Sunday’s event was a production of five short plays by Augusta Gregory – playwright, folklorist, and co-founder with W.B. Yeats of the Abbey Theatre in 1904 – Ireland’s national theatre. The location at Coole Park was the family estate of the Gregory family, into which Augusta married in 1880. Despite being a minor Anglo-Irish aristocrat with links to the British colonial regime in Ireland, Gregory became a nationalist in the 1890s. Augusta Gregory is a name known to generations of Irish people thanks to her connection to William Butler Yeats. His inclusion on the Irish Leaving certificate syllabus has poisoned his reputation for many. That’s the price of mainstream success – you get included on state exams and your reputation becomes synonymous with pressure and misery. Yeats is a brilliant poet, who has become the Peig Sayers of the Irish poetry world. Gregory’s support of, and collaborations with Yeats means her name is remembered – largely through the prism of his fame.
I had no idea what to expect from her work – never having read any of it. I was very much looking forward to revisiting the wooded estate of Coole Park however – having previously visited at the age of twelve on a school tour to Galway. In 2020 it is a national park, nature reserve, and incredibly beautiful – perhaps the perfect location for an introduction to Augusta Gregory’s work.
Directed by Garry Hynes – the first woman to win the Tony Award for direction of a play with ‘The Beauty Queen of Leenane’ in 1998 – and produced by Druid Theatre, ‘DruidGregory’ was a wonderful experience. Performed entirely outdoors in various woodland and grass locations throughout the park, it was an atmospheric and immersive experience. The audience was split into two halves upon arrival, to enable adequate social distancing for some of the plays in more intimate locations.
The first piece was ‘The Rising of the Moon’ had a woodland setting and concerned itself with an RIC policeman (Garrett Lombard) who encounters a balladeer (Marty Rea) near the river in the woods as he is searching for Irish rebel Jack Quinn for whom there is a £100 bounty. It set the tone for the rest of the evening. The staging in the woodland was simple lighting and barrels and created a vaguely ominous atmosphere. Each subsequent piece was in a different location.
The highlight of my evening was the farce ‘Hyacinth Halvey’. The village of Cloon, is eagerly awaiting the arrival of the new sub-sanitary inspector Hyacinth Halvey (Donal Gallery). Hyacinth comes with many recommendations about his saintly character. How can he possibly live up to expectations? This piece is fast paced, hilarious and utterly ridiculous. I loved it. The nosy postmistress and the busybody housekeeper to the local reverend (played to perfection by Sarah Morris and Venetia Bowe) cannot speak highly enough of Hyacinth. All his efforts to disavow his perfection to the villagers fail miserably. This play was a light-hearted romp without deeper meaning. Which is totally acceptable. Crowd-pleasing plays are wonderful
The finale of the evening was ‘Cathleen Ní Houlihan’ which was a collaboration between Augusta Gregory and WB Yeats (which for many years was credited solely to Yeats). This play was on the opening bill of the Abbey Theatre in 1904. Set in county Mayo in 1798 as a couple prepares for their eldest son’s wedding a mysterious old woman (Marie Mullen, representing Ireland) arrives at their door lamenting the loss of her four green fields (the four provinces of Ireland). The eldest son is mesmerised by her tale. It was chilling thanks to its simplicity and tone.
It was an outstanding evening of theatre. Gregory’s work and words could have appeared dated, patronising and offensive in its portrayal of 19th century rural Irish characters, written by Anglo-Irish playwrights (as seen in the Lyric Theatre production of ‘The Playboy of the Western World’ in last year’s Dublin Theatre Festival). This production was deft in how it dealt with the characters and their predicaments. It was directed with a fairly light touch, and the misery of the circumstances of the poor Irish never seemed hectoring, lecturing or dreary. The cast played the roles with gusto (no mean feat as they had to maintain a social distance from each other on stage throughout). The location at Coole Park was sheer magic.
If Dublin was not locked down because of Plague, and if audience numbers were not severely curtailed because of physical distancing requirements I would highly recommend this play, while it continues its tour the length and breadth of Galway for the next month. If you can get a ticket to this sold out show then grab it.