Theatre reviews: The Great Hunger, Galway Fringe Festival

THE CLAIRE Keegan-helmed Galway Fringe Festival made a distinctive splash in July with two and a half weeks of non-stop theatre, art, music, literature, dance, workshops, children’s events, and more.

The fringe has been an impressive achievement for Keegan and her colleagues, assembling a packed programme featuring hosts of artists from near and far. Though this was only the Fringe’s second year it seems well placed to build on its early promise and secure a firm place for itself in the Galway city arts calendar.

Among the notable shows in this year’s programme was Peter Duffy’s one-man staging of Patrick Kavanagh’s epic poem, The Great Hunger, which ran at the Townhouse Bar.

First published in 1942, and regarded by some as Kavanagh’s masterpiece, The Great Hunger sharply delineates a life of economic and imaginative privation. A large part of the hunger the poem describes is sexual; its protagonist is bachelor farmer Patrick Maguire who has spent years at his mother’s beck and call. When she finally dies aged 91, he himself is 65 and has missed the boat in terms of finding a wife and having a family of his own, a source of acute sorrow and regret to him:

“O God if I had been wiser!/That was his sigh like the brown breeze in the thistles.”

As well as the spiritual pain the poem describes, there are also moments of holy rapture:

“Yet sometimes when the sun comes through a gap/These men know God the Father in a tree:/The Holy Spirit is the rising sap,/And Christ will be the green leaves that will come/At Easter...”

Duffy himself grew up on a small Monaghan farm so has a ready affinity for Kavanagh’s material which informs and shines through his absorbing interpretation of the work.

In his peaked cap, worn jacket and clothes he looks every inch the farmer who has just trudged in from the field. The staging relies on a few simple props, such as a small creel of potatoes, and uses snatches of recorded ambient sound - birdsong, wheels on gravel - to evoke the rural landscape.

Duffy’s soft-spoken conversational delivery draws us into the world of Maguire, his family and neighbours, with all its hardships, thwarted hopes and stray shafts of happiness. Once or twice he is perhaps over-literal in illustrating the text - a reference to Halloween apples for instance prompts him to take out an actual apple from his pocket and mime the action of biting it.

However this is a minor quibble in what is a finely-achieved and compelling production. Its conclusion was greeted with a standing ovation from the appreciative audience and the accolade was fully merited.

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