ONE OF the very best shows at last year’s Galway International Arts Festival was Andrew Flynn’s brilliant large-cast staging of Pat McCabe’s The Dead School. The production was presented by the combined talents of Galway Youth Theatre and Galway Community Theatre, and Flynn has now re-assembled the same cast for a revival by Decadent Theatre Company at the Town Hall Theatre.
Pat McCabe’s 1995 novel was first done on stage by Macnas at the 1998 Galway Arts Festival and he later re-worked it 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 headmaster Raphael Bell and young teacher Malachy Dudgeon. Raphael is a product of the War of Independence era 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, over the course of the play, the two men, unable to cope with the world around them, steadily go to pieces.
Flynn handles his large cast with great brio and inventiveness and there are terrific performances in the lead roles from Gerard Howard as Raphael and Jarlath Tivnan as Malachy. Carl Kennedy’s sound design also merits applause as it brilliantly deploys an array of music from John McCormack to Van Morrison to Roberta Flack, to the Midnight Cowboy soundtrack.
Prior to becoming established as a writer, Pat McCabe was himself a teacher, at St Michael’s Boys’ National School in Longford, and later in London. Those experiences provided the seeds of The Dead School, though he downplays the notion that the book/play mirrors the school-world he encountered, or that he endured similar torments to Malachy. “It wasn’t that close,” he says of The Dead School’s gap between art and life “A lot of the story would have been blended and changed, partly to obscure names and that, but I did draw on it allright. I enjoyed my time as a teacher, I was a young man at the time so I suppose I enjoyed it as much as anyone did.”
The first staging of The Dead School bore the distinctive stamp of Macnas, with Mick Lally memorable as Raphael Bell. That production was directed by Joe O’Byrne who had previously directed Frank Pig Says Hello, the acclaimed stage version of The Butcher Boy. When McCabe revisited The Dead School in 1998 for Livin’ Dred, in a production directed by Padraic McIntyre, he rewrote the play for five, and it is this script which forms the basis of Decadent Theatre Company’s staging.
“The first version was very much a Macnas-style production, directed by Joe O’Byrne from Co-Motion Theatre,” McCabe states. “He had a huge input into that first one. The difference with the Livin’ Dred staging would be that in the second one the younger man, Malachy, his role is fleshed out more which makes it more evenly balanced you could say.”
It transpires that the ‘fleshing out’ of the role of Malachy arose from McCabe’s first meeting with Andrew Flynn so it is all the more fitting that Flynn should now be directing the play himself. He has now directed several McCabe productions and the duo enjoy a good working relationship.
“The first time Andrew and I met was after the first production of The Dead School in 1998,” McCabe recalls. “He actually said about the character of Malachy that he thought it was a bit under-written. I didn’t think much about it at the time but when I came back to it a few years later I thought he was right and when I re-wrote it – not specifically for Andrew - I took that on board. Later, Andrew did Frank Pig Says Hello and, in 2013, Shay Mouse which was a big hit at the Galway International Arts Festival. I enjoy working with him, it’s a privilege to work with him really.”
In last year’s production Flynn somehow managed to fit his ‘cast of thousands’ into the compact space of Nuns Island Theatre. Doubtless he and his actors will be relishing the more spacious area of the Town Hall stage for this latest outing. McCabe was delighted with what director and actor achieved with his play. “I thought it was magnificent I have to say,” he declares. “Especially with the numbers of actors involved as well, it is a very bold, imaginative, staging of it. It was a striking production.”
For all the mutual loathing between Raphael and Malachy, Flynn’s production also posits a surrogate father/son relationship between them which provides his production with a moving and redemptive note at the finale. “That is in the original script,” McCabe notes. “There is the suggestion that the Ireland of the 1930s is the parent of the Ireland of the 1960s and they’re as well to reach some kind of accommodation with each other, it’s like history repeating itself.”
This year will also see new work from Pat McCabe as he is writing a site-specific show, provisionally titled Sacrifice, for Corcadorca at Cork’s Elizabeth Fort in June, as part of the city’s Midsummer Festival.
First up however is Decadent’s superb adaptation of The Dead School which is sure to delight Galway audiences prior to embarking on its national tour. It runs at the Town Hall Theatre from Monday February 22 to Saturday 27 at 8pm. There are three preview performances on Thursday 18, Friday 19, and Saturday 20. Tickets are available from the Town Hall on 091 - 569777 or www.tht.ie