Wednesday, June 15, 2011

'Rosanna Nightwalker' — first night

There's no romance in this stage saga of the 'wrens' of the Curragh, writes Brian Byrne, the notoriously exploited women who sold themselves to the dragoons of the military camp and lived literally in holes in the ground amongst the furze bushes on the plains.

There's no nice way of describing their situation and their lives either, so author Martin Malone's scripting of Rosanna Nightwalker—the Wren of The Curragh is strong and earthy in language, and the acting from the wren characters particularly is raw, rough, and dirty in a most competent way.

Bloody great, the whole thing. Just don't go to the Moat Theatre expecting salvation at the end. There wasn't any for the original wrens, and Malone wasn't going to gloss things for the sake of making his audience go home feeling at least a little comfortable.

There are several stories going on. There's Rosanna, come to The Curragh to find her 'true love', the sergeant who promised her the sun, moon and stars—except that she didn't realise they were the ones that would be unseen above her roof of clouds over the furze in rain, hail and snow.

There are the wrens who take her in. Bridget, too old to attract business and who instead cooks and washes for her comrades, and who tends to the newcomer's wounds after a beating by the local priest. Violet, who has a good heart, Peggy who is tough and troublesome.

Two rangers in charge of policing the plains—Kennedy, venal and prepared to retire only if his junior James Greaney makes it worth his while. Tasked periodically with chasing the wrens from the area, each has their own agenda. James is doomed to love and worse.

Fr Charles Taylor is the boozy and puritanical man of God who could be a caricature except that there have been far too many real versions of him down the decades even into our own memory. ' again—never sully its air with your filthy breath', he pants in between trashing Rosanna with a crop, causing her much more than mere physical pain.

Through it all, there's the narrator, journalist Richard Tone, on assignment from 'Mr Dickens' to write about the plight of the wrens. Sympathetic he might be, but he's unable to shrug off enough objectivity to see the true story. Which means not only does he fail to avert tragedy, but unwittingly helps it along.

And the initial cause of Rosanna's plight, the dragoon sergeant Johnny McGuire. Not much of a man, but she doesn't see what her new friends have known for a long time, until he tells her to 'do what the other women do' when she asks where she's to go now? That was subsequent to her telling him she had lost 'their' baby and he answered 'all's well that ends well'.

All the characters in this piece of theatre are on a downward spiral, trapped in a whirlpool inexorably pulling them towards oblivion. 'I'm a cause you have no hope of winning', Rosanna tells the reporter Tone. The audience is equally being drawn in—we all come to realise that there's no redemption coming. Although there are twists in the plot that keep us wondering to the end.

And when we applaud at the conclusion, there's a certain sense of relief. At least for us, there are homes to go to which aren't holes surrounded by frozen furze. 'I do hate the snow and the way the cold makes your snot go hard', Bridget grumbles at one point.

Martin Malone has walked the Curragh and has conversed with the ghosts of a community which in its day numbered many scores of women 'just trying to earn a bit of money to keep body and soul together'. He has already told their story in a radio play and a novel.

As used very effectively in the production, the chorus from Danny Slevin and Vinny Baker's song 'The Wrens of the Curragh' places their position in haunting perspective—'For a penny I'll give you my body, for tuppence I'll give you my soul'.

Director Barbara Sheridan's touch with this not easy theme is as deft and uncompromising as we would expect from her decades of association in theatre in the Moat. Her cast give well, and will be giving even better by the time the run ends on Saturday next. 

The set design and dressing is a tour de force in its own right, in three sections which facilitated a seamless telling of the various stories set in several locations beyond the central camp in the furze.

It isn't often that we get a world stage premiere in County Kildare. But I'd be very surprised, indeed disappointed, if this one doesn't travel. And travel far.

A standing ovation to all concerned. I thoroughly recommend that anyone who likes good drama go and see it before it closes. And as we next drive across The Curragh, let us spare a thought for the wrens. With their story finally told so well in microcosm, perhaps their ghosts can rest.