High Voltage Women of Passion

A Theatre Review of Fair and Furious by Frances Devlin-Glass

Fair and Furious: Women of the Táin, devised and performed by Niki na Meadhra, Celtic Club, Melbourne, 24-25 Feb. 2017niki-for-vv2

Bloomsday in Melbourne commissioned a one-woman show based on stories from Táin bó Cuailgne which focussed on the women, and the community was treated a weekend ago to the fruits of Niki na Meadhra’s labours.

It is not easy to find roads through the dense and intertwined  tales of the Ulster epic detailing the war over the brown bull, with its subtleties of rank and genealogies and its often feverish emotional excesses. There is a lot of learning of names and families and places, and Niki did not for a minute falter. Some of the stories, like those of Macha and Deirdre and the Morrigan stand alone and are more easily encompassed, and some are necessary preludes to the main action, but the central story, that of Mebh, is more difficult to piece together, and needs to be told with reference to the Hound of Cúlann.

Niki made her first tentative excursion into the material about eighteen months ago, and since then has had the chance to test the material in Ireland on the story-telling circuit, and gather more material. The current offering is a high-energy show that has come a long way from those tentative beginnings, and which has its own power and a huge emotional range. She brings to the material years of acting, and more recently, she has honed her skills in story-telling.  What is remarkable is the seductive quality of the tales themselves, their ability to reach out to mixed age-groups, to gesture to realities that adults understand differently from children. She bridged the chasm between innocence and maturity with grace and tact.

Using only a red-fringed scarf and a sword, she changed characters simply: Nes wore hers at her waist as befits a queen in search of a lover; Macha, the heavily pregnant horse goddess, wore it around her belly which she caressed as every expectant mother does; Deirdre wore it as a protective shawl which ironically fails to protect; the warrior queen Mebh wore it as a breastplate; and the Morrigan grew wings in her manifestation as the crow who presides over  death. These were simple and effective costume changes, fluidly executed, which kept the narrative flowing. The sword gave Mebh a sense of bravado, but was also comically used to scratch her back in the pillow-talk. I loved these sudden recalibrations in scale, the way the epic would suddenly give place to the domestic. The simplicity of the staging was inspired, placing the focus clearly on the performer and her stories. The only other prop was a simple Japanese-style red stool, sometimes a mount, at another time, a place of execution. The palette, mainly red, but with the decorative blue scarf for contrast, was as blood-soaked as the narrative.

The stories of the women are often moving, and sometimes very funny, and Niki’s script milked the material for all its variety of emotional range and depth. Mebh’s frustration at not being able to best Aillil’s dowry with what she brought into the marriage gives way to a rueful but big-hearted acknowledgement of their equality in their marriage, even if it is short-lived and she moves into scheming mode.  The story of Deirdre is similarly full of frustrated longing, but the ending of her quest for happiness is tragic.  Macha is also a woman bent on revenge and proper acknowledgement and the scene in which she is forced to race King Conchubar’s horse was brilliantly staged with a big loping action which abruptly ends with the birth of her twins, her rage at the men’s refusal to speak up for her, and her curse.

These are all women of great presence, self-respect, and they resist being deemed second-class or merely ornamental. Their lusts and desires are larger than life, and irresistible forces with which their men must reckon. Whatever the real position of women in the ancient culture that the stories depict, their narrative counterparts are strikingly autonomous.

The piece as devised is a remarkable vehicle for showcasing this bold performer’s many skills, and it will grow  with time. Her vocal range is broad, and she deploys it to good effect to convey states of the most delicate lyrical courting, to the fiercest of warrior rages. Her expressive gestural range is similarly able to move from delicacy to the theatrical and melodramatic, as the tales dictate. And always, there is the relish in what the tales have to say and the inventive ways they say them. I really appreciated the ways in which, in story-telling mode, the performer is not afraid to engage with her audience, to eyeball them, and to have the lights higher than is normal in a traditional theatre performance. Thanks to Alex for his provision of the lighting at short notice.

For the future, perhaps more of the story of Cúchulainn needs to be built into the show, to build a more coherent structure for those who are unfamiliar with the tales. I understand she chose to underplay Cúchulainn because she had so recently played the boy-hero for this audience, but Mebh’s climactic refusal to meet Cúchulainn in battle and her epic menses would serve to round out the collection of tales brilliantly, without taking away from the central role of the women in the cycle.

It’s been a labour of love to bring these fragmentary tales into an afternoon’s rather than a week’s story-telling, and also to do it without talking down, and without making an assault on innocence. This is already a strong show, and I predict that it will see many more performances, all over the world. I wish I could say get to a performance, but it has finished its short run. Tinteán will advise readers when it makes its next appearance.

Frances Devlin-Glass is a theatre critic of long standing and a member of the Tinteán editorial team.