DRUID Theatre Company is this year restaging Bailegangaire, rather than wait for 2015’s 30th anniversary of the landmark Tom Murphy play that it premiered to acclaim in 1985.
Druid artistic director Garry Hynes has not been tempted by the fanfare. For her, the time is right when the time is right. The work, and not the frills, is what matters.
Still, this Bailegangaire revival has a selling-point. It’s being paired with a new Murphy play, Brigit, a conceptual prequel. This is one of those high-concept shindigs that Druid does so well, a multi-play ‘event’ in the vein of The Leenane Trilogy, DruidSynge and DruidMurphy. The double-header kicks off this week in Galway.
Bailegangaire centres on Mommo, a hard chaw of an elderly woman who, in the grip of dementia, spins a strange disjointed yarn to her two adult granddaughters, while the latter struggle with their own issues.
Poised between the incantatory powers of myth and the stifling disenchantment of modern life, the play is Murphy at his most lyrical and yet most trenchantly real. The eagerly anticipated new play, Brigit, is set many years earlier.
Murphy, now 79, has rebuilt it from the remnants of a TV drama he wrote for RTÉ in 1986. The plot centres on a statue that Brigit’s husband, Seamus, has been asked to create for the local church.
Significantly, Marie Mullen links the two shows, appearing as Brigit in one, as Mommo (the elderly Brigit) in the other.
One of Druid’s founding members, Mullen played alongside the iconic Irish actress, Siobhán McKenna, in the original production of Bailegangaire in 1985. McKenna’s turn as Mommo is one of the great performances of modern Irish theatre. (It was her last hurrah before her death, in 1986). Graduating to the role must be poignant for Mullen.
But one wonders if she’s had time to be moved by the experience, given the demands of appearing in two shows simultaneously.
“It’s a bit of both,” says Mullen. “In the practical sense, I have such a mountain to climb personally. And, in the sentimental sense, I realise everyday now what an amazing, talented, intelligent actress Siobhán was. But for Garry and I both, it’s been like dealing with a brand new play again.”
The original production of Bailegangaire took place at a pivotal time in Druid’s history, when the Galway company, having forged a bond with Murphy, dynamically established itself as the titan of Irish theatre it remains today. Bailegangaire was the very apex of those Murphy collaborations. What stands out now for Mullen about the original show?
“The thing I recall most is how kind and generous Siobhán McKenna was to two young actresses, Mary McEvoy and myself,” she says.
“Also, Tom Murphy spent the first week with the three of us and he was, as he is now, a tremendous help in exploring his play.”
In the new production, it is Catherine Walsh and Aisling O’Sullivan who have enjoyed Murphy’s input. Cork native Walsh has worked with Druid numerous times and is no stranger to Murphy’s work, having appeared in the Abbey’s last production of The Gigli Concert some years back.
In Bailegangaire, Walsh plays Mary, a woman returned from London to care for an ailing grandmother who, it seems, no longer even remembers her. Murphy’s feedback during rehearsals has been an integral part of the process.
“He’s a really benign presence, but he’s no fool,” says Walsh. “We will be doing a reading and he’ll say ‘Catherine! Catherine! The punctuation. The punctuation. There are three dots’. But you feel all his warmth.”
Walsh has also benefited from having Mullen — who played Mary in the original production — to draw on. “Sometimes, she’ll say something that turns the context on its head for me. She doesn’t do it all that often, because she’s focused on being Mommo. But when she does say something, it always feels like she’s shining a little light in a dark corner for me. It never feels like she’s telling me what to do. But that’s luck. Another actress might push you over the edge.”
If the relations between the actors are good, the relations between the play’s three female characters are more strained. The two sisters, Mary and Dolly (O’Sullivan), share a lingering distrust. “They’re like oil and water,” says Walsh. “One takes her energy from the ground and the other takes her energy from the stars. That’s how it feels. But, then, I have sisters myself, and I can see how we’re all alike, yet different. So it’s beautifully written.”
Murphy doesn’t write ‘women characters’, says Walsh. He writes humans. His pursuit of our humanity is what distinguishes his work, she says.
“He’s not afraid of the search for spiritual things and the unknowns. But even though he’s looking for something very delicate, he does it very robustly.
“It’s very rooted. He doesn’t want the play to be up in the sky. He wants the setting to be a country farmhouse and he wants it to be somebody’s grandmother and somebody’s sisters that you’re looking at onstage. And I guess what I like about Tom is what I like about Druid, too. They search for the beauty of life in the mundane,” Walsh says.
Audiences going to Bailegangaire on the occasion of its 29th anniversary can look forward to glimpsing that beauty. One expects Brigit will have a fair dose of it, too.