SLIGO’S BLUE Raincoat Theatre Company come to the Town Hall from February 4 to 6 with A new staging of Flann O’Brien’s ebullient comic classic, At Swim Two Birds.
A wildly comic send-up of Irish literature and culture, At Swim-Two-Birds is the story of a young, lazy, and frequently drunk Irish college student who lives with his curmudgeonly uncle in Dublin and is writing a book.
The student believes that “one beginning and one ending for a book was a thing I did not agree with”, and he accordingly sets three apparently quite separate stories in motion. The first concerns the Pooka MacPhellimey, “a member of the devil class”.
The second is about a young man named John Furriskey, who turns out to be a fictional character created by another of the student’s creations, Dermot Trellis, a cynical writer of cowboy stories.
The third consists of the student’s adaptations of Irish legends, mostly concerning Finn McCool and mad King Sweeney. Hilariously funny and inventive, At Swim-Two-Birds has influenced generations of writers, opening up new possibilities for what can be done in fiction. It is widely acknowledged as a true masterpiece of Irish literature.
The novel has been adapted several times previously for the stage, and actor Brendan Gleeson is due to make his directorial debut this year with an all-star screen version. Blue Raincoat have previously enjoyed considerable success with their adaptation of O’Brien’s The Third Policeman but how have they, and adaptor Jocelyn Clarke, opted to tackle the freewheeling inventiveness of At Swim?
“Instinctively, you look at the material and see that certain things are theatrical and certain things aren’t,” says director Niall Henry. “One of the things we felt was theatrical was the premise of all these writers in the book creating different writers.
“The student creates Trellis and then Trellis has a son who also writes. There are all these layers of writers taking things over. It was that sort of thread we were keen to pursue. Unlike The Third Policeman where it’s in the story itself that the surrealism of the idea emerges, in At Swim it’s in the way Flann O’Brien tells the story where the book is kind of continuously deconstructing itself.”
Henry expands on how Blue Raincoat translated O’Brien’s ‘meta-fiction’ into ‘meta-theatre’.
“Another attractive device in the novel is the actuality of the book, and we needed to find something that would represent that theatrically,” he says. “Even the action of holding a book in your hand is important in At Swim because they do nothing but talk about the writing of books.
“What we ended up doing is, within the theatre, building a sort of baby proscenium theatre and then start to play with the idea of the actor sitting sidestage and then coming on and playing the various roles in the story.
“That creates a lot of possibilities for play and I think it creates a kind of theatrical device which transposes the same idea that works in the literary context within the book, ie, which is the ‘real’ book of all the ones that we encounter.
“It creates levels of performance-within-performance and there is also the added entertainment value that there are so many different styles of writing within the book, and we find ways of representing that through different styles of theatre.”
At Swim Two Birds is the fifth production that Jocelyn Clarke has adapted for Blue Raincoat. How does that collaboration usually work.
“Initially when we started with Lewis Carroll’s Alice books, Jocelyn would have just gone away himself and come back to us with a script,” Henry explains. “Now, we would talk together in advance about what angle we would like to take with the work, and he would then produce a script which he might workshop to test it out.
“With At Swim, there were four of us - Sandra O’Malley, Kellie Hughes (who both feature in the cast ), Jocelyn, and myself - who would have worked together in advance on the show and discussed what we felt were the right things to take from the book to make a stage play.”
Judging by the reviews, Blue Raincoat have succeeded admirably in transferring O’Brien’s novel to the stage. Irish Theatre Magazine enthused: “this is a superb production - probably the best I’ve seen from Blue Raincoat so far. Dynamic, energetic and often very funny, At Swim Two Birds is a genuine celebration of the theatrical.”
The production’s cast of six includes John Carty, Kellie Hughes, Ciaran McCauley, Fiona McGeown, and Sandra O'Malley.
At Swim Two Birds plays the Town Hall from Thursday February 4 to Saturday 6 at 8pm nightly. Tickets are €18/€15 and are available from the Town Hall on 091 - 569777.