Once Upon a Bar-Stool, written and performed by Felix Nobis at the Celtic Club 6 September 2015
There are stories told,
Stories old as sound,
Moulded into languages and told around the fires of time.
Once upon a bar-stool,
Twice around the kitchen table,
Echoed in the mead-hall
And muttered on the way home from school, boys
Muttering their way home from school.
Generations of storytelling technique informed the charismatic performance by Felix Nobis of his one-man play, Once Upon a Bar-Stool. These ‘stories old as sound, told around the fires of time’ have been recited in mead halls, around fires, in pubs. The influence of his academic study of Beowulf, (he studied at University College Cork), was quite palpable, in the verse form he uses, and in the big pictures he so ecoomically sketched out.
It was a the story of migration that began with Seán, the grandfather’s generation, in the early 1950s, turning full-circle to how that was played out in his son’s and grandson’s generations in the early years of this century.
Mick lifts the lid off the cigarette box, revealing
A character, curved and concise,
Old, dark words crawl across a page,
And here my great-grandfather wrote,
We stayed and watched until the boat was
Nothing but a tiny
Tremble on the tide.
And then it disappeared
And then your brother cried,
Your brother and I cried.
The play generated an electric charge fuelled by this story of migration, as well as the angst a younger generation may feel about being bonded too firmly to the family and country of birth. As a parent, I can fully understand why a father might try to bind his son to his homeland, especially when, as was the case in the 1950s, there was scant hope of a return or even of keeping the postal or telephone services busy, especially if the spike bitterness is piercing the heart. The letters from Seán’s father, that punctuated the script, were abject and understated in their grief, ‘two years without a word.’ – a familiar plaint of parents trying to remain relevant and in touch with their wandering offspring.
We received your postal greeting,.
But please write us some news.
How is the country? And the climate?
And what of those kangaroos?
Have you found employment?
And are things going well?
I fear son, that the business of the Traveller’s Rest Hotel
Still weighs upon your thoughts
And increases the distance between us.
Write me a short line son, that you don’t hold me to blame.
Put my mind at ease,
In the mean time I remain
Your loving father.
The play was in a form of blank verse, and a very elastic and vernacular verse form it was. Unencumbered by conventional delivery, it could gather pace and rhythm for a climax, or relax into longer lines for more meditative moments. The sea voyage gathers together in the poetry the violence of the journey and the heartache of the boy traveller:
His grandad thought his fingers would break
And his arsehole would empty out through his throat,
And breath after breath he attempted to take
Was lost in the mass and the motion.
Was drowned by the scream of the sea and the boat
And he thought he would die
And his body would break
And be pounded to pieces by ocean.
Some audience members were impressed by the prodigious feat of memory involved. But one imagines that, as with all oral story-tellers, the verse tethers memory to the story’s emotional highs and lows. It moves fluently between verse forms, and the generations:
Father, tell us a story,
One night he sat down to find
He was no more a boy with a dragon inside him.
But a dragon, in vague shape of a man.
Once there was a man
The man had seven sons,
The seven sons said to him,
Father, tell us a story…
I’ll tell you a story!
Winter Bay lies about 4 hours North
From where he’d grown up, and of all the places,
Caravans, council flats, crappy hostels and so forth
He’d lived, alone of course, or in some cases
Shacked up with another lost or lonely divorcee,
It’s here, he tells himself, now tugging at his shoelaces,
He does feel most at home. At least to some small degree
At least as at home as he has ever felt
Since childhood. Although, he’s never really
Felt that at home. Unbuckling his belt,
A little though, a little at home. I mean… Where else would he go?
The more I see elaborately produced theatre, the more I appreciate a minimalist production. This play made very modest demands indeed: the performer wore black and was barefooted and needed only a scrofulous bar-stool and a battered Craven A tin with some ancient, folded up letters (from Seán’s father) in it. The art was in engaging the audience, and the play seemed to begin mid-bar-talk with ‘So….’ The minimalism was its own art. Voice, a story, a lithe and flexible body.
The stories of the three generations of men (what had happened, one wonders, to the women in their lives?) were indeed powerful. The repetitions (with variation) in the story (losing and gaining money in the same bar, generations apart became another aspect of the art of the performance.
The play generated four memorable characters: the heart-scalded patriarch, Seán’s father, who manipulatively squanders the travel money of his migrating son in the vain hope of keeping him close to hand. Seán, who so rejected the land of his father and his own birth that he gave his children the Anglo-Saxon names of Simon, Jennifer and Sahra rather than traditional Irish ones. The near-despair and longing of his son, Simon as he almost drowned at Winter Bay, for the father and son he’d cruelly ignored in the intervening years. And Mick, Seán’s grandson, to whom Seán gives the Craven A box with the letters, who seems impelled to learn about the culture in Cork his own father had renounced, and comically repeat his great grandfather’s squandering of all his son’s money in a betting match – a game of pool wonderfully evoked by the actor/narrator – presumably as a prelude to beginning a process of reconciliation and renewal. The custom of dropping his daks, (after he lost his game of pool to the ‘suit shark’), familiar enough in many an Australian Snake Pit Bar, but quite foreign to the Irish, provided one of the comedic highlights of the play – again the brashness of the young Aussie and the gobsmacked reaction of his erstwhile audience, wonderfully evoked.
The issues seemed to resonate with the migrants in the audience. To have the courage to emigrate is also to trample on the hopes and expectations of those left behind, parents and other related stay-at-home bodies. Hopefully it’s not so wrenching a choice these days, with Skype, email and easy air-passage diminishing the distances.
The letters from Seán’s father that bridged Seán’s, Stewart’s and Mick’s generations became heart-rending, the more we heard of them. They were the still and grieving centre of this family’s journey, gently chiding the prodigal son, informing him about his brother’s funeral and a family wedding, and patiently, tenderly reaching out. The son’s heart was not hardened, but the face he sets against Ireland is obstinate and hurt and rejecting. The move to reconcile was left to a future generation, by which time the original broken heart had become dust.
Felix Nobis gave us play that skilfully melded these many strands of a multi-generational family, and that spoke powerfully to generational differences as well as cultural ones. It was a very eloquent artifact, delivered with ease and grace by a master storyteller and actor.