Vikings v the Irish in epic Russian drama

Nikolay Gumilyov's Gondla comes to the Town Hall Theatre

GONDLA, AN epic tale of strife, poetry and revenge, between an Irish prince and the native Icelandic nobles, and set in ninth century Iceland, comes to the Town Hall Theatre on Friday August 19 and Saturday 20 at 8pm.

The play was written by Nikolay Gumilyov, a key figure in the Russian revolutionary arts scene. Husband of modernist poet Anna Akhmatova, he was executed by the Soviets in 1921. His play has been translated into English for the first time by Philip McDonagh, currently Ireland’s ambassador to Austria.

McDonagh also served as ambassador to India and Russia, among other postings, and between 1994 and 1999 worked at the Irish Embassy in London, where he helped to develop the Peace Process. Writing in the tradition of eminent Irish poet-diplomats such as Denis Devlin, Márie Mhac an tSaoi, and Valentin Iremonger, McDonagh has written three books of poetry - Carraroe in Saxony (2003 ), Memories of an Ionian Diplomat (2004 ) and The Song the Oriole Sang (2010 ).

It was during his time as ambassador to Russia that McDonagh first encountered Gondla. “When I knew I was going to Russia I started taking an interest in Russian poets especially Anna Akhmatova,” he tells me. “Through her I got interested in Gumyilov and I began to see how they were at the centre of a small group Seamus Heaney referred to in his Nobel lecture, where he talks about the influence on him of Akhmatova and Osip Mandelstam, so they had an influence on Irish literature through their influence on Heaney.”

Nikolay Gumilyov

While Akhmatova and Mandelstam are familiar names to poetry readers here, Gumyilov [pictured above] is largely unknown. “I find it hard to account for that,” McDonagh muses. “In a way Gumyilov was the leader of their group. He was not seen as a lesser figure than the others. His career was cut short by his execution. He was an unusual figure, who is not well understood.

"He is often described as a monarchist which makes him sound very old-fashioned but that doesn’t really sum him up. It was more that he was terrified by the breakdown of society that he saw after the Revolution. Gondla is really an anti-war play. Gumyilov came to London in 1917 with the express purpose of meeting Yeats. He had a kind of mandate which was tolerated by the new provisional government in Russia that he should set up channels of communication with writers and artists in the hope of ending the First World War.”

McDonagh describes Gumyilov’s qualities as a writer: “He is well rooted in tradition, you can see in Gondla that he has done a lot of study of Irish sources and thought a lot about them. He believed that writing has to make a difference; that it’s about truth, that it should offer hope amid the dire situation he saw around him. He was also very cosmopolitan, he wrote poetry about many different cultures and he used to visit Africa every year.

“Gumyilov has combined a number of sources in Gondla. The first is the story Connla of the Golden Hair about a prince who has a vision on the Hill of Uisnech which calls him away. That story is the origin of Yeats’s poem ‘come away oh human child /to the waters and the wild’.

"Gumyilov also took Yeats’s play The King’s Threshold which is about a king who stages a hunger strike. I think he was also aware of Pearse’s play The Singer. In the background there is another strand which is the history of Irish monks going to Iceland and the encounter between the Norsemen and Christianity.

"He uses a lot of Irish traditional elements but he also brings in the fraught relationship between the hero Gondla and the girl Lera which drew on his own relationship with Akhmatova. By night Lera is soft and understanding and by day she is harsh and predatory. The play moves from night to noon to dusk and her character changes as the light changes.”

Vikings

The nobles who oppose Gondla are referred to in the play as wolves. McDonagh explains this depiction: “There is a suggestion that they are actually turning into wolves, they seem to change their nature. They become a kind of pack and at moments lose their individuality. The imagery of swans versus wolves runs throughout the play.

Gondla is drawn to the land of the swans though whether that is heaven or Tír na nÓg or some vision of his own isn’t clear. There is a very important passage about Gondla’s music; he is given a lute by the wolves and as long as he plays it they will keep their distance but they know he cannot play it forever. This was like Gumyilov expressing his own plight and that of other artists in the Russia of 1920.”

I ask McDonagh about the challenges of translating the play and whether he retained Gumyilov’s verse drama; “I don’t speak Russian very well though I did learn it but I was lucky to have two friends help me with this, one is a professional translator and the other is a Russian poet,” he replies.

“They both gave me many hours of their time and I was able to go through the text line by line. Before starting on the play, I read Heaney’s translations of Greek drama and they are quite conversational and I thought I would take that approach, so I’ve written Gondla in iambic pentameter with variations of register.”

Gondla is presented by Galway-based company Meaney Productions and is directed by Luke Morgan, with an ensemble cast of 10 and a live score. “I’m very impressed at how Luke has captured the spirit of the play,” McDonagh enthuses. “He and the company have done a wonderful job in having the choreography, stage design and an excellent musical backdrop as part of the production.”

Tickets are €15/12 from the Town Hall (091 - 569777, www.tht.ie )

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