HOLY SHOW – Rites, rituals and skirmishes with religion – a year in a freelance theatre life

O, pa! Don’t beat me, pa! And I’ll… I’ll say a Hail Mary for you…. I’ll say a Hail Mary for you, pa, if you don’t beat me…. I’ll say a Hail Mary….”

Performing at 'The Garden of Genius' festival, Yasnaya Polyana, Russia
Performing at ‘The Garden of Genius’ festival, Yasnaya Polyana, Russia

One of the most powerful moments in James Joyce’s writing translates into a visceral moment in the live performance of “The Dubliners Dilemma”. I find myself, a tiny boy, cowering on my knees, avoiding vicious blows from the invisible belt of the drunken father I have been portraying until just three seconds ago. As the beating subsides and the music of the papal knight, Count John McCormack filters in – because I am an actor and this is not real – one part of my mind is wondering what on earth the Russian audience has made of this evocation of a nineteenth century Irish Catholic childhood. I change a costume item onstage to morph into a new character and pick up a completely different storyline, and note that the silence is such that I might have heard a pin had anyone dropped one onto the grass of the outdoor arena. It is the same shocked reaction I might get on any good night in a theatre in Ireland. And then, a moment later they are chuckling again, albeit slightly delayed, as the razor-sharp translator relays the monologue of the pathetic character Lenehan into their wireless earphones. Five minutes later, they are on their feet applauding and it is all over. As we pack up the gear, men and women drift over to thank me and stage manager Bern, and express their appreciation of Joyce, of live performance and of this fabulous ‘Garden of Genius’ festival at the ancestral home of their own literary giant, Leo Tolstoy.

The next day we find ourselves as tourists in an almost deserted Russian Orthodox church in Moscow, marvelling at a sung Mass. Two elderly women incant the prayers in harmony; the celebrant responds. There is incense. Nine or ten, mainly elderly, worshippers stand in devotion. The church interior is a dizzying set of frescoes and murals and gold altars. I glance at Bern and recall the image of him standing in silence by the unmarked graveside of Leo Tolstoy the previous morning; Tolstoy, who renounced pomp and rites and asked to be buried simply at a place of personal significance from his boyhood. We slip out of the church, go uptown and have an afternoon beer. The tour is over.

Bern contemplates the unmarked grave of Tolstoy
Bern contemplates the unmarked grave of Tolstoy

My theatre work in 2014 seemed to bring an unusual number of encounters with rite, ritual and altars of one kind or another. At just about the opposite end of the glamour spectrum, our tour of “The Dubliners Dilemma” also found us one night in the Birr Arts Centre in a converted church in the Irish midlands where a congregation even smaller than the few genuine worshippers we saw in Moscow turned out to enjoy the stories of Joyce. The tour took us from Galway to Belfast to Limerick to Belmullet, several places in between and back home to the Bloomsday Festival in Dublin where we were one of the attractions at the James Joyce Centre. Premiered in 2012, the show has become part of my life now and already it has been invited to Oslo for Bloomsday 2015, so yet another short Irish tour may be in the offing in May.

The life of a freelance theatre artist is fraught with insecurity, money worries and periods of disconnection, but there are consolations, and variety is the main one. The year just ended was rich in diversity. In August, along with Kwasi Boyce, Sophie Coyle and other key organisers, I went with a Dundalk-based community theatre group into the Westbourne Presbyterian Church in East Belfast where the amateur cast gave a terrific performance to an appreciative audience. Another altar, another show. This time, however, the church is still active as a place of worship, the minister a prominent and outspoken Orange leader, Rev. Mervyn Gibson. The invitation to a culturally diverse group made up of Southern Irish, African, Asian and Canadian performers, to share our version of the Battle of the Boyne story in their house of worship, was a generous gesture of glasnost, Northern Irish style. We reach out, a little bit at a time, although too often we scurry back then to our old positions.

Fun on the Altar: post show selfies at the Westbourne Church (with permission from the chuckling pastor!)
Fun on the Altar: post show selfies at the Westbourne Church (with permission from the chuckling pastor!)

The churches are not innocent in this depressing equation, any more than they were innocent of the social problems besetting Ireland when Joyce aimed his slings at the anti-social, anti-sexual Catholicism of the Ireland of his day. The streets outside the Westbourne Church, like the streets and the very skies above Newtownards where we played the following week, were bedecked with flags and banners reminding us of the sectarian nature of the repressed conflict in which we were playing a tiny healing role. It felt intimidating, even still, years after the war proper had ended, to walk those strange roads. I wondered if a normal, religion-free and emblem-free polity might ever descend on the North or would these towns and city enclaves remain intimidating to and unwelcoming of visitors (from anywhere) for another generation. If the public realm felt hostile, however, the same cannot be said of the people who hosted our performances nor of the audiences who packed them out. The play was written by our international cast and took a universal anti-war view. The debates after each performance, all in Unionist ‘stronghold’ areas, were open and reasoned. Signs of hope. And it was great to tour with such a talented intercultural group. Artistically and culturally they represented their home town and community of Dundalk with great honour.

Dylan Quinn and community dance troupe perform at Killesher Open Art Day
Dylan Quinn and community dance troupe perform at Killesher Open Art Day

I also spent some time in rural Fermanagh this Summer, collaborating with farmers, geologists, historians and community workers across the same (but infinitely less overt) sectarian ‘divide’. Our task was to prepare the ground for a shared public art installation where no tradition of such artistic innovation exists. A highlight of my year was a Midsummer Arts Day at the  Larganess Centre, home of the Killesher Community Development Association near Florencecourt village, the culmination of this local consultation and engagement process. I came away with the view that Fermanagh rocks! The connections to ancient land and neighbourly tradition, recorded in the past by the renowned anthropologist Henry Glassie, are re-forming in new post-conflict ways through community development, local history, archaeology and now the arts. I spent several good days in Killesher Parish and felt very encouraged for the future. If more places could look to the laid-back Killesher-Florencecourt model of society, things might begin to move on – although even there, the segregation of children into religious-ethos schools of differing denominations reminds one of the wider difficulties. That said, there are several joint-school initiatives underway, and our Art Open Day saw enthusiastic input from teachers, parents and children on all sides.

With all these religious influences swirling around me, one might ask if in 2014, I saw the light and joined up somewhere. I did not. I did, however, officiate at a non-religious wedding in the late Autumn. As noted above, the life of the theatre artist is varied if nothing else. I was charmed and honoured to accept the unusual invitation and lead a beautiful ceremony at a hotel in County Louth for a young couple to whom I was referred by a mutual friend who could not undertake the role. There was rite and ritual involved but in a secular sense, no less sincere or symbolic for that. It was a reminder of the great changes that have occurred in Ireland since Mr Joyce walked out on us. In many new ways, people are “doing it for themselves”, finding their own rituals and moral roadmaps without the divisive or oppressive oversight of the organised faiths that so often let their parents and grandparents down.

My final visit to a church in 2014 was among theatre colleagues once again, but this time for the deeply sad and dignified occasion of the funeral of Phelim Donlon. Phelim was Drama Officer at the Arts Council for the greater part of my twenty years working within the State-subsidised independent theatre. I also travelled side-by-side with him around the nation when I took on the role of Coordinator of the Arts Council’s “Review of Theatre in Ireland 1995-’96”. He was a generous mentor not only to me but to a generation of theatre makers in Ireland, a fiercely just and fair man, a lover of life, a man of roguish humour and a great friend. We mourn his loss and extend our condolences to his family. One colleague described his passing as the end of an era, even though Phelim was already retired from official duty a few years. In this, she echoed my own sentiments precisely.

Eras end. Years end. I have been out of the subsidised arts sector now almost five years , looking on in dismay at the damage done to the field by kneejerk cuts and short-term thinking.  Simple survival as a freelancer is a constant struggle, but the thrill of the unknown is a powerful counteractive drug. I mainly write in isolation at home nowadays – I recently completed a draft of a novel four years in the making – but I am constantly drawn back to the theatre and the broad areas of public and community arts, not because there is a sustainable livelihood in them (there quite simply isn’t) but for the collaboration, the society and the communion. Did I just say “communion”? There I go again! Is theatre the new church? Although this is a centuries-old question, I first heard it posed by the actor Tom Baker (the fourth Dr Who), in a 1980s newspaper interview which I read at an impressionable age. It is a question that is constantly with me. Maybe we shall discover the answer in 2015.

Declan Gorman

December 31st 2014



‘The Dubliners Dilemma’ – produced by Bachelors Walk Productions, Dublin www.bachelorswalkdublin.com

‘The Garden of Geniuses Festival’ – Yasnaya Polyana – estate of the Leo Tolstoy http://ypmuseum.ru/en/2011-04-13-17-30-44/2011-04-16-08-25-38/49–l-r.html

‘The Road to the Battle’ – produced by Creative Spark, Dundalk – with support from the EU Programme for Peace and Reconciliation:   http://creativespark.ie/index.php/the-road-to-the-battle-2/

‘Killesher Public Art Project’ – an initiative of Killesher Community Development Association, funded by the Arts Council of Northern Ireland under the ‘Building Peace through the Arts – Re-imaging Communities’ programme      http://www.artscouncil-ni.org/the-arts/visual-arts1/re-imaging-communities

Special thanks to Sharon Cromwell for personal support through 2014

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