AN ELDERLY woman, rapidly going senile, lies bedridden, where, to the distress of her daughters, she persists in telling and re-telling a strange story, yet never comes close to finishing it.
Years before it had been different. In an earlier time that same woman proudly watched and encouraged her husband as he created a sculpture commissioned by the local convent - a work that also answered a deep need within him for artistic fulfilment and sense of purpose.
Tom Murphy’s new play Brigit, along with his classic Bailegangaire, will be staged by Druid Theatre Company in the Town Hall Theatre from September 9 to 21. The plays will be directed by Garry Hynes and star one of Ireland’s greatest theatre actors, Marie Mullen.
Bailegangaire was first staged in Galway in 1985 by Druid, during a period of close collaboration with Tom Murphy. Siobhan McKenna was in the role of Mommo and she was joined on-stage by Marie Mullen and Mary McEvoy as Mommo’s daughters Mary and Dolly. What are Marie’s memories of that original production?
“It’s been said many times before but it’s worth repeating, Druid grew up as a company with Tom Murphy,” Marie tells me during our Tuesday morning interview. “He was the most serious playwright who had taken us on at that point. He helped us through everything. I suppose he is the spirit of Druid.
“To meet with a star the calibre of Siobhan McKenna was extraordinary. She took us under her wing. There was a great generosity about her. We were young, inexperienced, actors, trying to get to grips with parts that were beautifully written and of great maturity, and she held us through that.”
Now Marie takes on the role of Mommo, the bedridden matriarch who continually starts, but never finishes, her tale about a laughing contest that once came to town. “Mommo is senile and the telling of the story is how she copes with being alive,” says Maire.
Mommo is trapped in senility. Mary is constantly trying to take care of her. Dolly has her own problems of extreme loneliness, which lead Mary to believe her sister is an absent and neglectful daughter. All three women are “locked in an unhealthy existence” as Marie notes, and struggle to overcome their confinements.
“That Mommo never finishes the story is the point,” says Marie, “and it is debatable, if she could ever finish it. The act though of trying to get her to complete the tale is important, for if Mommo can, it will shift the situation in the house and maybe things can then change.”
In Bailegangaire, Tom Murphy created what Marie calls “a play for women”.
“He understands the humanity and compassion of women,” she says, “of women as carers - which Mommo was and Mary now is. He understands women’s extraordinary capacity to love and he celebrates it. He doesn’t make his women saints, he exposes their dark sides, especially in the line ‘She knew how to use the weapon of silence’.
Tom Murphy’s new play Brigit is a prequel to Bailegangaire, going back to the time when Mommo’s husband Seamus was still alive. Commissioned to create a statue, he is initially reluctant, but it soon becomes an obsession, something Seamus needs to do.
“When I heard that Tom was writing a new play I couldn’t wait to read it,” says Marie. “When I got to read it I was completely in that world. The lives of Mommo and the children came back to me. The two plays are of course connected, in that Bailegangaire refers to past events in their lives, but in terms of the overall subject matter they are very different, for example, there is no indication in Brigit that Mommo will go senile later. When you see the two plays though, you will reflect on them and it will give a greater understanding of the characters’ lives.”
Although Mommo is again a big presence in Brigit, in some respects this is Seamus’s play, and though him, Murphy explores “the artist at work trying to create something beautiful and the beautiful thing he creates coming from a sense of the artist himself and from what he thinks is true,” Marie says.
“We see the marriage of Seamus and Mommo come alive, the family’s struggle to make ends meet, which is talked about in Bailegangaire, we see their disappointments, but we also see the artist in Seamus being realised.”
The creation of the statue becomes a big part of the life of the community and allows Murphy to explore aspects of the lives of the supporting characters, the Reverend Mother and Fr Kilgariff.
“We get an insight into their minds,” says Marie. “It’s true of all plays that we are witnessing the private lives of characters but in Brigit it really feels like we are sharing those intimacies with them. It’s almost like we can see inside their heads to the delicate things inside.”
Portraying Mommo in both plays is, Marie feels, “a great privilege”.
“For me, to do two Tom Murphy plays is the culmination of everything I have ever done,” she says. “I will do my utmost to be true to the play. It’s also just a gift that we have Tom Murphy coming into the theatre to work with us in rehearsal, telling us stories about why he wrote such and such and where the idea for this and that came from. You have to pinch yourself that we have the writer with us. I’m so looking forward to people seeing Brigit and Bailegangaire. I think Galway will love them.”
The cast for Bailegangaire is Marie Mullen (Mommo ), Aisling O’Sullivan (Dolly ) and Catherine Walsh (Mary ). The cast for Brigit is Seamus (Bosco Hogan ), Marie Mullen (Mommo ), Lily McBride (Mary ), Ailbhe Birkett (Dolly ), Colm Conneely (Tom ), Marty Rea (Fr Kilgariff ), Jane Brennan (the Reverend Mother ), and Rachel O’Byrne (a young nun ).
The world premiere of Brigit and the opening night of Bailegangaire combine in a double bill on Sunday September 14. Tickets are available from the Town Hall on 091 - 569777 or www.tht.ie Bailegangaire will also play at the Clifden Arts Festival on September 23 and 24. For tickets see www.clifdenartsweek.ie