Friday, 10 July 2015

Eating Dramaturgy Eggs: Caitríona Ní Mhurchú @ Edfringe 2015


An award-winning actor has told how being racially abused on a bus for speaking Irish led her to create a hard-hitting sold-out play.

Caitríona Ní Mhurchú - who scooped Herald Angel and Fringe First awards at last year’s Fringe as part of the cast of Lippy - was on the phone to her father on a Dublin bus when an elderly local woman started to pick on her.

The Fringe

What inspired this production: did you begin with an idea or a script or an object?
It began with an event really. I was inadvertently racially abused on a bus in Dublin while on the phone to my father. I was speaking Irish. A benign looking elderly woman began shouting at me to ‘Go Back To Where I Came From!’ and ‘That It Was The Likes Of ME That Was Taking Jobs from her Daughter’. 

I was struck dumb. And just about muttered that I was speaking Irish. To which the response was “I don’t care I’m not sitting next to the likes of you”, and she moved off down the bus. None of the other passengers said anything. They just looked at me.

It was very odd. I have never been – as a white female – been racially commented on, in any way. It was a strange experience. And it was doubly strange being abused by an Irish woman while speaking Irish in Ireland, who presumably thought that I was speaking Polish or something.

I was also un-nerved by the venality of my reaction. I didn’t stand up and ask her what was she doing or confront her in any way.

At around the same time there was a revival of the standard abuse of Peig Sayers in the general media. Peig Sayers was a peasant woman from the Blasket Island off the West Coast of Ireland who became a celebrity. 

Her book, an autobiography, first published in 1936, coincided with the formalisation of the new state and chimed with the political, social and cultural ideology of the time led by the President, Éamonn de Valera. The dominant theme of this ideology was the notion of a kind of super-peasant-from-the-west, a pure and purified symbol of true Irishness. A heavily edited version of the book was put onto the school syllabus as a compulsory and permanent addition, largely because it was seen to be a shining example of this ideology. 

The book itself, and it’s author Peig Sayers, subsequently became lightning rods for dissatisfaction with Irish, with Ireland and with the new state. The sheer monotony of how it was taught in schools– usually translated line by line – finished it off. But the vitriol of the hatred for it’s author remains somewhat unexplained by the tedium of school days. People still spit on her grave. Literally.

These two things fused in my mind and out of that fusion came Eating Seals and Seagulls’ Eggs. It is a meditation on language, nationality, displacement, loneliness, the female voice, state-making, state-censorship and the gap between ideology and personal reality with a bit of 80’s suburbia thrown in for good measure.

Why bring your work to Edinburgh?
Matthew Dwyer from The Pleasance invited me after seeing it in Tiger Fringe 2014. I thought a lot about it, it wasn’t an instant response. I went back into the rehearsal room for a week to re-examine it and see whether we felt it would have resonance in Edinburgh and with Edinburgh Fringe audiences. 

The upshot being that we think that it will, international audience at Dublin Fringe responded well, with different nationalities responding to different themes – Brazilians responded to the female voice element and Spanish to the exploration of the state and so on – we feel also that there is a lot of thematic intersection culturally, socially and historically with Scotland.

What can the audience expect to see and feel - or even think - of your production?
It is a playful, poetic, irreverent, moving slice of documentary theatre drawing on mine and Peig’s autobiography, archive material, press cuttings and rare film footage with a strong visual slant – I collaborated with a visual artist, Adam Gibney. 

It’s really a multi-media piece– five TVs and a projector screen and a specially commissioned sound score. I wanted to place Peig into the world in which she now currently exists, which is the world of archive, and explode it out.

That’s what the audience will see and hear. But what they feel or even think? I just hope the production does it’s job and entices them to go on a sinuous, unsettling and occasionally funny journey with us into a layered exploration of myth and reality.

The Dramaturgy Questions

How would you explain the relevance - or otherwise - of dramaturgy within your work?
Dramaturgically the piece was tricky. There were so many elements to the text – Peig, Me, The Blasket Island, Suburbia, State Papers, The Press, History, Interviews - it took me a while – even with help from Conall Morrison who worked with me as dramaturg – to work out how to effectively layer those themes/texts/dialogues. 

I started dissecting the five-act-structure but it was too solid. I
looked then at the fugue and how various voices come in and out, with one or two voices being largely dominant, and that seemed a good workable template for the piece. I added into that mix a contemporary dance choreographic approach of 4,4,5,1 etc when I was layering in the visual art element and sound composition. Some of these elements heightened and others faded as the work solidified but I used them both as reference when I was piecing it together. I also used traditional storytelling modes where the story twists off into unexpected directions.

What particular traditions and influences would you acknowledge on your work - have any particular artists, or genres inspired you and do you see yourself within their tradition?
As an actor I have worked commercial to avant garde (if there is still such a thing?) but regardless of genre the impulse that most inspires me as performer and audience is the collaborative ensemble, physical discipline and a generosity of performance – to the work, to other performers on stage and to the audience. Ostermeier, Loose Canon, Forced Entertainment, Complicite, Richard Maxwell, Liz Roche, The Wooster Group, Druid, Pat Kinevane….

Do you have a particular process of making that you could describe - where it begins, how you develop it, and whether there is any collaboration in the process?
Other than adaptations of work this is the first original theatre piece I have made and I sought out collaboration, initially approaching a hack artist Benjamin Gaulon – who works with text and smashed kindles etc – but he had moved back to Paris and he suggested Adam Gibney a visual artist who engages with sound and sculpture in his practice as a means to investigate language and semiotics and their relationship with technology. Adam travels with the show and manipulates the images with a specially designed mixing desk as he responds live to the performance. 

Because the voice and the idea of sound was so pertinent in the piece I worked with Bird In Snow – a rocker collective – who design for theatre and film. We wanted to build the sfx not rely on library collection so e.g. the sea is replicated by a bassoonist inhaling into the instrument and shingle involves a piano with the back taken off and a guitar… Performatively also it is important for us to work in a constant state of collaboration on the stage, responding to what is being offered rather than to an assumption of what is being offered. As little as possible is set.

What do you feel the role of the audience is, in terms of making the meaning of your work?
Because of how we perform we are very open to what the audience is giving us and, without undermining the work or the piece, we are always alive to them. We perform in the room or in the space rather than on the stage, so the audience is crucial in molding any particular performance on any particular day.

Are there any questions that you feel I have missed out that would help me to understand how dramaturgy works for you?
A little précis :

I wanted to work with artists from other disciplines and that those disciplines would have equal weight – so that the text, the performance layer, the visual layer and the sound layer – would have equal weight and would work collectively and cohesively.

I also wanted to explore the possibility in the text of making a piece of documentary theatre that was in content approached as a historian but that sounded closer to poetry. And I also wanted to see if it was possible to put elements of my own biography on stage and have someone else speak those lines, or that biography, to see if it could stand alone, or at least exist and have meaning outside of me.

She said: “She began shouting at me ‘Go back to where you came from!’ and ‘It’s the likes of you that’s taking jobs from my daughter!’ I was struck dumb and muttered that I was speaking Irish. To which the response was ‘I don’t care I’m not sitting next to the likes of you,’ and she moved off down the bus.

“None of the other passengers said anything. It was very odd being racially abused. As a white female, I have never been racially commented on in any way.

“It was doubly strange being abused by an Irish woman for speaking Irish in Ireland. Irish is nominally the first language of the state.”

At around the same time, there was a revival of the abuse of Peig Sayers, a peasant woman from Blasket Island off the west coast of Ireland. Her autobiography - first published in 1936 and written in Gaelic - was put on the school syllabus and became loathed as a symbol of dissatisfaction with Irish, Ireland and the new state.

“The sheer monotony of how the book was taught – usually translated line by line – finished it off,” said Ní Mhurchú. “But the vitriol for its author is shocking and remains unexplained.

“Peig has in some way become a fulcrum for our dissatisfaction with ourselves and is a constant reminder that we are a country that, in the main, wishes to forget our past.”

Ní Mhurchú created Eating Seals and Seagulls’ Eggs in order to confront the abuse meted out to both her and Sayers, a show that was hailed Pick of the Dublin Fringe by the Sunday Times, the Irish Independent, Metro and RTE Online.

The play – which co-stars Louise Lewis from the hit movie, Adam & Paul - is a touching, evocative and funny slice of documentary theatre which uses archive and rare film footage to explore nationality, language and loneliness.

Artist Adam Gibney has designed the arresting visuals, and music collective Bird in Snow wrote the soundtrack.

Ní Mhurchú added: “This is a show about being told that the langauge you speak is dead, that you yourself are a failed state project, and what that means.”

Pleasance Dome, Jack Dome, 5 - 30 August, 1.05pm

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