Mel Mercier: A clear vision for sounds

Mel Mercier will design the soundscape for Corcadorca’s latest play at Fitzgerald’s Park, writes Colette Sheridan.

Mercier is delighted to be back in Fitzgerald’s Park for Corcadorca’s production of The Numbered by Elias Canetti. 

Mercier, professor and chair of performing arts at the University of Limerick, recalls that the first time he worked on a Corcadorca production was A Midsummer Night’s Dream in Fitzgerald’s Park in 2001.

Since then, he has worked with the iconic Cork theatre company a number of times, mostly for their site-specific productions.

Designing the soundscape for outdoor productions brings its own unique challenges but Mercier says the advantages outweigh the disadvantages. Last year, he won an Irish theatre award for his work on Corcadorca’s production of Far Away on Spike Island.

“There were miles and miles of cables,” says Mercier, whose musical projects have included the Cork Gamelan Ensemble.

“Technically, that was the most challenging of all the site-specific plays I’ve worked on. I work with a brilliant sound engineer, Anthony Hanley. He makes it all happen on a very small budget.”

But, despite the logistics, Mercier says that there is something really liberating about getting out of the theatre. 

“You can’t achieve the kind the silence that you can potentially achieve in theatre. A lot of what you’re doing is working with sound and silence. 

"So in the theatre, you try to find out where all the extraneous noises are coming from such as the air conditioning or the sound of the microphones. 

"You can spend quite a lot of time trying to quieten the space whereas outdoors, I find it much better just to embrace the atmosphere and the natural soundscape that’s there anyway.”

Mercier adds that by embracing the outdoor sounds and tuning into them, you connect much more with the space. 

“Being outside gives you licence to work creatively with sound. You’re making the work between the sky and the earth. If you are blessed with good weather in the dark, late at night, it brings a certain quality of stillness into a space that you don’t get at three o’clock in the afternoon. 

"There’s something really beautiful about that. It can be very potent.”

While a roving band played at A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the sound design for The Numbered is all recorded. 

“I usually go into a show like this with a palette of sounds I’ve recorded and manipulated in a studio. Then I send the sounds out into the air to see which of them hang in the air and complement the light, the text, the voices and the mood. You’re looking for mood and atmosphere a lot of the time.”

The premise of The Numbered is that in the society it’s set, everybody knows when they’re going to die. 

“On the surface, there’s a sense of a kind of utopian society. But quickly, you realise that it’s not so utopian. 

“There’s great tension there between the certainty of death on the one hand and our own lived experience of its uncertainty. All is not as it seems in the play.”

Mercier’s modus operandi involves having a couple of conversations with director, Pat Kiernan. 

I’m as interested, if not more, in what Pat thinks of the play as I am in the play itself. Talking to him gives me certain ideas about the mood of the play, what the undercurrents might be and what the overall shape of it might be. I try to respond to that in my work.

Mercier tweaks the soundscape to compensate for the impact the audience has on the acoustics. But before that, he and Hanley walk the site, trying to see what might be needed. 

“Anthony is always computing the amount of cabling we need and how we’re going to do things technically, whether there are going to be radio microphones.”

Kiernan is particularly interested in returning to Fitzgerald’s Park, says Mercier. 

"That’s because in the new stage area, there’s an intriguing dome-shaped thing which is very futuristic. There’s a great contrast between that and the other part of the park, particularly beside the river, which is much more pastoral, more naturalistic. Because the play moves between two worlds, you’re trying to use the space to show that."

Like Far Away last year, this is not a happy play. 

“We’re looking for some humour in it but it’s dark. It’s really an extreme example of how a society can come to accept the imposition of a belief system and it’s about how people can so easily acquiesce.”

Over the years, Mercier has worked with leading English sound designer, Chris Schutt, who has been an influence.

“He’s a wonderful sound designer who won a Tony Award for War Horse in the National Theatre. There’s some very good people working in sound in Cork. 

"Cormac O’Connor is wonderful. I’ve seen some of his recent very impressive work with Graffiti. Peter Power is also very talented.”

The Numbered is at Fitzgerald’s Park from June 18-30, at 10.30pm.

As the crow flies: Other theatre highlights at Cork Midsummer Festival

Jon Kenny in Crowman

  • Crowman: Jon Kenny stars in Katie Holly’s tale of one man’s pathological hatred of crows. In fact, his main mission in life seems to be to hurt or kill as many crows as he can.
  • Asking For It: Adapted from Louise O’Neill’s best-selling novel, will premiere at the Everyman from June 15 to 23. This devastating story is about the aftermath of a gang rape on a young woman. Based in a Co Cork town, things spiral out of control with social media shaming and victim blaming.
  • Lex Talionis (A Tale of Vengeance & Feathers): Irish Examiner court reporter, Liam Heylin’s latest play, at the Cork Arts Theatre from June 21 to 23 is the second corvid-related piece in the festival. The characters are birds who promise “savage craic” (and trouble) on the streets of Cork.
  • Tenebrae is the latest work by Cork writer, Ger Fitzgibbon, at the Unitarian Church Hall on Prince’s Street from June 18 to 24. In the darkness of a disused oratory, a nun searches for the records of her religious order. What she finds is a homeless man who seems to have taken refuge in the building. This is “a collision of two lives in crisis.”
  • Palmyra, an exploration of revenge, the politics of destruction and what we consider to be barbaric, is at the Granary on June 23 to 24. It was one of The Guardian’s Top Ten Theatre of 2017. That newspaper described it as “a brilliant piece that reflects on Syria and the breakdown of relationships”.
  • England: A Play Written For A Gallery is at the Crawford Art Gallery from June 15 to 17. Presented by GAITKRASH, it features sound artist, Mick O’Shea and actors, Regina Crowley and Frank Prendergast. It involves a guided tour through a gallery space and is billed as “a witty and satirical play about compassion and ruthlessness.”


More on this topic

More in this Section

From Roman gladiator school to waltzing in Vienna: 5 amazing skills you can learn on holiday

A question of taste: Jessie Grimes

The Cat and the Fiddle: Gifted Irish violinist to join Vengerov in National Concert Hall

Changing their feathers: Male lead Swan Lake went from controversial to iconic

Latest Showbiz

Jack Whitehall’s best jokes at the Brit Awards

Beyonce and Jay-Z sneak Meghan Markle into Brit Awards

In Pictures: Brits winners show off their awards

James Corden spoofs Calvin Klein underwear advert

More From The Irish Examiner