described Gregory as "the greatest living Irishwoman".

The sensibilities of Druid's production of Hyacinth Halvey are encapsulated by the slapstick entries of the excitable Sergeant Carden (a fittingly bumbling, declamatory Rory Nolan) as he repeatedly crashes his bicycle into the set in this raucous farce tracking the arrival of the titular new sub-sanitary inspector who cannot convince the locals - despite stealing a dead sheep - of his lowly morals. The cast's razor-sharp, spirited ensemble playing exploits every word of the script's comedy.

Unfolding in a similarly comic tenor, albeit in a much lower key, The Rising of the Moon sees Marty Rea and Garret Lombard, as, respectively, an assured Irish rebel on the run and a bluff sergeant determined to apprehend him, humorously tease out the policeman's divided loyalty to his employer and to his nationalism.

There's a marked shift in the tone of the production during Cathleen ní Houlihan, where Marie Mullen's portrayal of the otherworldly titular character makes for a deeply unsettling presence as she lures a young man to fight for her "four beautiful green fields" - a metaphor for Ireland - on the eve of his wedding day.

Garry Hynes' coherent, evocative direction is enhanced through the inclusion of haunting live music (particularly concertina, fiddle, and uilleann pipes) to accompany the action, inventive linking of the production's multiple locations (characters lead us from one site to the next), and the imaginative use of Coole Park's built and natural environment.

BWW Review: DRUIDGREGORY at Coole Park In McDonough's Wife, for example, Rea's direct address to the audience from the top of a thick stone wall infuses the performance with an elegiac charge while Rea's splashing in a lake in The Rising of the Moon after he escapes arrest underscores the sergeant's unspoken admission of a dereliction of duty.

In the opening decade of the Abbey Theatre, Gregory's plays were an essential part of the theatre's repertoire but today her plays are largely neglected. This ambitious DruidGregory project feels like an overdue restitution.

In March, the company's tour of The Cherry Orchard was cancelled because of the pandemic. Six months later, Druid reminds us of the inimitable power of live theatre in this vividly-realised production that feels like nourishment for the soul.

A Galway 2020 commission, DruidGregory plays at 14 venues across Galway during September and October. For details, see druid.ie.

Photo credit: Matthew Thompson.


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