'FOUR birds hanging out in Cork city — what’s not to like?” asks Katrina Foley, who through her theatre company, Wandering Star, is directing Liam Heylin’s latest play. Entitled Lex Talionis (the Latin name for the law of retaliation, or an eye for an eye), the play’s sub-heading is A Tale of Vengeance & Feathers.
Billed as being “about savage craic on the streets of Cork city,” the play’s four characters, all played by females as it happens, are birds — three rooks and a magpie. The play was inspired by a line in Heylin’s hit play, Love, Peace and Robbery, in which the characters see a rook picking up a cigarette butt. One of the characters remarks that it’s only a matter of time before the birds start smoking.
“That line stuck with Liam,” says Foley. “Ten years later, he revisited it and decided to write a play about birds. I suppose it’s surreal enough but the fact that we’re dealing with birds is not something we’re necessarily pushing into people’s faces.”
There are no wings but the characters’ costumes are avian- influenced in their textures and colours. “We’ve been looking at where you can connect the dots between the gestures that birds have and humans have,” says Foley.
Foley has been on board since the early days of Heylin’s new play. As theatre critic for the Evening Echo (he’s also the court reporter for that newspaper and the Irish Examiner) he gave a good review to a play that Foley directed in late 2016.
Foley, a graduate of CIT Cork School of Music’s theatre and drama studies degree, was contacted by Heylin in early 2017. He wanted Foley and her colleagues, lighting designer Jamie Feehily and stage manager Aoife Clarke, to take a look at his play-in-progress with a view to producing it.
“As Liam was writing it, he was sending us drafts to read. Then there was a reading in the Cork Arts Theatre with the actors. Liam invited a few people to give feedback. In September 2017, we work-shopped the material and did some improvisation around it. So out of that came the current cast.”
The play involves a crime and explores ideas of what’s right and wrong. “Hugh and Mooney are two rooks. Hugh has a very strict world view which involves sticking with your own kind to stay out of trouble. Mooney is a little bit more open than that. He becomes friendly with Max, a magpie. Through this friendship, the characters connect with Donie who brings serious trouble to Hugh’s home life.”
The language in the play is very much in the Cork idiom. “The script is actually written phonetically. That’s been interesting. One of my big questions for people who are not from Cork is whether everything can be understood. We got a few actors from different parts of Ireland to see whether the words landed and whether the terminology was understandable. The response was very positive so that was a huge bonus.”
The play is very much set in Cork city, with references to Hillbillys and the River Lee Hotel, as well as other landmarks.
The set for the production, which will be staged at the Cork Arts Theatre, is a bare stage.
“As a theatre company, we wanted to look at the idea of how you could do something extremely minimalist and make it portable and adaptable in different locations. There are 15 scenes in the play. They have lots of different locations, including the sky. There are scenes that take place underneath trees. That’s all conveyed in the dialogue.
We didn’t want to root the play in anything that might be too distracting. We want to leave it up to the imagination of the audience and let them be carried away.
With a bird’s eye view of the city, the play promises to transport audiences.