COOLE LADY, a play which reveals the character and feelings of Lady Augusta Gregory, comes to County Galway next week for performances in Loughrea and Gort, on May 18 and 19.
In this engaging one woman play, Lady Gregory speaks frankly about her extraordinary life: her love affairs, her family, and her friends. The play is written and directed by Sam McCready with his wife Joan in the role of Lady Gregory.
The McCreadys have had a lifetime’s involvement with theatre; they were co-founders of Belfast’s Lyric Theatre in the 1950s and each of them subsequently served terms as the theatre’s artistic director. They have also worked extensively in the USA, where Coole Lady was first staged in 2005. Since then it has been performed widely in the US, Britain, and Ireland to great acclaim.
This will be the play’s first time to be staged in Lady Gregory’s native Galway and its visit is being hosted by the Lady Gregory and Yeats Heritage Trail Group. The group was formed last September with the aim of linking sites associated with Lady Gregory and Yeats between Gort and Loughrea in a heritage trail.
“The play is drawn mainly from Lady Gregory’s journals and letters,” reveals Sam McCready over an afternoon phone call. “It’s taken from the perspective of Lady Gregory in old age, on her own in Coole Park, and reflecting on her life; her youth growing up in Roxborough, her marriage to Sir William Gregory, and her involvement with the Irish renaissance, with the Abbey, and her own writing.
“In the background you have the Rising and the Civil War and Yeats is a very important presence. It’s a very personal account of her life taking in both the successes and the tragedies such as the loss of her son Robert in the First World War. It’s very moving as she tells her story, it’s also funny and entertaining.”
How did Lady Gregory reflect on her eventful life in old age?
“She was sad because Coole had been sold from under her by her daughter-in-law, but she was still very proud of what she had done for Ireland and her own achievements as a writer and as a patron of the arts,” McCready replies.
“She was a very strong woman. She was also very proud of the relationship she had with the people of Gort and Loughrea. Despite being a member of the Anglo-Irish Ascendancy she felt very much part of the community and she loved that community.
“When we meet her in the play she is on her own, her son has died, she is the end of the line so her story traces the archetypal Anglo-Irish Ascendancy tale of that class’s demise in the early decades of the 20th century.”
Lady Gregory was 35 years younger than her husband Sir William Gregory. McCready offers his thoughts on their marriage.
“I don’t think it was a love match,” her says. “I think it was a marriage of advantage for her as a young woman. She tells us in the play that she was regarded as the runt of the family, her sisters were more attractive and seemed likelier to find good husbands so she saw an opportunity in William Gregory, who was a widower, and he likewise saw an opportunity to have a young bride by his side in London society. It was advantageous for both of them.
“She did respect him and was committed to him but she does talk about the relationship she had with the poet Wilfred Scawen Blunt, an attractive man who seduced almost every woman he encountered and he seduced her while she was still married to Sir William.
“It was the only time that happened while she was married but she describes it as ‘a moment’s glimpse of paradise’ which tells me that while her marriage gave her great security and a child it did not give her all the satisfaction she would have wanted as a young woman.”
The main facts of Lady Gregory’s life are well known so does the play bring a fresh perspective to the story?
“I think it does and I’d say that’s very much due to Joan’s performance as Lady Gregory,” McCready asserts. “She brings a very human dimension to the performance so even though the major biographical details are there they are informed with a sensibility and quality of feeling which gives them a freshness that audiences all over the world have found tremendously appealing.
“Even audiences that are already very knowledgeable about Lady Gregory have been very engaged and moved by her story. Because it’s seen from her point of view rather than that of a biographer, the familiar becomes unfamiliar.”
Joan McCready offers her thoughts on playing Lady Gregory.
“I enjoy it more and more each time I do it, I feel very close to her indeed,” she says. “She’s such an amazing woman in every respect. She was a woman in what was still a man’s world and she shows such strength of character and such wonderfully human failings of character which makes her a wonderful character to play onstage. I’m looking forward enormously to sharing her with the people that she mingled with most of her life.”
McCready reveals her portrayal of Lady Gregory is partly inspired by her knowledge of Lyric Theatre co-founder Mary O’Malley, a similarly dynamic and charismatic woman.
“We had a long, long, association with Mary O’Malley, and that very fact that she was very similar in many ways to Lady Gregory is part of what I base the character on,” she says. “There have been several strong women that I have encountered in my life that had those kinds of traits that Lady Gregory had and Mary was indeed one of those.”
Coole Lady will be performed at Loughrea Library at 8pm on Friday May 18 and at the Lady Gregory Hotel Gort on Saturday 19 at 8pm. Tickets are €10 (which includes a cheese and wine reception ) and are available for the Loughrea showing at Beatty’s Jewellers, Main Street. For the Gort showing tickets are on sale from the School Book Shop, Georges Street.
Sam McCready will be signing copies of his book Coole Lady at News and Choose in Loughrea at 12 noon on Saturday 19.
All proceeds will go to the development a local heritage trail website.