ANYONE WHO has not yet booked a ticket for The Dead School, directed by Andrew Flynn and featuring a 23-strong cast drawn from Galway Youth Theatre and Galway Community Theatre, should remedy that post haste – this is one of the best shows in the Galway International Festival.
Pat McCabe’s 1995 novel was first done on stage by Macnas at the 1998 Galway Arts Festival and later re-worked for a 2008 production by Livin’ Dred. Flynn has taken McCabe’s script, written for a cast of five, and fleshed it out with material from the novel enabling him to make full use of his much larger ensemble.
The play’s two main protagonists are teachers Raphael Bell and Malachy Dudgeon. Raphael is a product of the War of Independence and is completely in thrall to the patriotic shibboleths of Mother Ireland and Mother Church. Malachy is a child of the sixties, and a pot-smoking enthusiast for the times that are a-changing. The resultant clash between old and new generates plenty of friction but Raphael and Malachy also have much in common. Both have been scarred by childhood trauma and are casebook specimens of the psychically afflicted Irish male, a figure that animates plays from Murphy to McPherson.
Throughout, both men, unable to cope with the world around them, steadily unravel. Like true Irishwomen, Raphael’s wife Nessa and Malachy’s girlfriend Marion, stoically put up with their increasingly intolerable behaviour, until they can put up with it no longer. Flynn’s production also posits a surrogate father/son relationship between Raphael and Malachy, which provides the production with a redemptive note at the finale.
The play is realised with terrific brio and inventiveness. Large-cast shows often feature spacious set designs but the action here unfolds in what is essentially the living room and kitchen area of a two-up, two-down divided by a large proscenium arch. A discreetly placed school desk and blackboard suffice to establish those scenes set in the school. As each scene unfolds and the chorus is called upon, actors materialise from stairways, scullery doors, and around corners to suddenly fill the stage.
McCabe’s work revels in pop-culture references and the play gets great mileage out of nods to Midnight Cowboy, and brilliantly deploys an array of music from John McCormack to Van Morrison and Roberta Flack (major kudos due to Carl Kennedy’s sound design ).
Gerard Howard as Raphael and Jarlath Tivnan as Malachy are excellent throughout in the two principal roles, and under Flynn’s sure-handed and imaginative direction the entire ensemble performs admirably, ensuring The Dead School is a play to relish.
The Dead School runs up to and including Saturday July 26 at the Nuns Island Theatre. For tickets see www.giaf.ie