IN RECENT years, Galway’s Moonfish Theatre Company, founded by sisters Máiréad and Ionia Ní Chróinín, has been winning a burgeoning reputation as one of the most imaginative and exciting around.
Shows such as After The End (2008 ), The Secret Garden (2010 ) and Tromluí Phinocchio/Pinocchio - a Nightmare (2012 ) have met with rave reviews from critics and audiences alike. The latter play also received the 2013 Stewart Parker Trust/BBC Northern Ireland Irish Language Theatre Award, a measure of the company’s achievements to date.
Moonfish’s critical and popular standing are sure to go up another notch with Star Of The Sea, a brilliant theatrical re-imagining of Joseph O’Connor’s acclaimed novel, which gets its world premiere during the Galway International Arts Festival in a co-production with An Taibhdhearc.
Set during the Famine, Star Of The Sea is a sweeping story which moves from the wilds of Connemara, to the crowded confines of the Star Of The Sea, a famine ship, to the New York of 1847. Among the passengers are maidservant Mary Duane, the ruined Lord Meredith, and Pius Mulvey, a ruthless murderer. Their inter-twined lives create a gripping drama of revenge and forgiveness that also charts the cataclysmic social effects of the Famine.
“I first read the book about a year after it came out and pretty much straight away I started thinking about it for the stage,” Máiréad Ní Chróinín tells me during a break in rehearsals. “That was nine years ago but we knew we weren’t a mature enough company at that stage to do it. We wanted to wait until we felt confident we could do the book justice.
“We also wanted to do it in a particular style, and to do that we wanted people around us who could work in that style, so it took a while to pull the team together.”
About two years ago the company felt they had reached the requisite level of skill and confidence and duly got in touch with O’Connor.
“He was very, very open,” Ní Chróinín tells me. “We told him we wanted to do the book bilingually as we felt there was great potential to explore the two languages in the book. We also told him we didn’t want to do a straightforward narrative-driven play; we really wanted to bring in imagery and sound and all these different textures in telling the story. He was incredibly open about it, he didn’t lay down any rules or say there were things we couldn’t do with the book so it’s been just like a dream scenario.”
Ní Chróinín outlines how Moonfish approached the material.
“It’s a really amazing book,” she says. “The writing is beautiful and O’Connor weaves in press articles, diaries, letters, and all these different forms of text, and because theatre is a multi-media type of experience we went for that approach.
“We’re trying to stay true to the spirit of the book without actually putting a book onstage. We use projections, sound, movement, foleys, and so forth, which I think is true to the spirit of how the story is put together. It’s not just a character-driven narrative play, there is so much more going on. I think it’s important for the audience to see how the story is being made as well as just buying into the characters.
“We have an overhead projector and we use that in creating a lot of the scenes and playing with visual effects. We also have a digital projector linked to a computer and I’ll be doing live drawing and writing. We are bringing in elements of the book in terms of the text but for our purposes it’s a kind of surtitle.
“We didn’t want to just replicate Irish dialogue through English surtitles but to use the idea that writing in context can be a window into character. For instance, you have the reporter Dixon taking notes during Pius’s scene with his brother Nioclas. The brothers are speaking Irish but while Dixon’s notes give the audience a sense of what they’re saying, they are also revealing Dixon’s interpretation of the story and giving an insight into his character. The captain’s logbook and David’s drawings are a major factor as well, so a lot of scenes he is in, are set via a drawing he has done of London, or Dublin or wherever.”
Does the stage version differ notably from the novel in any way?
“We changed the focus a lot,” Ní Chróinín replies. “I guess for a lot of readers Pius Mulvey will be a favourite character and while his story is still there, it has a different emphasis and unfortunately we had to leave out a lot of his adventures from when he went to England, which are fantastic, but we just couldn’t fit everything in.”
Ní Chróinín is quick to acknowledge the support Moonfish received which made Star Of The Sea possible.
“We were lucky to have the resources of a space to work in and development funding from Foras na Gaeilge and the Arts Council and our co-producers An Taibhdhearc,” she says. “That support let us workshop it over three separate stages, the first was a one-week exploratory workshop then the next two stages were three weeks each and after each of those we did a presentation of the work in front of people and looked for feedback. If we hadn’t been able to do all that it would have been incredibly difficult.
“Joseph O’Connor has a nice line about when he was writing the book that it has a secret architecture and we discovered our own secret architecture in making the show.”
Star Of The Sea features Ionia Ní Chróinín, Grace Kiely, Zita Monahan, Morgan Cooke, Simon Boyle, and Máiréad Ní Chróinín. Set design is by Lian Bell.
The play runs at An Taibhdhearc from Monday July 14 to Saturday 19 at 8pm, with a matinee performance on the Saturday at 2.30pm. There are preview performances from Thursday July 10 to Saturday 12. The show is not suitable for under 16s.