All the nation’s a stage as the curtain lifts on drama season

In his weekly column John Arnold looks at our love for amateur drama festivals
All the nation’s a stage as the curtain lifts on drama season

SO MUCH TO SEE: Amateur drama troupes will take to the stage in 38 drama festivals in the months ahead

I’VE been thinking a lot about drama recently. The major cock-up at the Oscar ceremony at the weekend reminded me of a similar — well, kind of similar — happening about 40 years ago.

The East Cork Macra Na Feirme Final of the One Act Drama competition was on in Castlelyons Hall. Drama in Macra Na Feirme was very strong at the time.

On this particular final night, there were at least five, maybe six teams competing for ultimate honours. We in Bartlemy thought we had a right chance of winning a competition that had evaded us. An ‘outside’ producer — from Watergrasshill — had been engaged to get the most from the cast. The same man, God rest him, had experience in Hollywood and on the Cork Opera House stage and also with the Choral Society in Fermoy.

I was just a supporter on the night but when the curtains came down on the various performances, I, along with other locals, was fairly confident. Then came the adjudication.

From his comments, we felt the learned adjudicator liked our production. As we awaited the results our sense of anticipation was heightened. The placings were announced in reverse order.

“In third place... Bartlemy.”

We were crestfallen. Before the winning play was called out, our producer was on his feet at the back of the hall and started a tirade of abuse about the adjudicator. He cast aspersions on his parentage, his lack of dramatic education, his political leanings and his inability to know the difference between a skit and pure theatre, which he claimed we had earlier performed on stage.

We were mortified but, unlike the Oscar ceremony the other night, there was no mistake and despite all his loud verbal protestations we still finished third!

The next few weeks will see amateur drama fans all over the country enjoying their pastime big-time as the Festival Circuit is underway. Amateur drama troupes from all over the country will take to the stage in 38 drama festivals up and down the country as they vie to qualify for the ‘Holy Grail’, the All Ireland Finals in Athlone in May.

With a short break from cow calving season last week, we were able to indulge a ‘three in a row’ of drama nights in Kilworth, Ballyduff and Tallow and, boy oh boy, did we see drama at it’s very best. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again — I will never cease to marvel at the skill, artistry and sheer genius of playwrights. I’ve written a few books, but as I’ve been told more than once ‘Any auld fool could write a book — and a lot of ‘em did’ and I can’t really disagree with that profound statement!

Plays are a different kettle of fish altogether. Having an idea or even a few thoughts about the basic content is simple enough, but fleshing out characters, and plots and sub-plots and dialogue and twists and turns... sure, I know I could never make a fist of it at all.

I love plays by Tom Murphy and John B.Keane though, sadly, Keane plays — once a circuit staple — are largely out of fashion at present.

There was time in the past when I equated enjoying a play with laughing a lot, but no more. I can be entertained and enjoy a play nowadays with more sadness than gaiety, more tears than laughter.

Some plays are so well known that their ‘message’ is well flagged, though a good producer can sometimes give a slant which brings new emotions from well spoken lines.

The dramatic triple-decker of recent days saw me enjoy a trio of plays I’d never seen before. Tommy Marren’s The Banshee Of Crokey Hill examines how old ways and so called ‘superstitions’ can weave a strange pattern of events over several decades. I often heard it said that the banshee follows families whose names have an ‘O’ or a ‘Mac’ in them. In the play we only hear about the stubborn, bitter father of Jack McMahon — ‘the McMahons never refused a dare’ we are told, and that’s why Jack’s father built a house near a fairy fort reputed to be the ‘dwelling-place’ of the banshee — he was dared to do it. The repercussions echo down the ages.

Kilworth Dramatic society are ‘going on the road’ in the Confined Section with this play. A loveless marriage is well acted out in the first half as a prodigal son returns. A hooley in the kitchen opens the second part. This seemingly joyous and upbeat scenario soon gives way to the darkest of dark happenings.

In the audience, we put two and two together but in no way anticipated the horrific and brutal ending. From tears of laughter to tears of despair under the superb direction of Mick Twomey.

I have seen Martin McDonagh’s plays The Lonesome West and The Beauty Queen Of Leenane but it was in Ballyduff in West Waterford last Sunday night that I first encountered The Cripple Of Innishmaan.

What is black comedy? Is it where one laughs but regrets such an activity when you see what comes next, or is it simply a funny play with an unsettling, serious undercurrent? I’m still not sure because The Cripple has everything one could expect in a dramatic production.

It is set in 1934 when the documentary film Man Of Arran was being made. I thought initially that McDonagh was half mocking Synge’s Playboy but soon realised there were many underlying themes. Johnnypateenmike is the purveyor of ‘news’ —an essential service on a remote island — and he reminded me of lady Gregory’s Bartley Fallon in Spreading The News.

Items of news are bartered for eggs and occasionally peas and if it’s an exceptional piece of news maybe a leg of mutton. Richie Walsh’s acting was a tour-de-force and I’ll be both surprised and disappointed if he doesn’t pick up several ‘Best Actor’ gongs on the Circuit.

It’s a brilliant play but the ending was a bit too much of ‘they all lived happily ever after’ for my liking. Then, that’s the way ’twas written.

Brian Friel was a prolific writer of short stories and plays. His Dancing At Lughnasa, Translations and Philadelphia Here I Come are better known than his Living Quarters, written in 1977. The Brideview Players in Tallow often tackle challenging productions and this Friel play is no different. You could call it ‘a play within a play’ though a ‘memory play’ is what it is generally termed. It reconstructs — and dissects — one single day when a middle-aged Irish army Commandant returns from UN duty to a hero’s welcome and an unfaithful young wife — he had married six years after his first wife died.

‘Sir’ sits front-stage as if directing the ‘play’, interrupting, starting and restarting the protagonists on stage. At times in the first half you’d have a good mind to tell him to ‘shut up’ and leave them get on with the story.

There is a profound darkness in the second half as the truth unfolds. The dialogue gets sparse as Friel gets across a lot of emotions through glances, silences and pauses. It builds to a powerful ending. We didn’t go home laughing but certainly entertained.

During March, we are lucky to have superb Festival offerings in Charleville, Kilmeen and Ballyduff. ‘Break a leg’ to all concerned.

Talking recently to Bill Gubbins, the veteran actor and father-figure of drama in this area, he recalled the early 1950s when the Keame Sports were going strong. “A huge annual sports meeting held near Keame crossroads” — between Fermoy and Midleton.

Bill recalled: ‘We were short of funds for the Sports so we decided to put on a play.” The play chosen was Cain Wasn’t Abel, about getting the Children’s Allowances. “We had no producer, director, hall, stage or costumes,” but that didn’t deter them!

The cast, including Bill, practised in a local house. The play was staged in Bartlemy School and at Ahern’s store in Top Cross, Lisgoold and other rural venues. “We enjoyed it mighty,” said Bill, “and made money too.”

They were simple times for amateur drama but the foundations laid then have been built upon by successive generations in nearly every parish around here. Long may that tradition prosper and flourish.

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