It is exactly 30 years since Thos McDonogh and Sons presented Druid Theatre, for a peppercorn rent, with an old warehouse in Chapel Lane, in Galway’s Latin Quarter. It was far from a Latin Quarter at the time. Like other parts of the old city most of it was falling apart. Old 18th and 19th century buildings were roofless and derelict, a home for cats and rats. But it had a rough diamond look about it too with its pawnbrokers, ‘Nora Crubs’, the always warm Tigh Neachtain’s (if you could get in! ), the Pedler and Kenny bookshops, Sonny Molloy’s very modest women’s undergarments shop, and the larger than life Mrs Mc Donagh, who showed us all that there was more to the fish industry than a stinky grilled herring, fried mackerel, and the auld cod.
Padraig Rattigan was the first to see the potential of Kirwan’s Lane, and gradually restaurants and bars began to mirror the romance of the place, building up to the present crowded streets of happy revellers every summer evening. In the meantime Druid had converted the warehouse into a small but crude theatre, and built on its growing reputation for stunning innovation, acting skills and attracting new writing talent.
Four years earlier Garry Hynes, Mick Lally and Marie Mullen were the co-founders of Druid where they presented evening and lunchtime plays at the back of the Coachman Hotel (now extinct ) in Dominick Street. They built a small theatre in a room called The Fo’Castle. Mick Lally recalled last weekend that he sawed wood with ‘the bluntest saw in Connacht’. He was impressed to see an electric saw glide through the thickest plank when professional carpenters were making the new stage at Chapel Lane. ‘I could have done wonders with that saw in Dominick Street,” he said.
Last Friday marked a new development for this courageous, award-winning theatre. Having been closed for months, it reopened with a new production of Tom Murphy’s The Gigli Concert, proudly displaying for the second time, a significantly refurbished premises, with ample rehearsal space, and lots of elbow-room for actors. It still retains its old wall surfaces, different levels and intimate stage; but it’s as good as any professional theatre in the world.
This is the first time Garry directed this particular Murphy play, which had its premiere at the Abbey Theatre in 1983. She does so with all the confidence of a great artist; with strong, bold strokes. Her plays are technically challenging, and she is blessed with having a strong technical team, including Francis O’Connor (design ), Davy Cunningham (lighting ), and John Leonard (sound ).
It is a play of many stories. A young Englishman, JPW King (Peter Sullivan ), a quack self-help therapist, who one day is confronted by a self-made wealthy developer (Denis Conway ), who wants to sing like the Italian opera singer Beniamino Gigli, and he wants to achieve this crazy ambition in seven one hour appointments. The developer, who only gives away his childhood pet name Benimillo, is at one moment violent, boastful of his building achievements, finger pointing and abrasive; and the next tender and sentimental. He is in fact suffering a complete nervous breakdown, and believes that if he sings like Gigli, it will lift him from his despair.
He admits to burning his child’s toys, threatening to kill ‘Itinerants’ who have camped on his land. The scene where he collapses on his knees, whimpering and stuttering is painful to see; and yet he brings in a record player and with impressive control, sets it up, plugs it in, and stands motionless, overcome by Gigli’s gentle, soft voice.
JWP King, soon takes his client seriously, assures him that he will achieve his ambition, and the two men form a Carson McCullers type relationship: Two wounded people relying on each other. King is a drunkard, hopelessly obsessed with the love of his life, Helen (who is unobtainable ), and lives and sleeps in his dark office, which is nothing less then ‘a pig-sty’. He admits to ‘never having achieved anything in his life’.
He also has a mistress Mona, who fell for him in a supermarket. Despite being married, she adores his English accent, and his inability to look after himself. Mona (Eileen Walsh ) is a free spirited girl, and is desperate for attention. When, towards the end of the play, we find out the reason for her neediness, it is heartbreaking. The set is in a room within a building. There is a frosted glass corridor leading to the door. In one moving scene Mona comes to the office door, calls for JPW King (who is too preoccupied or disinterested to answer ), and she goes away sad and alone, her red glove handprinting on the glass.
Incredibly, Benimillo is cured, at least for the present; and now JWP is despairing. After an attempted suicide, he seeks the cure that Benimillo believed in, and through an interesting piece of theatrical magic, he does sing like Gigli. Light pours into his dimly lit office, and there is new life.
This is a richly rewarding play, and probably Murphy’s masterpiece. The faultless performances by the two main protagonists is bizarrely amusing and at the same time agonising to watch; but the tender performance from Eileen Walsh as Mona is one of the finest performances that I have ever seen.
The choice of Tom Murphy’s best known play was particularly appropriate on Friday. Whether Garry Hynes and her co-founders intended it or not, there is a undeniable similarity between when Lady Augusta Gregory and WB Yeats founded the Abbey Theatre 105 years previously in Dublin, and Druid. Shortly after the Abbey opened in 1904 it immediately attracted a stream of talented writers, including such giants as J M Synge, and Sean O’Casey. Similarly with a new theatre at her disposal, in Druid’s early days Garry re-visited the works by an almost forgotten Galway playwright MJ Molloy; and when we all thought we knew all that was to be known of JM Synge, she presented a cycle of all his plays so we could see his genius unfolding before our eyes. New writing talent was attracted too including Geraldine Aron, Enda Walsh, Martin McDonagh, and Tom Murphy.
There is another similarity here too. Just as Joan Littlewood worked with Brendan Behan in East London in the 1950s, producing The Quare Fellow to wide acclaim, Garry worked with Tom Murphy as he hammered out his earlier plays in rehearsal. Garry has a reputation of having a clear vision of what she wants. Tom Murphy is a juggler of words, ideas, and brilliant characterisation. He is equally clear on his vision. The hammering between Murphy and Hynes was often on an anvil, and there were sparks. Galway was regularly entertained by stories of the latest row, or argument, or accusation, which were rumoured to often end with ... “will you make up your **** mind?” The result was often a masterclass in acting, writing, and direction. We saw several different Conversations on a Homecoming, and an unforgettable performance by Siobhan McKenna in Bailegangaire. We, the audience, greatly benefited from the struggle between these two artists.
Last Friday evening, in her welcoming remarks, Garry Hynes said that after 30 years in Chapel Lane, there were many ghosts walking in the building that night. “ These do not include the headless nun whom Sean McGinly swore he saw here one night; but the spirit of Siobhan McKenna, Anna Manahan, Jerome Hynes, and the young Tom Murphy.”
Was there a new Tom Murphy? He was standing quietly at the back of the crowd, as everyone was beginning to leave the theatre. I asked him if he enjoyed the performance.
Tom: I didn’t see it. No. I just can’t go. Its too much....
Me: Oh you’ll love it Tom. You will cry. Its so good...
Tom: I know. I know it’s an excellent production. It’s just difficult for me....I might go for a time tomorrow night. I prefer to stand out here and listen to the reaction...It’s difficult for me to see it.