Sétanta - A play that bridges the language divide

AN Irish language play, written by Paul Mercier with music by his brother, Mel, is coming to UCC’s Granary Theatre on May 9-10 as part of a six-venue tour around Ireland.

Sétanta - A play that bridges the language divide

Produced by Connemara-based Fibín theatre company, the play, Sétanta, is an avant-garde depiction of an old saga in Irish mythology, telling the story of how the title character and his ill-fated friend, Ferdia, become sworn enemies under the reign of the powerful Queen Medb. One of the directors of the play and founder of Fibín, Darach Ó Tuairisg, says Sétanta is also suitable for non-Irish speakers.

“The ethos of the company is to make the Irish language accessible to all. To achieve that, we use masks, puppets, video art and music in our productions. It’s really about pushing the Irish language and creating a piece of art that just happens to be as Gailege.”

Five actors use 50 hand-made masks to tell the story. Ó Tuairisg says the play, performed as a contemporary piece of theatre, “is relevant to our world today with what’s happening in North Korea and the US. It’s quite current, even more so now than it was two years ago when it was written. It’s about our need for power and it deals with greed. It looks at ourselves as a society, where we’ve been and how things could end up.”

Fibín is celebrating ten years. Since its foundation, it has produced 26 shows and has toured its Irish language plays to the UK, Belgium, Norway, Canada and Malawi in Africa. The company has been invited to stage two productions in New York in September.

“The company was initially set up to do one show, a kids’ show. We saw all these kids going to Galway city to see big English language productions. We felt it would be good if there was some theatre as Gaeilge, big stage pantomime-like productions.”

Ó Tuairisg points out that the company’s first two productions, ‘An Gabha agus an Ghasúir’ and ‘Stair na hÉireann – Cineál’ were directed by Londoner, Rod Goodall “who has no Irish whatsoever. He had a style we recognised because he’s the founder of Footsbarn (one of the world’s leading touring companies) and is involved with Macnas. He brought a brand to our company.”

Watching a Fibín production is all about understanding it visually. “Rod was able to direct shows for us because of the use of puppets and slapstick comedy. The first show we did involved a 30-foot revolving pirate ship. We had an Italian in the play who spoke in a dialect from Pompeii. The puppets repeated everything he said as Gaeilge. The general gist of the story was there for non-Irish speakers. It was a great success.”

Having Paul Mercier, founder of the Passion Machine, on board, is a coup for Fibín. “He has an interest in the Irish language and has moved his family to Connemara. He has also taught Irish. This is his first professional Irish language production.”

‘Sétanta’ was first produced in 2011 and was the first Irish language play to appear at the Abbey Theatre in 25 years.

Ó Tuairisg admits that working with Irish language plays “can sometimes feel like frontier land. But all theatre is difficult to tour these days and Irish language theatre can be particularly difficult because Irish has negative connotations for a lot of people. But I think our cultural heritage is hugely important. The world has become homogenised. As for people who say money shouldn’t be spent on the Irish language, I don’t know what their idea of culture is.”

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