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  • Chris O'Rourke

The Rose Tattoo

Denise McCormack in The Rose Tattoo. Image by George Hooker


Not being a purpose built theatre, The Complex’s wide, cavernous acoustics would challenge many a declaiming Desdemona. Apt to leave large sections of the audience checking the volume on their hearing aids, the rest wondering if they need hearing aids. Delivery being an issue that dogs The Rose Tattoo. The Complex’s adaptation, or translation, by Catherine Joyce and director, Vanessa Fielding, of Tennessee William’s 1951 classic about a grieving widow and her teenage daughter. It's sexual mores reimagined to speak to a modern traveller context. The result a brave, if not always brave enough interrogation. One that suffers from being too self-conscious of its sense of responsibility. Which might sound like a recipe for disaster. Quite the contrary in fact. The Rose Tattoo proving far greater than the sum of its often clunky parts.

Denise McCormack and David O'Meara in The Rose Tattoo. Image by George Hooker

If Fielding’s direction punches above its weight, she still manages to land some serious blows. Not least her marvellous adaptation with Catherine Joyce. So richly crafted in terms of language and context, you might wonder if Williams was Irish? A community of hard men and often harder women, premonitions and superstitions inform life with a greater force than logic. As do notions of respect and virtue, which often conflict with passion. Bairbre Ní Chaoimh’s witch-like Sampa selling powders to help give men erections. Not that Denise McCormack’s dress maker Sarah is in need of help. Lounging like Blanche DuBois during her belle days, Sarah is a virtuous, married, Catholic woman whose husband has no need to stray. Sarah’s vision of a rose tattoo on her breast prophyesising an unborn child. That she will lose, along with her husband. Something the vision neglects to mention. The Virgin Mary, who Sarah prays avidly to for guidance, equally silent.

Lloyd Cooney and Denise McCormack in The Rose Tattoo. Image by George Hooker

Grief is writ large when it transpires there are greater hurts than loss. Like being shamed and made a fool of within the eyes of your community. All the world knowing the one secret you were never privy too, or cared to entertain. Sending Sarah spiralling into full Blanche mode, replete with alcohol fuelled delusions. Friends, neighbours and customers scattering as she declares herself no longer a respectable woman, just a woman. One who parades about the yard with her rage, her whiskey bottle and her negligee. Much to the despair of daughter Rosie. Shauna Higgins’s long suffering teen curious about love, sex, and a fisherman who sets sail soon. A girl for whom education has more to offer than her mother’s questionable religion. Yet maybe the arrival of Lloyd Cooney’s Al might signal that the Virgin Mary has decided to intervene on Sarah’s behalf. Yielding true comfort this time, or else another broken heart.

Denise McCormack and James Collins in The Rose Tattoo. Image by George Hooker

Though diluting William's sexual intensity, for many traveller women The Rose Tattoo is apt to be a much needed breath of fresh air. Or a crying shame, an utter disgrace, perhaps a life affirming revelation. Foregrounding women raging against the dying of their light, The Rose Tattoo articulates a shift from women as objects of desire to women as desiring subjects within traveller culture. From women passively awaiting for the man to arrive, to being active agents of their own fulfilment. Yet shame, exclusion, and hypocrisy still abound, with past, present and possible futures colliding. Challenging notions of what it means to be a traveller woman and, by extension, their wider community.

Lloyd Cooney in The Rose Tattoo. Image by George Hooker

While visually there’s much to admire, not all of it lands as well as it might. Sabine Dargent’s kitsch set might engage the entire playing area, but Fielding negotiates the large, thrust-like design with mixed success. Composition and intimacy struggling at times due to a forced, rhythmless pace and to compromised sight lines. The infamous dropped condom moment just one example. Despite being exquisitely executed, some roared with laughter while others scratched their head wondering what they’d missed? Doubling up also detracts for looking rushed and sloppy, even as a robust cast compensate with strong performances. Christine Collins, Aisling O’Mara, James Collins, David O’Meara, along with Bairbre Ní Chaoimh provide able support to their three strong leads. Denise McCormack riveting as the walking wound, Sarah. Lloyd Cooney a delight as Al, showing terrific chemistry with McCormack.The real revelation being Shauna Higgins as Rosie (and Betty and Josie) who gives a powerhouse performance as a young girl on the cusp of womanhood embarrassed by her mother. Pace, gesture, timing, expression; Higgins makes it appear natural, looking very much the rising star in the making. A hard working cast rounded out by celebrated musician Paddy Keenan, who adds wonderful live music accent. Even if you’re wondering at his disappearance for the second half.

Denise McCormack, Christine Collins and Shauna Higgins (L-R) in The Rose Tattoo. Image by George Hooker

Currently, The Rose Tattoo feels it’s been taken out of the oven a tad too early, of having needed more time to proof, or to rest. Yet if its DIY ethos doesn't always enrich the experience, it never fatally detracts. Serving up life as passionately lived, and suffered, The Rose Tattoo’s wild stuttering of ideological entanglements are viscerally portrayed in their divine messiness. Even so, while Fielding knocks several moments out of the park, she, along with McCormack, often look restrained by their sense of respect and responsibility. Issues, one suspects, which will resolve somewhat as the run progresses, especially if McCormack owns her impressive achievement more. When that happens, be prepared for McCormack to rend you asunder as she unleashes the storm that is Sarah. Speaking of new things within an old community while reframing a classic to do so, The Rose Tattoo might creak and groan, but it's an enjoyably entertaining experience none the less.

The Rose Tattoo by Tennessee Williams, translated by Catherine Joyce and Vanessa Fielding, presented by The Complex, runs at The Complex until May 20th

For more in formation visit The Complex


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