Although each play stands by itself, there is much to relish in watching Tom Murphy’s two plays together. Bailegangaire is one of the Tuam dramatist’s great masterpieces, a piece of scintillating lyricism in which an elderly woman, her mind astray, spins out a dark yarn steeped in folklore and tragedy. Brigit is a new play, a ‘prequel’ to Bailegangaire, in which we witness an episode in the lives of the same protagonists many years before. It centres on Seamus (Bosco Hogan), a village handyman asked to sculpt a new statue of St Brigid for the local convent. Both plays are directed by Druid’s Garry Hynes.
Instructively, the first dramatic action in Brigit is the sudden, magical flaring up of the hearth onstage. This most elemental of metaphors, fire, is key to both plays — at once the tragic weight of Mommo’s confession in Bailegangaire and yet a symbol of creative redemption in Brigit. In the latter, we movingly witness the sparks flying off Seamus’s chisel as he sharpens it on a grinding wheel.
Against the delirious scope of Bailegangaire, Brigit is a slight vignette, a kind of ‘act of the apostate’ about a man who would return St Brigid to her pagan roots. It is wonderfully graceful. If there are hiccups, they are in Bailegangaire. Marie Mullen is epic as Mommo, relaying all her derangement and regret, her wicked joy and her wisdom, but Aisling O’Sullivan could perhaps dial down her character’s hysterics. Also, while the image of unbaptised children buried in the lisheen is vital to the play, the motif of redemption founded in childbirth remains itself a tad laboured. But make no mistake: this is theatre at the coalface, as fierce and as affecting as it gets.