In tales of old, disturbing a hawthorn tree in Ireland often meant provoking dangerous magical creatures. Jane Talbot’s collection of stories The Faerie Thorn, adapted by Big Telly Theatre, refreshingly sets such ancient havoc in a contemporary landscape. With scenes in discos and hospital surgeries, the hold of mythology over people’s fears has clearly endured after all these years. As a narrator warns: “It’s very easy to upset the little people” (and they’re not talking about adorable leprechauns).
It begins with a farmer and his wife (a stoic Seamus O’Hara and a gleaming Colette Lennon) sitting nervously as a ballad plays on the radio. They eventually relax into a waltz on the kitchen floor. When it becomes clear that she cannot bear a child, he visits a hawthorn tree and asks the faeries to take her away, setting into motion a bizarre kind of revenge tragedy.
Director Zoë Seaton’s adaptation, written with Shelley Atkinson, finds quite vigorous displays for Talbot’s prose. The switch between narration and dialogue is underpinned by an arch physicality that, in moments, is grotesque. When the farmer slowly weaves through a dance floor in search of a second wife, designer Garth McConaghie’s sound blends music with farmyard noises, making it disturbingly clear that the man is looking less for a companion than he is for an animal to give him an heir.
When it all backfires, Seaton’s visual effects (with a faerie underworld literally peeping under the boards of Maree Kearns’s set) become intensely dark. One character gets skinned. Another’s miscarriages are represented by throws of a football. Malevolent mechanical movements recall classic horror films like The Exorcist, an appropriate genre considering that if fairy tales are to remind us of the consequences of immoral actions, then in Ireland the punishment is extreme.
Elsewhere, a fresh take on the changeling, a kind of faerie interloper, takes the guise of two parents (the sly combo of Rory Corcoran and Shelley Atkinson) dealing with their moody child. Talbot, like Artemis Fowl author Eoin Colfer, finds fun in letting these stories loose on more familiar territories. Nowhere else will you find an Irish troll make a Nigella Lawson reference.
Similarly, Seaton’s production seems to strive for the self-awareness of contemporary theatre, resulting in a confusing use of microphones and direct address to the stage manager and technicians. These unexplained gestures and devices, along with the constant in-and-out of props and masks, starts to put the production under strain.
There are moments, though, where the faerie world is less mysterious, more intimate. After a Merrow (an Irish merman) heals a townspeople of their ailments, they gather at the end to put him to rest. A girl once deaf (a nicely-judged Nicky Harley) sings a moving melody while holding the faerie’s mask. What a thin veil it is, between this world and another.
The Faerie Thorn is at Smock Alley Theatre until May 6th, and on tour until June 8th. For more details, click here.