Reviews DublinNationalReviews Published 11 March 2016

Review: Granuaile: Pirate Queen at Axis Ballymun

Axis Ballymun ⋄ 8th - 16th March 2016

A spirited production that relishes in busting assumptions of female weakness.

Chris McCormack
Granuaile: Pirate Queen at Axis Ballymun.

Granuaile: Pirate Queen at Axis Ballymun.

Five hundred years ago, a young girl was told she couldn’t sail to sea. Grace O’Malley chopped off her long hair to prove a masculine mettle, and went on to pilot her father’s piracy trade as the legendary Granuaile (pronounced Gráinne-wale).

Theatre makers Gabrielle Breathnach and Veronica Coburn place emphasis on these gendered details in a new play about the pirate queen for young audiences, produced by the Axis Theatre in Dublin’s northern neighbourhood of Ballymun.

Excited children and adults are ushered through corridors lined with hessian, smuggling our expectations into a sixteenth century world of swords and ships. In fact, we’re met with contemporary figures: a storyteller named Gabrielle (Breathnach) and her investment banker brother Karl (Damien Devaney), an opportunist with business cards on hand for young members of the audience. To make sense of her artistic profession to her brother, who views it as trivial, Gabrielle evokes the story of Granuaile.

This vindication of the artist is staged in the round by director Veronica Coburn, who plays the action across a floor cloth of swirling sea-blue pastel designed by Kieran McNulty. Storytelling is assisted by props of finely hewn pigs and hounds, and sails with gorgeous charcoal illustrations of coastline-sites such as the monastic island Skellig Michael and Poolbeg lighthouse off Dublin.

Breathnach spells out the message quite frankly, that things are different for girls, and Devaney sensitively verifies an unequal reality as the patriarchal Karl. Young spectators are openly asked of their opinions on Granuaile’s arranged marriage as a teenager, and are reminded that her divorce was a liberation.

The spirited production relishes in busting assumptions of female weakness. Granuaile, in Breathnach’s vigour, connives her way to a seat at Lord Howth’s table in his castle in Dublin, fends off ship invaders with a sword in one hand and her newly-born baby in the other, and rescues the shipwrecked merchant Hugh de Lacy who would become her lover. Deavaney, highly energetic in a supporting role, helps provide context by playfully likening historical knights to contemporary characters including Iron Man and the Power Rangers.

However, covering the expanse of the pirate queen’s adventures can be rough sailing. Boys and girls seemed puzzled at trying to process the vast amount of historical information dealt to them, as the play leans, more often than not, from demonstrative to instructive action. Unfortunately, it lessens the impact.

Yet it’s admirable for this Axis production – a theatre leading with its community outreach effort – to encourage children to reassess gender assumptions. Granuaile is a fitting inspiration; she was no stranger to raising sails in stormy winds and troubled waters.

Granuaile: Pirate Queen is on at Axis Ballymun until 16th March 2016. Click here for tickets.


Chris McCormack is a contributor to Exeunt Magazine

Review: Granuaile: Pirate Queen at Axis Ballymun Show Info

Produced by Axis Ballymun

Directed by Veronica Coburn

Written by Gabrielle Breathnach and Veronica Coburn

Cast includes Gabrielle Breathnach, Damien Devaney



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