The first play I ever saw was “The Barretts of Wimpole Street”. I was eleven years of age when my eldest brother Jack brought me to the Town Hall to see the Social Club Players in Rudy Bestier's classic. What is now the main library room was then the local theatre cum dance hall and while the stage presentation of 53 years ago is almost lost to me I can still recall, for whatever reason, the appearance on stage of May Fenelon. I can't recall any of the other players who that night took part in the play, the action for which was centered on Elizabeth Barretts bed sitting room at 50 Wimpole Street in London.
I was reminded of this when on Thursday night last I slipped in, somewhat late I have to admit, to watch the cast of “My Father's Life” perform in John MacKenna's latest work. The performance was in the exhibition room next door to the main library room and of necessity because of the absence of an elevated stage the play was enacted in the round.
John MacKenna, one of the founders of the Mend & Makedo Theatre Company, has long championed for a theatre/arts centre for Athy and more than anyone else he has kept alive the theatrical flame in the town of Athy which was once a vibrant centre for the dramatic arts. The Social Club Players of the 1950's and early 1960's were the most successful successors to a long line of amateur theatrical companies which graced the stage in this part of Kildare over many decades. What was important for the success of these groups is that they had a stage on which to perform. In earlier years the Comrades Hall in St. John's Lane vied with the Town Hall as a venue for amateur theatrics, and I remember both venues being used at different times by the Social Club Players. Today Athy does not have a theatre, big, small or otherwise and the public spaces available for cultural events in the Heritage Centre or the exhibition room of the Town Hall are not so suitable for dramatic productions.
Despite this the Mend & Makedo production of “My Father's Life” was a first rate performance which drew a remarkably warm response from a small but receptive audience last Thursday. I was particularly struck by the performance of Sarah Maher, a young actress who brought a wholesome sweetness to her portrayal of the daughter of the English peasant poet, John Clare. She was particularly good when interacting with the other players, her measured assurance of movement, expression and voice belying her relatively short experience as a stage actress. She was less convincing when adopting the narrative role, especially in the first part of the play. The conversational tone she adopted at times seemed hurried and perhaps too casual, but as the play progressed this improved so that by the plays end she had the audience enthralled. A good performance, indeed an excellent performance by a young girl whom I believe has a great future in theatre. As usual I can't give a compliment without a little gripe and it is this. Her last line as she left the stage I felt was unusually flat.
Noel Lambe was good in the role which was particularly suited for him. His performance relied more on visual expression of the writer's intentions rather than a recital of lines and for this Noel was ideal. Strangely I thought that the author of the play gave a performance which was not one of his best. I have seen John in all his plays going back almost 25 years and he has never failed to excel in the many challenging roles he has undertaken in the past. The Northamptonshire accent he adopted for his role of John Clare was by and large maintained through the play at the level which was credible, but somehow or other his portrayal of the mad poet did not quite come off. The tortured visage of an institutionalised lunatic could not be visualised as I looked at the face of the man I know so well. It was a good performance, but not a great one. The reason I think lay in the difficulties presented by the physicality of the actor playing the part of a man who spent so many years in a lunatic asylum. It's possible that the fault may not be the actors but rather my own for retaining a visual representation of how I believed an early 19th century English asylum inmate would look.
All round it was a fine performance by the Mend & Makedo players in an original play by one of our finest writers. John MacKenna's literary output is impressive and in November his new book “Things you Should Know” will be published. I gather the book will be launched in the Town Hall on Saturday, 4th November by radio and T.V. personality Derek Mooney, but more about that nearer the event. In the meantime you should try and see “My Father's Life” which is being toured throughout Leinster over the next few weeks.
Earlier on Thursday I travelled to Dublin for the launch of Zolton Zinn Collis' book “Final Witness – My Journey from the Holocaust to Ireland”. Zolton featured in an Eye on the Past I wrote some years ago and in the meantime he has been one of those responsible for organising the Holocaust Memorial Day which is held in January each year. Intended to cherish the memory of all the victims of the Nazi Holocaust the Memorial service organised in association with the Department of Justice and Dublin City Council serves as a reminder of the dangers of racism and seeks to provide lessons from the past that are relevant today. Zolton has for many years gone from school to school talking to young people about the tragic defining episode of the 20th century in which he lost so many members of his own family. His is a sad story but one he says that must be remembered and never forgotten. With the publication of his book the story will now be available to a wider audience. It is a story with which we should make ourselves familiar if we are ever to aspire to freeing ourselves of the evils of prejudice, and accept the part we have to play in fighting racism and other forms of discrimination.
The book launch took place in Dubrays book shop in Grafton Street and the Minister for Justice, Michael McDowell, on a busy political day took time out to perform the launch. It was nice to see many from Athy who took the trouble to travel to Dublin to support Zolton and those of you who did not have that opportunity will be pleased to know that Zolton will give a talk in the Town Hall in the near future. Further details will be given in this column. In the meantime the book is on sale at €13.99 and I would recommend it as an important testament of a courageous man.
I finish this article with a few lines from a poem written by John Clare in his latter years. They are the words of a simple countryman, the son of a labourer who himself worked as a farm labourer, whose tombstone at Helpston which I visited a few years ago bears the epitaph “A poet is born not made”.
“I lost the love of Heaven above
I spurned the lust of Earth below,
I felt the sweets of fancied love
And Hell itself my only foe.
I lost Earth's joys, but felt the glow
Of Heaven's fame abound in me
Till loveliness and I did grow
The bard of Immortality.”