This year’s Dublin Theatre Festival has already had some notable talking points, from re-imagined classics with Hamlet as a muddy Hamletmachine in the Bord Gais Energy Theatre courtesy of the visiting Schaubühne production to Corn Exchange’s adaptation of a recent novel, Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing.
Druid’s production of the new Tom Murphy play Brigit comes to Dublin fresh from its world-premiere in Galway this September. As in Galway, Brigit is offered as a companion piece to Murphy’s earlier work, Bailegangaire (1985). Audiences can take in both plays, or see them individually, thus allowing for very different theatrical experiences.
Murphy’s theatre has often been characterized as elusive, but here it seems whimsical. Set 30 years prior to the action of Bailegangaire, Brigit is a domestic drama, focusing on the household of Mommo and Seamus, who care for their three orphaned grandchildren (nicely played by Lily McBride, Aibhen Birkett and Colm Coneely). The Catholic church is a looming presence over the homestead, a fact starkly conveyed through clever use of split-staging in Frances O’Connor’s set.
Seamus is a quiet, enigmatic man, who seeks to keep distance between himself and the church. But he receives a commission to sculpt a statue of Saint Brigid. As he works with bog oak – “older than Brigit herself” and a thing “precious to the Druids” – the various meanings of the Saint/pre-Christian Goddess begin to unfold, as does Seamus’ sculpture in a deft use of stage props. Yet the play’s primary conceit is thin. Its allegory is also thinly veiled. Brigit becomes a totem. Seamus and Mommo venerate Brigit rather than the Saint Brigid of Catholic iconography and of institutionalized religion. To them, she is pre-Christian Goddess first; she belongs to the “imbolg”, the Gaelic festival marking the beginning of Spring and associated with fertility.
In the moments where Mommo launches into reveries on Brigit, detailing such pre-Christian meanings, Marie Mullen is especially impressive. Here we gain a sense of the Mommo of Bailegangaire and her capacity for story-telling. But the production strikes some awkward notes as it ekes laughs out of Murphy’s script. The Parish Priest (Marty Rea) and Reverend Mother (Jane Brennan) are one-dimensional, their dialogue uncomfortably close to stage Irishisms. The Priest owes Seamus for previous work undertaken but refuses to pay up fully.
He shares with the local artisan his pet names for the Bishop (“tight-arse”) and the Mother (“tight hole”). In this schoolyard humour, we sense the money-power nexus of the Catholic church. As Reverend Mother drives a hard bargain for the new statue that will adorn the church, we also sense its hypocrisy.
Druid’s director Gary Hynes has been lauded for her capacity to allow contemporary issues to refract through the historical contexts of Murphy’s plays. Brigit is billed as a new play, which Murphy brought to the company in 2013 having originally conceived as a script for television. Murphy has referred to the play as “an evolution”, perhaps alluding, first and foremost, to its connection to Bailegangaire. This sense of evolution and the return to familiar characters begs several questions about the dramatic process. Is it the case that the issues explored back in 1985 require re-iteration? Or, does the playwright no longer have anything new to say?
In Brigit, Murphy seems concerned not just with the institutional power of the Catholic church but also with its function as superego in Irish society. “You’ll never beat the Irish … Church”, remarks Seamus bitterly. The problem with Brigit is that its affective intensities have been outstripped by real life events. Passing references to the laundries, to unwanted pregnancies, to Brigit’s patronage of babies, strike a cord. The revelations, earlier this year, that 800 babies had been buried outside a home run by nuns in Tuam, their “fallen” mothers forced to work in laundries, ghosts the play and its intermittent stories of Brigit’s patronage of Ireland’s most vulnerable. As extended panegyric to Brigit, Murphy’s play has the potential to create in its eponymous female figure a salve for all those women wronged by the Catholic church and the complicit Irish state. But as allegory and as theatre, it falls short and in the face of the raw reality of all those infant deaths near convents, it’s insignificant.