Old Wives Tales
From Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man, wonderfully directed by Jimmy Fay, to Katie O’Kelly’s superb Dubliners Women, the New Theatre are no strangers when it comes to presenting smartly abridged versions of Irish literary classics. Conspiring once again with O’Kelly, The New Theatre, along with Dublin UNESCO City of Literature, present a performed reading of another Irish literary classic; Edna O’Brien’s "Girls in Their Married Bliss," part of O’Brien’s The Country Girls Trilogy, Dublin City Council’s recipient of this years Dublin: One City One Book. Unapologetically literary with succinct, minimal theatricality, a feat deftly handled by director Deirdre Molloy, this charming curiosity has a lot more going for it than might at first seem. Even if it does suffer in the end from being a little too much of a good thing.
Hardly have Madi O’Carroll as the wilful Baba, and Katie O’Kelly as the romantic Cait, opened their respective scripts when it becomes clear that O’Brien’s ironically laced title is dripping with lashings of sarcasm. The grade A sulphuric acid kind, doused liberally on feckless lovers, fructified wombs, and fluent liars as the veneer of superiority surrounding the male in 1960s London is ruthlessly melted into gloop. In theory at least, if, alas, not in practice. For if The Country Girls introduced two young women with hopeful dreams of a life of untrammelled possibility, "Girls in Their Married Bliss", the third part of O’Brien’s trilogy, exposes two life battered and male beaten old wives, despite their youthfulness, for whom hope of a better life becomes the impetus to tragedies they’re barely learning to survive. And about which men always have the final say. Motherhood, sex, children, abortion, all are mediated through ignorant and incompetent males, seeing both women’s girlhood dreams giving way to the unvarnished arrangements of adult life.
In O’Carroll and O’Kelly’s finely paced reading, much that often gets lost in page to stage adaptations is marvellously retained. Most notably O’Brien's chiselled and chiselling language, whose flint like edges shapes, as much as is shaped by, meaning. Space is also retained for O’Brien's reflective insights to play in, when thoughts can ramble for not being pressured by the immediate demands of performance. Yet O’Carroll and O’Kelly deliver much more than interchangeable voiceovers. Both add subtlety and texture through a myriad of small physical articulations, something O’Kelly’s manspreading builder or praying Cait convey superbly. O’Carroll’s worldly and world weary Baba, seeming to have the lions share of dialogue, is built from tone, pitch and timbre, along with O'Carroll's sublimely crafted expressions, into something extraordinarily suggestive of deep and hidden things. Even if O’Carroll does seem to be suffering from a head cold at times. The effect is to make "Girls in Their Married Bliss" a reading you listen attentively to, in which theatricality offers a minimal frame, looking odd and out of place when it overly manifests itself. Such as an unnecessary lowering of lights for a key scene which detracts from the words for trying to foreshadow the stage
What’s perhaps most impressive about "Girls in Their Married Bliss" is that O’Carroll and O’Kelly have managed to take a novel from 1964 and make its hardships and heartaches feel less like forgotten history and more like recent memory. You get it, what O’Brien was trying to say, and what she experienced, in all its messy, visceral glory. But you do get just a little too much of it. One of the dangers of any reading, even an abridged one, is that sitting there listening to voices, no matter how captivating, risks the audience nodding off. Not that "Girls in Their Married Bliss" necessarily goes there, but it skates close in places. Feeling slack at times, needing a little trimming to sustain its impact. Because when O’Carroll and O’Kelly hit their stride "Girls in Their Married Bliss" delivers a fitting tribute to a great book and a great writer.
"Girls in Their Married Bliss" by Edna O’Brien, presented by Dublin UNESCO City of Literature and the New Theatre as part of Dublin City Council’s Dublin: One City One Book initiative, runs at The New Theatre until April 27th.
For more information, visit The New Theatre, Dublin: One City One Book , or Dublin UNESCO City of Literature.