Lust for Life
Some believe it signals a worrying trend at the Abbey. Alongside regular adaptations from screen to stage of popular movies, adaptations from page to stage of Irish literary classics look to be forming a staple part of the Abbey’s programming. Following on from Dermot Bolger’s rambunctiously delightful, bar room burlesque Ulysses, Edna O’Brien's debut novel The Country Girls (the first in The Country Girls Trilogy of novels) gets the latest page to stage makeover, adapted by the iconic writer herself. The result is an often curious marriage of text and theatricality which skates the narrative surface to better plumb the personal depths of its two female protagonists. Taking a journey that can often seem tame to a twenty-first century sensibility. One where if its feminist concerns are clearly on display, its inherent tensions are often less keenly felt.
Where O’Brien’s award winning novel, first published in 1960, was viewed as incendiary and immediately banned, “The Country Girls” of 2019 delivers a much more muted affair. Its tale of two young girls in 1950s Ireland sees frenemies Kate, the smartest good girl in the convent, and Baba, the brat all the bad boys want and who wants all the bad boys in return, undertaking journeys towards personal, sexual, and artistic independence. Yet in O’Brien’s patchwork script the issues confronting these two young women, and their own relationship, are not always forcibly felt, even if they’re often foregrounded. Getting expelled from school, managing lecherous men, deceitful lovers, or angry fathers, even a cream to expand your bust, stakes never seem to rise beyond being temporary inconveniences or someones hurt feelings. The worldly Baba might look bored, but she’s never remotely bothered by anything or anyone. Including the romantic idealist Kate, on whom most of the story focuses. Kate might be in a perpetual state of longing, but she never seems overwhelmed or out of her depth, even when bad things happen.
Aside from the death of Kate’s mother, Lil, setbacks feel like minor hiccups rather than troublesome obstacles. Something O’Brien oddly compensates for by overstating the sentimental. A series of ‘don’t stop believing, live life, and be all the writer you can be’ motifs often suggest a Hallmark level cheesiness. Yet O’Brien’s sense of poetry is never far away, her partnership with director Graham McLaren frequently marrying text and theatricality into some poetically powerful images. Most notably the mother/daughter relationship between a ghosted Lil and her daughter Kate, revealed in something as flimsy as a thread of red wool.
From the get-go, McLaren offsets O’Brien’s textual richness with a heightened, expressionist theatricality, all directed with loving tenderness. One in which both stage and staging are gradually revealed, in which actors sometimes dance or form expressive groupings, and where pitch black furniture descends from the fly loft or hovers overhead like trapped memories. Frances O’Connor’s bleak set design, a raked stage with colour drained walls and floor, evokes liminal spaces; a cold convent corridor, or a writers blank page waiting to be written on. Spaces whose austere tones are often perfectly complemented by O’Connor’s two tone costumes. Aside from Baba, Kate, and her mother Lil that is, whose costumes provide the only splashes of colour in this otherwise drab universe. Sinéad Wallace’s expressionist lighting wonderfully accentuates rather than dominates, allowing shadows freedom to play and introducing temporary colourful flavours at key moments. If Ray Harman’s composition sets the musical mood at maudlin, maudlin is were much of this production already lands. It’s left to a terrific Lisa Lambe to deliver something truly haunting, lonely, and filled with longing, Lambe’s breathtaking vocals, often in Irish, ensuring the hairs rise on the back of your neck.
A hard working and impressive cast of Muiris Crowley, Megan Cusack, Aron Hegarty, Aidan Kelly, Catriona Loughlin, Steven McCarthy, Bill Murphy, and Mary O’Driscoll, many doubling and tripling up on roles, are spearheaded by some seasoned vets and impressive fresh faces. The aforementioned Lambe, looking like she strayed in from a production of Jimmy’s Hall, has little to do but a lot to carry, which she does superbly. A young and impressive Grace Collender as O’Brien’s orchid in the bog, Kate, who loves writing and unavailable men, does terrifically well. As does an exceedingly impressive Lola Petticrew as the indomitable Baba (to be played on tour by the ever impressive Caitriona Ennis), providing some vital and delightful earthiness as well as some well timed, no nonsense, comic relief.
O’Brien, in both her life and her career, has repeatedly responded to being knocked down by rising up from the floor swinging. That same spirit of persistence and rebellion is always evident in “The Country Girls,” even if the cerebral and poetic often dominate over the visceral and felt. Something which McLaren’s expressionist leanings reinforce. Always, McLaren honours and pays tribute to O’Brien, his sensitive handling of the eroticism, vulnerability and tenderness of a young woman undressing before her lover for the first time perfectly underscoring O’Brien’s own poetic sensibilities. While also highlighting the allegations of salaciousness, that once had parish priests burning copies of The Country Girls and the Irish censor hurrying to ban it, for the hypocrisies that they truly were.
If times have changed, Edna O’Brien most certainly has not, as her gracious and graceful curtain call to a standing ovation made plain. Thankfully, her lust for life is unabated, along with her determination and her courage. Because of writers like O’Brien women today enjoy greater freedom to make personal journeys of self-discovery unimpeded. Writers that challenged a repressive culture which confined women to the roles society consigned them to. Deviations from which often came at great personal cost, something O’Brien knows only too well. If “The Country Girls” is likely to resonate more with those familiar with the culture and Catholicism of the time, as well as with O’Brien’s seminal novel, O’Brien’s towering, independent, and inspirational spirit infuses every moment, ensuring “The Country Girls” is made accessible to all. A loving act of remembrance, “The Country Girls” delivers a heartfelt production that aims to ensure we never forget.
“The Country Girls” written and adapted by Edna O’Brien, runs at The Abbey Theatre until April 6, followed by a national tour:
16 – 20 April Cork Opera House
23 – 27 April Town Hall Theatre, Galway
30 April – 4 May Lime Tree Theatre, Limerick
For more information, visit The Abbey Theatre.