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Stones in his pockets

Wed Nov 23, 2005 Miss Vicky 

I'm starting to think my theatrical standards may be a little high. I don't want to be the kind of critic that trashes every production she sees. Really, I don't. But it is becoming increasingly clear to me that my hyper-developed literary likes and disliskes prevent me from enjoying a night at the theatre. I bring my near-PhD baggage with me, not to mention my years in community theatre, every time I go. And other baggage, too.

Let's review, shall we? Back in September we went to see Relative Good, a play based not-too-loosely on the Arar case. Because I have worked with Maher and Monia and am more than a little familiar with and interested in the case, my experience of that play was filtered through a very specific and very personal lens. Likewise, my knee-jerk reaction to capital-C Canlit kicked in while watching No Great Mischief in October.

November's GCTC production, Stones in his Pockets, was similarly disadvantaged from the get-go. It's an Irish play about a Hollywood production's descent upon a small town in County Kerry. The script is challenging - there are multiple characters, but only two actors who switch between identities with remarkable speed. Now, the play casts a critical eye on the Hollywood definition of what is "Irish" and its disconnect from the reality of the country and its culture. This carries with it a considerable risk for a Canadian production featuring Canadian actors - can they avoid adopting Stage Irish caricatures the play attempts to condemn?

By now you're wondering what this has to do with Miss Vicky and her literary prejudices. I'll come clean - I spent a year in Ireland while I did my MA in Irish Literature at the University College Dublin, am a longtime member of the Canadian Association of Irish Literature and have a keen interest in Ireland's literary and cultural history. My passionate affection for Irish literature is matched by an equally-passionate discomfort with "Oirish" lit - that is, the stuff that uncritically plays up the stereotypes and caricatures. You know, the rain, the thatched cottages/urban slums (depending on the period of the piece), the Guinness-swilling characters hardened by poverty but aways retaining the twinkle in their eye and their comic sensibility.... There is a tension in a lot of contemporary Irish works between resisting stereotypes and adopting them. Some works do it successfully; others are just annoying. And of course, some are not Irish at all but captialize on the sentimentality of emigrants and their descendants by exploiting every stereotype imaginable (Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes comes to mind).

Stones in his Pockets is a fairly light play, a comedy with tragic undertones. It is fast-paced, mostly because of the stripped-down nature of the script, staging and performance. It's a play that depends heavily on the skill of the two actors involved and the commitment of the director to keep the transitions between characters, conversations and locations as precise and seamless as possible. A North American production has a particular challenge in that the actors' command of the accents involved need to be flawless. Ideally, they'd need to be familiar with regional dialects as well, as different characters come from different regions (Kerry, the North, and Dublin in particular). This requires a considerable amount of preparation, research, rehearsal and skill.

I was a little worried about the GCTC's production when I opened the program, and read the Director's opening commentary. His was simple - a piece of poetry by Padraic Colum. Now, Padraic Colum was an Irish writer involved in the Irish Literary Renaissance and the early days of the Abbey Theatre. His work tends to revolve around idealized portrayal of peasant life - exactly the kind of stuff that led to the sentimental Hollywood pap like "The Quiet Valley", the film being produced in this play. Is he being intentionally ironic? It's hard to tell. I hope so, but I have a sneaking suspicion this is not the case. Me, I would have picked Paul Durcan. Maybe I'll dig up a poem or two later to show you what I mean.

Fortunately, the subtleties do come out in the performance - perhaps not a strongly as I would like, but they are there. This was the first preview show, though, and while they did a pretty good job I think another week of rehearsal would help the two excellent actors work out the kinks a bit - give them an opportunity to really polish their accents, their timing and the transitions between the various characters they have to play. If you haven't got tickets already, I'd recommend going later in the run, as I really think a bit of time is needed before the production hits its stride. It will come, though. And it will be good.

Some people were moved to reply

Dr.Dawg Nov 27, 2005 10:26 AM said:

"Malachi Stilt-Jack am I, whatever I learned has run wild." And you? :)

Miss Vicky Nov 27, 2005 09:32 PM said:

I'll see your Yeats, Dr. Dawg, and raise you:

The doctor said to me: Your father needs a new head.
So I said to the doctor: You can give him my head.

My days were numbered - broken marriage, cancer,
False teeth, bad dreams - so 'Yes' was his answer.

Now I lie in bed wondering away in my head
What will my father look like with his new head?

Will he look like a bull with the head of a daffodil
Or like a nonogenarian pontiff with the head of a harlot?

Or like a heavyweight weightlifter with the head of a fox
Or like a withered, agèd tree with the sun on its branches?

My dreams and memories will percolate down his legs and arms;
My ideas will seep down his spine like the roots of a tree.

And my eyes will swivel in obeisance to their new rotator.
His friends will say: 'Quite remarkable the change in Old Harry --

His new head seems to be doing him the world of good.
Jolly lucky that blackguard son of his snuffed it when he did'.

And I, when I'm dead, will walk alone in the graveyard,
A ghost with no head, an authentic hobgoblin.

A truly real Irishman, a giolla gan ceann.

(Paul Durcan, "The Head Transplant"

[Edited By Miss Vicky Nov 27, 2005 09:33 PM]

Dr.Dawg Nov 27, 2005 10:04 PM said:

Well, here's a poet I love (did a fair translation of Beowulf, too):

We have no prairies
To slice a big sun at evening--
Everywhere the eye concedes to
Encrouching horizon,

Is wooed into the cyclops' eye
Of a tarn. Our unfenced country
Is bog that keeps crusting
Between the sights of the sun.

They've taken the skeleton
Of the Great Irish Elk
Out of the peat, set it up
An astounding crate full of air.

Butter sunk under
More than a hundred years
Was recovered salty and white.
The ground itself is kind, black butter

Melting and opening underfoot,
Missing its last definition
By millions of years.
They'll never dig coal here,

Only the waterlogged trunks
Of great firs, soft as pulp.
Our pioneers keep striking
Inwards and downwards,

Every layer they strip
Seems camped on before.
The bogholes might be Atlantic seepage.
The wet centre is bottomless.

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