Life’s a beach for Yeats play by Blue Raincoat

When Sligo theatre company Blue Raincoat performed WB Yeats’s Purgatory on the top of Knocknarea mountain last summer it proved a breath of fresh air for both the audience and the performers.

It’s no surprise, then, to find the company are heading back outside for a second gulp. On Saturday they will perform Yeats’s accomplished play, On Baile’s Strand, on a five-mile stretch of beach below the same mountain.

“I was very taken by the level of interest in it last year,” says Blue Raincoat director, Niall Henry. “Three hundred people came up the mountain to watch it and there were 80,000 ‘likes’ on the social media. So I was happily surprised. But last year we were still learning how to perform a play outdoors so there’s room for us to improve with the new show. If we get a lot of wind we’re fucked, but you have to take the risk. It could be amazing.”

On Baile’s Strand recounts the legend of Cuchulain’s raging at the sea once he learns that he’s been forced to fight and kill his own son. The piece first appeared in 1903 and blends verse with formal experiments such as the use of masks.

“Yeats wrote maybe 30 plays and they’re all experimental, but a lot of them aren’t very good,” says Henry. “But there are five or six of them that are good. And then there are three that are very, very good. Those would be the plays where he strikes a balance between the use of masks and movement and his lyrical writing style.”

“On Baile’s Strand is the only really modern play insomuch as it doesn’t reek of Yeats. A lot of his plays don’t work because of the poetic style he was writing in. He’d have heroes from the past meeting on a mythological landscape and then speaking very lyrically. It would be a little bit like Rudolf Nureyev dancing fantastically while reading Hamlet. There was too much going on, nothing to throw things into relief.”

“But there are a lot of really very good theatrical devices in On Baile’s Strand. The trick this weekend is to put it out there in the landscape and then to pitch it the right way. You have to underemphasise the lyrical in the play and to ground the thing in its simplicity, because the landscape is already large and that’s immediately going to affect people’s reading of it. So getting the pitch of the thing will be key.”

If any company are up to the challenge, it’s Blue Raincoat. While they have gained renown for their masterful explorations of Ionesco, Beckett, and Flann O’Brien, the core of the company’s identity is invested in physical theatre and experimentalism.

They’re a busy mob, as well. The Raincoat ensemble have just staged First Cosmonaut at Edinburgh’s Traverse Theatre, and no sooner will On Baile’s Strand be over and done with than their attentions will turn to reviving Malcolm Hamilton’s play, A Brief Taste of Lightning at the Tread Softly Yeats Festival. Later in the year, they’re producing The Playboy of the Western World at the Factory in Sligo.

Notably, Henry is appearing in A Brief Taste of Lightning. The director seldom performs these days, despite the fact that his original interest in theatre was as a performer and he studied in Paris under the legendary Marcel Marceau.

“As a director it’s good for me to do it every now and again,” he says. “Because it reminds me that acting is not that easy and to cop myself on.”

On Baile’s Strand will be performed on Cumeen Strand, Sligo at 1pm this Saturday.

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