Retracing Irish history through the Fringe

By September 16, 2015

Theatre & Dance.

Writing from the Dublin Fringe, Lucy Cheseldine delves into Ireland’s storytelling tradition, attending Company SJ’s Beckett in the City: The Women Speak and The Moth’s StorySLAM event, ‘The Fast Lane’.

Standing in the rain, dazed by a long week of bar work and writing, wondering where the heck I am going to fit in the imminent start of my Masters degree, I am thrust into a waiting room. It seems an appropriate place to continue my Monday morning train of bleary self-scolding thought. In the room I join others who stand or sit, or indeed kneel – rather appropriately – waiting to be lead into the latest productions of four Beckett plays specifically featuring women. The room is in an ex-ballroom building, now derelict and given over to purgatory. Some old burnt-out neon signs are slumped against the yellowing walls and the ceiling has lost its once dignified grandiosity, now given over to crumbling stucco. Everything is stagnant.

I watch a projection on one of the walls showing three women pacing slowly around a room. It is unclear whether the room has windows but light is present from an unknown source. In fact, the projected room in which these women pace is much lighter than the real room in which we wait. And yet the women in the image appear – weakly – to wish to go somewhere, either out the possibility of a window or through the walls. It is no desirable light, no better than our current situation. In fact, it is much the same. The projection is on repeat and not once does it reveal the women’s faces. I bleakly hide my own face in a notebook and try not to think about the immediate future. Instead I play Beckett’s game and live immediately – in the present – not speaking but merely waiting in my assigned position, shuffling every so often in my seat, unsure of what it is I am doing.

Finally an usher comes in and the small audience is lead up a dark stairway. The piece is made up of four carefully curated performances, each played out in a different room. The audience’s movement from one room to the next – in silence and with almost total reliance upon the ushers – is blind and dependent. The movement traces out the structure of a house, moving from the hallway, upstairs to the living spaces. This is a home built by the female cast and directors, to house the marginalised women of Ireland. But the damp surroundings signify a damaged contradiction, an unhomely reality as I pull my jacket a little tighter around my waist.

Beckett knew well the chilling mumblings of neglected and fragmented women on the sidelines. In “Footfalls”, a woman – more precisely a daughter – paces back and forth in a white gown speaking to her dead mother. The invisible mother’s haunting voice repeatedly narrates that the daughter can now only ‘snatch sleep’. Inextricable from her mother in voice and body, the daughter has no female identity of her own now that her mother has died. She is forced to steal the natural aspects of life, taking them as if they do not rightly belong to her.

As recent interest in the female voice throughout Irish literature thickens, it becomes clear that ‘Mother Ireland’ was no woman, only a maid, a lover, a mother or a daughter. She had only a label of instruction, a role to play and once part of that role is dissolved, so is the rest of her. Then she is bound to wandering the derelict rooms of the city, pacing up and down in the same strip of light as she did in front of me this afternoon. To realise the projections and invisible whispers of Beckett’s and indeed Ireland’s women in the living flesh, breathing and speaking, wandering the physical hallways of an old Dublin dance-room is at times a terrifying experience. But these women have not disappeared, they have not yet become ghosts, they are clothed and moving, creeping closer to the conscience of a national history that has tried to push them right through the deepening cracks in the walls.

Later that same day, I found myself outside the Spiegeltent in Wolfe Tone – still in the rain – waiting for the doors to open. The dismal tones of the morning’s performance were wearing off and about to be placated by the temporary festivities of The Moth StorySLAM. Inside the tent, coloured lights and billowing fabric invited a carnival, a free-for-all night of storytelling around the theme of ‘The Fast Lane’. The Moth – an organisation that began in New York – is now an international collective. Groups across the world meet monthly in an environment where anyone can stand up and tell a true, personal story in under five minutes. The teller is then judged by a group of their fellow audience members – most kindly – on a scale of one to ten. The winner is the teller with the highest score at the end of the night. But they all win for guts under those bright spotlights.

The best thing about this set-up is the freedom and democracy of performance and this has a significant place in Irish history. Storytelling – in its most raw oral disposition – is heavily engrained in Ireland. Rural living was and still is defined by storytelling in necessity and entertainment. Stories have been passed down through generations, famously fabricated and, more often than not, turned into theatre by an unmentionable amount of Irish people and – later – writers. Everyone here loves to spin a good yarn. And there were certainly a few good ones throughout the night.

The topics ranged from orgies to making it to Granny’s funeral on time and the evening presented an emotional rollercoaster thanks to ‘ordinary people’, each of us, of course, carrying with us extraordinary stories. The best stories were those you might hear down the pub, everyday situations that everyone can relate to, spinning a little out of control. These are the kind of stories that are capable of handling ‘anyone’ as their audience. Like the Irish tradition they follow, there is no story too small to tell and the night certainly did justice to finding the small things in life – failed jokes, cleaning out the house, and wooing women – and making sure the whole village hears about them.

I wander back to my flat through the winding streets of Dublin’s city centre. Some corners are lit by streetlights, others are not. I think back on the day of potted Irish history – played out as it has in the present – and I can only wonder where I am going. Still getting used to the city, I decide to take a different route. A woman, wandering alone in the dark, I pass new buildings and old ones being renovated, I think of all the stories I have yet to create and that this is the city I now call home. I am aware of history but also of its renovation. Now my own history will be re-written by the next chapter, life in a new lane where I set the speed myself.

The Moth holds a storytelling event on the first Monday of every month at The Sugar Club on Lower Leeson Street.

Filed under: Theatre & Dance