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Yeats at Ballylee

Adrian Paterson writes: A riverside procession led by pied-piper musicians; damp stone and peat fire; a white cloth unbound in darkness; silence on the winding stair; and then, something happens: a young lover presses through bodies; a laughing creature leaps with wicker arm; a woman kneels before the hearth; a figure ghosts through a doorway. Climbing higher through whirling dancers, a vertiginous fiddle is answered by jackdaws; sudden sunshine burns gold a silver mask; a bat flies through a barred window and motes of thrown dust catch the setting sun. None of these are things one associates with your average theatre production. But all became part of the drama as WB Yeats’s play The Only Jealousy of Emer came home to his stone tower house at Thoor Ballylee, Co Galway.

Ezra Pound proposed that criticism, like poetry, should progress by “luminous details”. It is the only way to describe a performance which progressed in much the same way in a unique site-specific production by the Galway-based DancePlayers these luminous details lit up a darkening evening. The action of the play was often interrupted, whether by chance or design, as each of these moments thrust themselves on the attention: birds and bats and beasts and even crying babies, the appearance of players out of the shadows, the audience’s movement from one space to another. Perhaps with more time to prepare in the space, the provision of linking movement or passages of music to bridge some of these halts in the drama might be found. Gathering an audience to climb the stairs was ponderous – but also momentous, a held breath. And the occasional breaking of the dramatic frame only increased the intimacy of the playing. Alongside the river, the ritualised movement was calming, a momentary rest of the attention as Yeats once demanded; as the play wound up the winding stairs to the top of the Hiberno-Norman tower so too was wound up the tension. In a conventional theatre the presence of audience members and their coughing and shuffling, their rustling of sweets or the wailing of their mobile phones can drive playgoers and players to distraction. In a fourteenth century stone tower exposed to the elements and the accidents of history, that bodies should move and babies cry and birds squawk seems only natural – especially as the young crows’ cries grew in desperate competition with music. Noises off only added to the astonishing serendipities of live performance to increase the attention to the moment. This was an immediate, immersive, surround-sound, genuinely all-sense synaesthetic experience. In other words it was what theatre so rarely achieves.

It is, all the same, what Yeats’s later plays demand. Rarely read and barely performed, they are mostly forgotten by theatre companies – despite considerable virtues of portability, adaptability and cheapness. Revivifying both Irish mythology and poetic drama was a task Yeats had set himself with the foundation of a modern Irish theatre. At the Abbey, outside his and Lady Gregory’s Cathleen ni Houlihan, audiences were not so keen. His Four Plays for Dancers were meant for a smaller stage, attempting to harness the principles if not all the practices of the Japanese Noh theatre. As one of these eastern dance-plays, The Only Jealousy of Emer is unusual, but DancePlayers’ transposing of the east onto the west had precedent. The Dreaming of the Bones for instance, is a post-Easter 1916 drama set in the Burren at Corcomroe Abbey, telling the story of the Norman invasion as the ghosts of Dermot and Devorgilla conduct an escaped rebel through the landscape. If this showed that the West of Ireland might provide a fitting setting for Noh, actually performing the The Only Jealousy of Emer at Thoor Ballylee showed that stagings there might have unique bearing on our understanding of these plays, of Irish drama more generally, and even of past and contemporary history.

These plays do need a bold but sensitive hand to make sense of them. In The Only Jealousy of Emer time and sound dictate the whole. Rhythm is the play’s engine, locally on the level of the verse-line, but also in the wider dynamics and contours of the dramaturgy. This requires movement beyond the stage directions and unusual attention to sonic inflections. It also requires all the arts in tandem. From detailed research, improvisation and dramaturgical flexibility, featuring a remarkable combination of masks, costumes, live music, dance, design, as well as newly imagined acting, speaking, and movement, a distilled Gesamtkunstwerk was created from a difficult dance-drama. This was not a slavish reproduction of earlier drama for an ancient space, but a contemporary production of what was revealed as an unmistakeably modernist play.

Such a performance did not come from nothing. As originally premiered at the O’Donoghue theatre at NUI Galway in the 2018 Galway Theatre Festival, it was obvious that a process of collaborative rehearsal under the command of scholar and director Melinda Szuts was at the root of this piece of total theatre. The players were involved enough to help mould their own masks, designed and finished by Ronan Quigley; and these masks’ character coloured their bodily expression in gestures and carriage, as well as the cadences and acoustics of their varied but powerful verse-speaking. In a black box space the cloth lain over the Irish hero Cuchulain briefly wafted over the audience, and, taken and danced with by Fand (Orlaith Ni Chearra), the mysterious woman of the sidhe, as an otherwordly erotic partner, received full play as theatrical element and as symbol. In the confinement of the tower however the cloth gave way to intensely proximate physical presence, as powerful choreography by Jeremie Cyr-Cooke pressed directly on the senses.

Rarely is a chorus or group of musicians made part of the action. Rarer still does the music itself become a player in the drama. Yet this music by the London-based Hungarian composer Akos Lustyik became a vital partner to the play. The use of open fifths and fourths hinted at folk-influences coming as much from Eastern Europe as from over the border in Co Clare; while the combination of cello, a heroically portable Irish harp, and virtuoso solo violin with high harmonics mirrored the eclectic chamber groupings and stranger tonalities of Béla Bartók and other modernists. At Thoor Ballylee the chorus’s ability to move, sing, and play was used as riverside prologue to draw in the listener, and provide an oblique commentary on the action. As insistent rhythms came together and drifted apart, it was evident the musicians were given freedom as well as detailed instruction, and their attentiveness to each other at moments of concentration and improvisation was of a piece with the attention to audition and self-reflection of the whole production. Seeing more than one performance made it apparent that a similar combination of precise dirigiste direction and collective artistic freedoms resulted in a series of rich, vital and unusually flexible performances, each subtly different. On stage this produced something like a flowing tapestry, beautifully woven; in the tower what transpired was more like a series of choreographed movie scenes curated by a precocious director, precise cinematography individually varied by the position of each audience member as the players and watchers moved in tandem, each fixed forever on the retina and auditory memory. Modernist play it may have been, but this was alive, communicative, vital. Concealed in niches around the stone structure the revelation of the exceptional instrumental players (led by violinist Gergely Kuklis) and their exploitation of the echoing, multiplying acoustic effects of stone chambers gave them the ability to spook the living and, it seemed, to raise the dead.

Making the dead live again is of course what plays are for. There’s an argument that the play simply emerged out of WB Yeats’s troubled biography. The three women figures can be seen to represent versions of the women in his life around the time of its composition: the ever-present Maud Gonne, forever refusing his offers of marriage, her daughter Iseult, to whom Yeats had developed a strong attraction, and his new wife, George. With discrepancies in age and temperament evident critics aren’t quite agreed on this: Fand’s fanatical hold over the protagonist suggests the image of a rather more youthful Gonne, while Emer’s authority and wifely status is clear but she is aging, unlike the young George. The main difficulty with this reading of the play is that Yeats’s chronic romantic indecision is thereby turned into the wet-dream of a drama where three women are fighting over one man. Maybe there is some truth in this. Yet the play’s origins and politics and are more interesting than that.

For one thing Yeats’s play enacts a remarkable concentration out of a wealth of material involving powerful women. The title and matter of The Only Jealousy of Emer is borrowed from Augusta Gregory and her translations of Irish sagas, fervently admired by Yeats in a glowing preface that drew Buck Mulligan’s mockery in James Joyce’s Ulysses. There he opines that it is “proud” Emer “who will linger longest in the memory”: “what a pure flame burns in her always, whether she is the newly married wife fighting for precedence, fierce as some beautiful bird, the confident housewife […] or the great queen”. The book rehearses the situation and imagery of the play, which dramatises Emer’s permanent renunciation of Cuchulain’s love in order to save him from the clutches of the malevolent sidhe. What might have been was unhappily demonstrated by the adaptation of Gregory’s sometime lover Wilfred Scawen Blunt in a turgid three-act play for the Abbey in 1907, its title, Fand, the only thing about it not long-winded. By contrast Yeats’s adoption of the one-act form of the Noh forced a dramatic compression of character and concision of action, cutting to the quick through a swathe of ancillary characters and motivations. The Noh provided a precedent for plays about jealousy; in Aoino-ue a paralysed lover is represented simply by a folded kimono, neatly echoed in the cloth used in Yeats’s drama. The Only Jealousy of Emer’s economy with its sources leaves three women standing. Holding the chief parts, these three women are in charge, and the focus is on tensions between them, and beyond them.

The play opens with the lines “A woman’s beauty is like a white / Frail bird”, as if to acknowledge the passing nature of all beautiful things. But in this production at least the play is not about woman’s frailty but her strength. Throughout the play the body of that great Irish hero Cuchulain lies prone, his legendary fighting ability of no use to him. His soul is fought over, yes; but it is he who is frail, vulnerable, perhaps dying. Cuchulain’s impotence is total; it is women that give him life and restore him to his body. And, we are to understand, he remains prone even as ghosts rise up from his body to mock or impersonate him. The trickster Bricriu (played with mischievous energy by Oisin Porter) comes forth but symbolically his arm is withered, in this production encased in a wicker splint that echoes Cuchulain’s elevated bier. Bricriu has to engage and then implore Emer’s help, just as she had Cuchulain’s lover Eithne Inguba (a wonderfully writhing Orla Tubridy). Men in the play can suggest but not act: it is the women who do and who can command.

Fitting then that Catherine Denning’s powerful representation of the “great queen” Emer was centre-stage, and her self-respect and self-denial the central drama. Individually each woman is by no means omnipotent, all the same. The youthful Eithne Inguba only appears to be under the command of Emer, who is challenged more potently by the arrival of Fand, the siren woman of the sidhe. When the great Ninette de Valois, founder of Sadler’s Wells and the Royal Ballet Company, played the part Yeats rewrote the play so she would not have to speak and Fighting the Waves became all about movement and music. With de Valois as her teacher’s teacher, Orlaith Ní Chearra demonstrated comparable poise when it came to patterning sinuous movement as Fand leads the ghost of Cuchulain into wild whirling dance. At its erotic culmination, however, her power of speech returns. No longer spirit coalesced from the air, Fand dramatically declares, “I am all woman now”, taking entire possession of the space and nearly of Cuchulain too as she began to lay down with him.

This eruption of passion came as a shock in a place where, as the poet put it “for centuries / Rough men-at-arms, cross gartered to the knees / Or shod in iron, climbed the narrow stairs”. As a baleful relic of factional feuds and colonial imposition, the making of “violent and bitter men”, Thoor Ballylee forms an unmistakable emblem of male power. Ezra Pound couldn’t help but mock Yeats’s “phallic symbol on the bogs”, “Bally phallus or whatever he calls it, the river on the first floor”. Such towers were built to keep safe from attack the riches of the family – and in medieval times that included women, themselves a valuable property. To a place and period where women were possessions, came a play in which men are possessed.

Offstage could be overheard some contemporary resonances. Throughout Irish history it is the bodies of women that have been most contested. As it happened the previous day came a Yes vote in the referendum repealing the eighth amendment to the Irish constitution. The new potential for a limited legalisation of abortion suggested that the women of the Irish state were at the same time reclaiming some power over their bodies. I should be clear: there is no sense in which the tower expressed any view. The ventriloquism claimed by some in the campaign to speak for Ben Bulben by erecting a large “NO” sign on its foothills (yes, this really happened) caused considerable injury to the place’s ecology, mythology and the history of the Yeats family so closely associated with Sligo’s mountain. Still, the WB Yeats who as a senator fiercely opposed the removal by the new Irish Free State of the right to divorce did so explicitly as a nationalist and as a defender of minority (for which read Protestant, but also women’s) rights. The coincidence in timing made the repossession of a starkly male space an interesting moment. It is notable that Emer’s final renunciation of hope and love is not made by physical movement but by word, and her act is finally about the enduring power of her gender.

This was not the first time women had taken possession of the tower. By the climax of the play the audience had ascended to what is known as the stranger’s room, whose bare walls were open to the sky until the Yeats family arrived. Yeats had been obsessed by towers since an early unpublished poem, “Tower wind-beaten grim”, and with his purchase of the crumbling tower hoped for the creation of an unlikely West of Ireland artistic salon. It was however his wife, Georgie Hyde-Lees, later George Yeats, who made the tower a home. William Scott the architect, and a local builder, Michael Rafferty (whom Yeats insisted on calling Raftery after the poet), had important roles, as did the poet himself as overseer. But it was George who masterminded the creation of a living space. From the downstairs window of the tower she used to drop a line and catch a fish for dinner. It would be reductive to see George as some kind of domestic goddess: the attached cottage had a thatch which, the poet’s son Michael remembered, used to drop into their beds all manner of creatures, and floods occasionally disturbed their rest (thankfully the volunteer work of the Yeats Thoor Ballylee Society have again made it wonderfully congenial for visitors). Instead the tower was made a symbol of familial artistic collaboration. George’s wide reading and ability in automatic writing led to an astonishing development of the philosophy that underpins the later poetry and plays (expertly described by Margaret Mills Harper in The Wisdom of Two, OUP 2006). As a fitting sign, above the central hearth at Thoor Ballylee the blue and painted heavens she created made of the tower a magical omphalos. The stage business of The Only Jealousy of Emer requires Emer to attend to a fire – a simple domestic act but also a magical ritual to banish “all the enchantments of the dreaming foam”. That in the DancePlayers production she knelt at this same hearth made a telling tribute to George Yeats herself, just as the play is WB’s own unusual but unmistakeable tribute to the woman central to his life. We should be thankful that fires still burn at Thoor Ballylee.

31/8/2018