A notorious novel, banned, burned and decried by authorities of church and state when it first appeared in 1960. The first published novel of an Irish woman writer and mother based in London who had already faced scandal following her marriage to an older man, Czech-Irish émigré, Ernest Gébler. A short but powerful tale of the love-dreams and adventures of two country girls from the west of Ireland whose ‘coveted convent education’ quickly confronts them with the social and cultural forces that will continue to stymie their desires for love and the ‘big, deep, enchanted things’ that can be voiced within the embrace of that love.
The story of Edna O’Brien’s The Country Girls – both on and off the page – is intensely familiar, painfully redolent of its moment, and long- cherished by readers in Ireland and far beyond, making it perhaps the definitive Irish coming-of-age novel. But a dramatization of that novel over fifty years later is a stranger beast, caught between tribute or nostalgia and tweeness or even irrelevance. What does a dramatization of The Country Girls offer that the novel doesn’t? What insights can it offer audiences today? Presented though it is by the talented director Mikel Murfi and adapted for the stage by O’Brien herself, these are fundamental questions that this production struggles to answer. And as such, I think it even risks trivializing the far-reaching oppressions of the institutions that O’Brien’s novel first so rightly indicted.
They are questions, however, that set designer Ben Hennessy squarely confronts, and we find ourselves predominantly in nostalgic mode, though with some surprising effects at certain moments. The set varies little across both Acts, with lighting design and some benches and spare stepped structures serving a range of purposes. (In this, the design sidesteps the frequent and quite specific stage directions O’Brien gives, apparently unwilling to relinquish the specific period details of the novel even in full symbolic mode.) Most striking are a group of objects, floating aloft, by which innocent Kate and daring Baba’s journey from girlhood are symbolized. An oversized statue of the Virgin Mary dominates, predictably, but also allows for a powerful visual tableau of demented aspiration early on in the play when a nun punishes Kate (Holly Browne, whose increasingly wild blond curls alone register her maturation) by ordering her to stand for hours in front of it. A picket fence jars, but a fortune-teller’s notice and child’s chair nicely symbolize the girls’ dreams and their cultural limits. But this kind of nostalgia leaves the audience untouched, even smug and secure watching the pretty ridiculousness of the authority figures onstage: fathers, nuns, priests, the well-named Mr Gentleman. And that, to me, seems a betrayal of the novel’s own achievement, and of its antecedents, Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man notable among them.
In the play-text, further problems arise. The plot remains faithful to the novel, but is rendered episodically, even stiltedly, and speeds along like a driver ignoring the gear-box. The difficulty is not just one of pace but of style: the dialogue and movement swing back and forth between the symbolic and the realistic, and the habit of overwrought delivery in fervid schoolgirl declarations (contrasting with the excessively stylized, even stereotyped delivery of Mr Gentleman and Joanna, for example) grates. All of this hampers the kind of emotional connections with the girls for which the novel was rightly praised. Having said that, Baba, more strident than mercurial in Caoimhe O’Malley’s performance, somehow becomes a more likeable figure than in the novel, maybe because she shows a consistency not evident in other aspects of the production. And perhaps it is in showing the enduring necessity of sexual pragmatists such as Baba that the novel speaks to its new audiences as a play. But until it finds a stronger rationale for what the novel does today as a play, it remains (for this reviewer at least) little more than a curiosity-piece.