Star of the Sea is an emotional trip on a famine ship

A stage version of Joseph O’Connor’s Star Of The Sea novel focuses on the character of housemaid Mary Duane, writes Colette Sheridan

Star of the Sea is an emotional trip on a famine ship

STAGING a play without a director sounds like sailing a ship without a captain but for Galway-based Moonfish Productions, the approach seems to work.

The company, which has adapted Joseph O’Connor’s acclaimed novel, Star of the Sea, for the stage, favours “a democratic approach” when it comes to developing a play. But as one of the ensemble cast, Morgan Cooke says: “When you think about democracy, you don’t always think about how painful it can be. An idea can be good but it has to go if it doesn’t fit the shape of the thing or it’s not quite part of the narrative line. If there’s disagreement, it’s settled with a show of hands rather than one person having the final decision.”

Star of the Sea, published in 2004, tells the story of a famine ship on a voyage from Cobh to New York in the winter of 1847.

The motley crew of passengers have secrets to hide. They include a ruined lord, a silent house-maid and a murderer on-the-run. The play moves between the west of Ireland, London and its low-life and the confines of the famine ship.

Cooke says that the novel has several narratives going on. “So we had to decide what to keep and what to jettison. We decided quite early on that the main narrative arc should be that of Mary Duane, the house-maid. Once we decided to go with her, it became a lot easier to focus on the work and to throw out what didn’t need to be there. Anything that isn’t about Mary, we had to let go. In the book, she’s more of a cipher for other characters than her own person. She’s a kind of filter. It made sense to us to make the play about her. Women are in the majority in Moonfish and it was founded by two sisters.”

The set designer for the production is Lian Bell of #WakingtheFeminists fame.

“She had lots of different ideas for the set that remain nebulous rather than representational. You could be looking at mountains or sails. There are ropes and boxes. You feel you’re in a ship but it’s not literal. There’s the idea of water rising. It’s full of suggestions yet it’s a unified piece of work.”

In the novel, the captain regularly logs the number of people who have died on board the ship. “We have taken that idea to make a sort of famine memorial of our own.”

Another innovation of the company is the use of the Irish language with sub-titles. It’s a bi-lingual production in keeping with Moonfish’s commitment to the Irish language.

Related through journalism, letters, diaries and the captain’s logs, the use of Irish is part of the aesthetic of the narrative.

Joseph O’Connor described Moonfish’s version of his story as “just so moving and very emotional”.

“In one scene, there are two children, one high born and the other a peasant,” says Cooke.

“They are friends. The peasant speaks Irish and the high born child understands. Equally, the peasant understands English because the two children have been hanging around with each other for so long. They ‘get’ each other. Irish comes quite


But with the Famine as the backdrop, is the play not depressing? “When work is well done, it doesn’t depress me even if the subject is depressing. The narrative structure of the play keeps you on your toes, so while you’re dealing with very heavy material, your intellect and imagination are being engaged in a way that keeps you interested. There’s quite a good payback.”

Star of the Sea is at the Everyman, Cork, from November 7-9 followed by a six-venue tour.

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