REVIEW Theatre Royal: Bluebeard
THERE’S an elusive quality to this afternoon’s performance by the final year Theatre Studies students of Mary Devenport O’Neill’s “Bluebeard”. The work was first performed by the Abbey in 1933 as a ballet poem and ran for six performances as part of a larger production.
The study of female playwrights forms a significant part of the Theatre Studies course and their research into Waterford playwright Teresa Deevy is a welcome reminder of the importance of the Passage Road playwright, who had six productions performed on the stage of the Abbey in the thirties. This research is also a timely reminder of the marginalising of Irish female playwrights.
Finding mention of Devenport’s writing is also elusive. Her volume of poetry, “Prometheus and Other Poems”, comprising 33 lyric poems, four “dream poems”, one long poem, and a verse-play, was published by Jonathan Cape. Austen Clarke’s Lyric Theatre Co. produced two of Mary Devenport O’Neill’s plays that focused on combining choreography with verse. Although Clarke’s memoirs carefully foreground the literary status of each individual present at the famous Æ’s salon in the thirties, and although he conducted a close artistic collaboration with Devenport over a period of 21 years, he nevertheless misspelled her name and describes her as “the wife of a novelist.”
‘The story is really a Gothic horror fable – an enduring European legend of a hideously blue-bearded man, who slit the throats of his half-dozen wives and stashed their corpses in the basement of his castle’
Writer Frank O’Connor, while linking Devenport to literature, incredibly failed to identify her as a poet. Instead, he repeated writer’s gossip that “she was making an intellectual stretch beyond her reach by talking of authors whose names she was not sophisticated to pronounce properly”. Hmmm!
The Theatre Studies blurb is informative on the difficulties of being a female writer in a male writing environment.
“Our production of Mary Devenport O’Neill’s ‘Bluebeard’ reflects the ensemble-driven, socially-engaged, theory-informed, and collaborative nature of the teaching and learning environment that is at the heart of Theatre Studies programme.”
Born in Galway, Mary Devenport O’Neill was a modernist writer in the Irish Free State and initiated, and participated in, important literary networks from the 1920s onwards. Written against the backdrop of the establishment of the Irish Free State, where women’s freedoms were curtailed, ‘Bluebeard’ combines the intricacy of lyrical theatre with physical theatre to sweep audiences into a world suspended in fear, control, and brutality, where daring to resist may cost the ultimate price.
The story is really a Gothic horror fable – “La Barbe Bleue”, published by Charles Perrault in 1697 that went on to become an enduring European legend of a hideously blue-bearded man, who slit the throats of his half-dozen wives and stashed their corpses in the basement of his castle one by one. It’s no wonder that Bluebeard is now shorthand for a serial killer. Director Kate McCarthy uses the back wall (one of the old walls of Waterford) and the vast expanse of a stage with only boxes as stage furniture to set her bleak production. The barebones of the grizzly deaths is set in verse with balletic movements to strengthen the narrative. As Bluebeard (Dawn Murray) visits each of his wives, they each in turn fall victim to his deathly courtship in a silence where time seems meaningless and infinite. The initial sweep of the score and the grace of the movement makes death somewhat appealing and dreamlike until the mood changes with the jagged and agitated double-stops of the fiddles nailing down the horror of the murders.
The production was devised and performed by first, second, and third-year Theatre Studies students – who all needed to speak up and project – as part of the final-year theatre practice module that works with the Theatre Royal as part of its study programme. Cast members included Annamae Carroll, Laura Beale, Sarah-Jane Carthy, Bryan Costello, Naja Klemme, Dawn Murray, Thokozani Siziba, Paula Weldon, Saoirse Clifford, Janice Lacharmante, Sasha O’Hara and Nikki Paskalj.