INSIDE STORY A quarter of a century after it was first performed in Cavan Townhall, Dermot Healy’s On Broken Wings returns to the same venue for two performances. The event is especially poignant given the theatre company behind the new production is the Hacklers, of which Dermot was a founding member. Ahead of the show, director DAMIEN O’BRIEN and JONATHAN BINCHY spoke to DAMIAN MCCARNEY about masks.
The late Dermot Healy was beloved amongst local literary figures but, while he was famed for his novels such as ‘A Goat’s Song’, his plays have been less celebrated. Thanks to the publication last December of his plays in one collection, these ambitious stage dramas may finally attract the attention they merit.
One of the lasting impressions Healy made on Cavan’s artistic landscape continues to thrive through ‘The Hacklers’. The drama group he formed in Cavan in 1981 enjoyed instant success in the All-Ireland Drama Festival with their very first production – Samuel Beckett’s ‘Waiting for Godot’.
Under director Damien O’Brien the current Hacklers’ incarnation are reviving ‘On Broken Wings’, a 1992 play in which the central character Timothy Lavell revisits, rather than simply recalls, his life. It opens with an elderly Timothy perched by the hearth of a cottage on the Mullet Peninsula when a tumultuous wind stirs in the chimney, causing the fireplace to swing open and in stride his parents and Timothy’s younger self. With riddles, music and dance, knitting and even a prayer of a sort, the happy trio entertain themselves. This unorthodox visual imagery sets the scene for the rest of the play as we follow Timothy’s journey through life picking spuds in Scotland, building walls with his father on the peninsula and working as an elevator man in America where he falls in love.
“It follows his adventures and his attempts at navigating everything that life throws at him, like all of us do either consciously or unconsciously,” says actor Jonathan Binchy.
“He’s out of his depth in a lot of it. He comes from a very cosseted, nurtured small rural family where he’s very much loved, and he’s got a very small microcosmic world where everything is fairly cosy, not much money, but a lot of love, and then he’s thrown out to the big bad world and he hasn’t a clue what he’s doing. He’s a bit of an eejit but I think he’s a very loveable guy.
While Damien struggles and ultimately fails to put a number on the size of the cast - “at least 20” - the brunt of the acting falls to Jonathan.
Jonathan was already cast as ‘Adult Timothy’ and, when the actor earmarked to play ‘Teenage Timothy’ pulled out, Damien asked Jonathan to take up that role too.
“Stupidly I said okay,” rues Jonathan with a gentle chuckle. “Now I realise the amount of work involved – it’s phenomenal. I’m pretty much on stage for the entire piece.”
The feat of memory involved in the day-long rehearsals extends beyond merely the dialogue.
“You must remember ‘this’, you must do ‘this’,” he says of the precise stage directions, “and by the end of the day you are so exhausted trying to remember all those little pointers and then bring them back to the next rehearsal. And it’s not just lines – nearly it’s more movement and direction, so it’s a big job.”
With a baker’s dozen of Healy’s plays to choose from, Damien explains that he was drawn to ‘On Broken Wings’ by its mask-work – a first for both director and cast. While every acting performance to varying degrees sees the actors adopt a mask of sorts, but the stage directions of ‘On Broken Wings’ see Healy specify literal, larger than life masks for the various cast members.
“It was just that idea to enlarge the characters’ faces I suppose and to make them look bigger to the audience,” Damien surmises. “I’m assuming that’s the idea. But also that was the way theatre was originally performed thousands of years ago by the Greeks.
“It’s just an idea he had – I didn’t get a chance unfortunately to ask Dermot why all the masks in this particular play.”
Using cardboard, sponge, fabric, paint and oodles of time, Helen Foy came up with a variety of wonderful creations.
“The masks to me are just fantastic,” Damien enthuses. “Helen is just extraordinary.”
Acting from beneath a mask places certain demands on the actors, particularly in conveying emotion. Mary Farrelly was recruited to advise on choreographing the actors’ movements.
“You have to really exaggerate or think about your body position or your head position,” says Jonathan. “Now, our mouths are exposed because we have to be heard, so there will be a certain degree of expression in the mouth, but after that it’s really about exaggerating it without going into pantomime, farcical areas. To get that balance right between conveying it [emotion] and not being ridiculously over the top is a challenge.”
Damien insists that the masks are “an integral part of the play” and take the play “into a different dimension”. After giving consideration to the Celt’s suggestion of whether the play could stand on its own without the use of masks, Jonathan ultimately defers to the genius of Healy.
“We have been through a long process of rehearsal and I cannot actually imagine it without the masks – it’s so imbued into the spirit of the play at this stage. It would certainly be a hugely different experience and I don’t think it would work – it just wouldn’t be the same. Dermot Healy knew what he was doing, he envisaged this with masks for a reason, and it will work as long as we can pull it off.”
‘Kind of absurd’
According to Damien the play’s appeal extends far beyond the masks; it incorporates music, dance, projection, even influences of Eastern European theatre. There’s also clearly “a very very strong Beckett influence” in both the dialogue and set-ups.
“It’s stylised, Beckett influenced, kind of absurd, dark comedy here and there,” says Damien, “It’s just typical of Dermot: strange, wonderful, magical, d’you know?”
Damien adds: “It’s a very simple story - I love that, I love the way it’s so simple and yet he’s using all these different theatre styles and putting them all in there – it’s a big hotchpotch of different styles.”
At its core the plot may sound simple, but the staging and Beckettian language suggests a degree of complexity.
“Some of it is very straight up and obvious and there’s no big mystery,” says Jonathan, “and then there’s other stuff.. when we started looking at the script we were going’, ‘What does he mean? Because it’s so open to interpretation... You can go, ‘I don’t know what the hell that was all about’, but equally you can go, ‘I don’t know, and I don’t know what everything is about in life’. But we have a fair idea of the main themes in life. That’s the beauty of it, we can be mystified in a good way, where we can celebrate the profundity of life and the mystery, and yet not be entirely lost.”
He adds: “It’s just one of those things, you have to see it. Even though it’s otherworldly and unusual and eccentric, you kind of know what’s happening at the same time – you’re not going to be left going Jaysus, what was that? Well hopefully anyway!”
‘Shot in the dark’
‘On Broken Wings’ was first performed in 1992 by Omnibus Theatre, a Clare based group Healy worked with, and it was performed in that same year in Cavan Townhall.
When it played in Cavan, Omnibus’s professional actors played the four lead roles and dozens of local people, including arts officer Catriona O’Reilly, and Damien’s now wife Blanaid O’Brien, took on the many minor roles.
“I had a sore back, and I was like the walking sick,” Damien recalls of that production, “so I stood there in the back and in a bit of pain and tried to take in what I could. But I remember it, I remember a lot of the scenes – the masks and the characters all around – there was a good crowd there at Cavan Townhall,” he adds hoping for an equally good turn out at their two shows this weekend.
The Celt finally admits to Jonathan to not having either seen or read ‘On Broken Wings’ before.
“Not many people have,” he shoots back. “That’s the beauty of it – it’s that real shot in the dark, and it’s brilliant to get the chance to bring Dermot’s play to an audience, because it’s a play, which should be seen.”
‘On Broken Wings’ will be staged by The Hacklers in collaboration with Cavan County Council and The Arts Office in Townhall Cavan on Friday and Saturday, May 12-13.
Tickets are on sale in Multi Sound, €15, €12 concession.