A Straight Flush and A Witches Brew
It’s an experience all too familiar. That inward groan when you suddenly realise the production you’re attending is over two and a half hours long. Which is why some might thread with fear and trepidation when approaching The Corps Ensemble’s double bill of "The Fetch Wilson" by Stewart Roche and "Kissing the Witch" by Emma Donoghue. Yet the other side of that durational equation speaks to experiences you never want to end. Which is mostly the case with this exciting double bill of top class theatre. So much so that while seeing both shows isn’t mandatory, you can always opt for one or the other, it is, however, highly recommended. Especially if you hanker after detailed, focused, and rigorously executed performances.
Serving as the inaugural productions for the newly opened Bohemian Theatre, Phibsboro, proceedings kick off with Roche’s critically acclaimed display of one man storytelling, "The Fetch Wilson.” In which Edwin Mullane gives an invested performance as a card sharp on the run from the devil. Or a heroin dealer to be absolutely exact. Or is it himself he’s really running from? A Jack wishing he was a King, trying to figure out where he is and how he got there, Wilson relays his unstable story from boarding school to a life changing discovery in Budapest, always haunted by his doppelgänger who appears at key moments. Finding himself lost on the path of his own dark reflections, the ill prepared Wilson might learn some harsh home truths when his hand is finally called.
Channeling Dostoyevsky, with just a hint of Ross O’Carroll-Kelly in tone, Roche’s notes from the underbelly gallops along at a breakneck pace. Throughout, Mullane ensures Roche’s cram packed tale never becomes tiresome, giving a consistently compelling performance which director Jed Murray paces to perfection. If set is simplicity itself, with its hanging cards proving to be a stroke of ingenuity, lighting proves to be a mixed bag. Working within the restraints of the fledgling venue, floor lighting cleverly adds some James Whale atmospherics, heightening the overall eeriness. But a shifting colour scheme is a case of the road to hell being lined with good intentions, looking crude and amateurish as it tries give Mullane a helping hand. Something Mullane clearly doesn’t need, delivering a one man masterpiece of a performance.
Following a short break for some light refreshments, or something a little stronger if you prefer, and Emma Donoghue’s "Kissing the Witch" traverses some old ground to reveal some new insights. Adapted for the stage in 2000 by Donoghue, from her 1997 book of the same name, "Kissing the Witch" delivers a series of loosely interlinked fairytales ripe for a feminist re-imagining, highlighting popular mis-representations of the witch, and, by extension, of women. If covering familiar narrative ground as Beauty and the Beast and The Little Mermaid creates something of a durational drag in places, Donoghue’s clever subversions of independent women deemed mad, bad or dangerous to know proves richly engaging. Always it’s about power, with power dynamics being the same whether it’s queen or maid, lovers or fathers, male or female, with everyone seeking the restorative, transformative or magical from the black magic woman. And always it’s love that’s the problem, goal, and solution, beginning with a love of yourself.
Alongside some astute feminist interrogations, O’Donoghue plays with notions of the restorative, transformative, and magical power of theatre. Something co-directors Andy Crook and Hillary Dziminski embrace, with "Kissing the Witch" striving to be strikingly visceral. Showing many of Crook’s fingerprints, including mask work, strong yet simply costumes, superbly crafted by Mary Donoghue, and a heightened physicality, each tale unfolds as a visceral treat. With the bulk of the action played out on an awkward thrust stage, with its often compromised sight lines, Crook and Dziminski have no problem utilising beyond the stage to their advantage, proving themselves particularly resourceful. Indeed, "Kissing the Witch" yields even more of its secrets when the eye works counterintuitively and explores both ends of the thrust, where another focused image is always waiting. The whisperings of Jack Cawley’s sound design prove supremely effective, adding richness and texture without ever getting in the way.
A slinky, Coven style entrance from Mary Murray, Carolyn Bracken and Siobhán Callaghan as three witches cackling like Shakespearean crones doesn’t immediately inspire confidence. Yet expectations, like much else in "Kissing the Witch,” are immediately subverted once Donoghue’s tales really kick in. With all three performers embracing several roles, ably supported by a hugely present Jed Murray, the display of talent that follows is simply breathtaking. Scrolling through characters with spellbinding ease, the prodigiously gifted Mary Murray proves magical throughout, her gaze, voice, and expressions steeped in compelling immediacy. Carolyn Bracken, grounding the otherworldliness of it all in a natural inviting earthiness, as if witches really were just ordinary women, cements her reputation as a staggeringly engaging performer. The Corps Ensemble’s relative newbie, Siobhán Callaghan, is simply out of this world, showing impeccable depth, range and detail in a hauntingly versatile performance. Enough to suggest that this bright, young talent has everything she needs to take the world by storm. Indeed, watching Murray, Bracken, and Callaghan as they cackle, writhe, pout, or climb, owning every inch of space and dialogue, delivering palpably powerfully performances rich and focused in detail, proves to be something of a privilege.
As auspicious beginnings go, "The Fetch Wilson" and "Kissing the Witch" see The Bohemian Theatre getting off to a solid start. As well as illustrating how far The Corps Ensemble have come as an outfit. All the more impressive given the adverse conditions affecting theatre companies in Dublin today. To quote from artistic director Mullane, himself quoting from Rocky, ‘you can’t stop what keeps coming.’ With fare like "The Fetch Wilson" and "Kissing the Witch,” The Corps Ensemble will hopefully keep them coming. A double bill of horror, made doubly enjoyable given its seasonal flavouring, "The Fetch Wilson" and "Kissing the Witch" are two impressive pieces of theatre, well worth braving the cold dark nights for.
"The Fetch Wilson" by Stewart Roche and "Kissing the Witch" by Emma Donoghue, presented by The Corps Ensemble, run at The Bohemian Theatre, above Mc Geough’s, Phibsboro, until November 7th and 9th respectively.
For more information, visit The Corps Ensemble.