Edna O’Brien’s classic coming-of-age novel The Country Girls is on its way to the Town Hall in a critically acclaimed staging by Waterford’s Red Kettle Theatre Company.
This wonderful, wild, funny and moving story that shocked the nation on its publication in 1960 has been adapted by Edna O’Brien herself. Directed by Mikel Murfi, this is a highly theatrical, dramatic and free-flowing telling of this much-celebrated novel.
The Country Girls is set in the early sixties in an Irish country village. Kate and her attractive friend Baba are on the verge of womanhood and dreaming of spreading their wings in a wider world; of discovering love, luxury and liquor and, above all, fun. With bawdy innocence, shrewd for all their inexperience, the girls romp their way through convent school to the bright lights of Dublin — where Kate finds that suave, idealised lovers rarely survive the real world.
Ben Hennessy, Red Kettle’s artistic director and The Country Girls set designer, explains how the production came about; “We’d been working on another play with Mikel Murfi which fell through and I heard he’d been working with Edna on her adaptation of The Country Girls and so I had a look at it and then we both approached her about the possibilty of taking on the play and she agreed.”
Hennessy goes on to describe the challenge involved in bringing the book to the stage; “Edna says herself that she wrote the play without reference to the novel and there are things in the play that aren’t in the book. The great challenge of it is that she wrote a very theatrical treatment, the characters of Baba and Kate and Mr Gentleman are played by three actors and all the other characters are played by an ensemble of six. In ways it is a traditional coming of age story, but that traditional story is given a very contempoaray feel in being directed by Mikel who is a very physical and visual kind of director –probably the best visual director in the country now. So that amalgamation of his contemporary theatricality and Edna’s very literary story is a great mixture.”
Given that the novel is over 50 years old, does Hennessy feel it still has contemporary resonance? “In a peculiar kind of way, the love story between this young girl and an older gentleman probably has more controversy from our modern perspective with the idea of grooming and paedophilia, whereas it wasn’t really apparent at the time,” he replies. “I think the more shocking thing at the time was that it was told from the perspective of this young girl who speaks about her sexual awakening and her dreams and thoughts and confronting the nuns. The fact that it was a young girl’s voice daring to speak these things was the most shocking. There were letters that went from the Minister of Education –who was Charles Haughey- to Archbishop John Charles McQuaid which is hard to believe now.”
The Country Girls director Mikel Murfi shares his thoughts on the play, and what it was like working with Edna O’Brien; “The stage script is quite like a film, there are a lot of short but very intense little sequences that I as a director had to make into a fluid production which didn’t seem as if it was jumping all over the place and it actually functions really well. It’s been a lovely process working with Edna, she’s an amazing woman, she’s quite something and I’m delighted to have done this if for no other reason than I got to meet her through it. She’s a phenomenal woman. She’s incredibly smart, and was very good to work with, she’s very open to changes – if I came to her to say I couldn’t make something work she’d say ‘get rid of it’. She is also incredibly perceptive; we made some very subtle lighting changes during the play’s first run last November when we moved from Garter Lane to the Gaiety and she spotted them all.”
While Murfi’s directing credits have largely featured contemporary plays by writers such as Enda Walsh and Carmel Winters, he stresses his affinity with the material of The Country Girls. “Both my parents are from rural backgrounds in Monaghan and I spent my summers in this Tarry Flynn-like world amid the drumlins so I am very in touch with the people and the quality of life you find in rural Ireland and I love it,” he declares. “Also, I’m very anti the intellectual and academic who would poo-poo theatre that is sentimental or nostalgic. Certain intellectuals seem to think if a play is sentimental it can’t be great theatre and I can’t stand that ould shite! Theatre is for everybody and it should have a million different facets so I was very taken by the nostalgic and sentimental aspects of the story, though actually it’s not really that sentimental; it’s quite aggressive writing. Edna writes very sparingly and there’s loads of subtext in it. So while my familiarity with rural life might make me a good match with Edna O’Brien my modern theatre-making sensibility also does.
“When I got the script first there were something like 19 scenes in 19 different locations just in the first act. And you can’t do that in old-school theatre terms. The material appealed to me because of what it was but the challenge of making theatre out of what she has written – what she has written is set in a particular time but you have to work in a contemporaneous style theatrically to make it work and that was an attraction in the work.”
The cast of The Country Girls features Holly Browne as Kate and Caoimhe O'Malley as Baba. Also featured are Charlie Bonner, Rachael Dowling, Georgina Miller, Aileen Mythen and Michael Power. The play is at the Town Hall from Monday, June 18 to Saturday, June 23 and tickets are €25/€20.
Tickets are available from the Town Hall on 091 - 569777 and www.tht.ie