Cuchulain comes full circle
Irish poet and playwright William Butler Yeats was deeply invested in Irish mythology and folklore, so it is no surprise that he wrote five one-act plays over the course of 35 years about one of Ireland’s most beloved folk heroes, Cuchulain. This year the College’s theater and dance department has produced all five of them to be performed together.
This semester, Richard Sewell, a retired theater and dance professor, returned to the College as a guest director to put on W.B. Yeats’ “Cuchulain” play cycle. The task was an ambitious one, as the plays cover a wide range of moods and settings and are rarely performed all together, not to mention the challenge of the heavy poetic text.
The production emphasized the influence of Japanese Noh theater—an art form encompassing poetry, music and masks—on Yeats. Though the director’s note admits that only two of the five plays were written with this particular style in mind, the production incorporated these aspects into all five one-acts, which served to successfully unify the disparate acts.
The masks worn by the actors were alienating to some degree at first, being an unfamiliar sight to modern theater-goers. But after getting used to them, the audience perceived that the masks almost seemed to take on the changes of expression lent to them by the actors. Particularly in the third act, “On Baile’s Strand,” the mask of the fool, played by Mimi Smith ’13, seemed to shift continually from overjoyed to plaintive to distraught, depending on the fool’s many well-played mood swings.
The masks also allowed for actors to switch characters between acts, so that in some scenes Mary Randall ’13 played Cuchulain’s wife Emer, while in the last act, ballet dancer Sarah Martinez ’11 took up the same role to perform Emer’s mourning dance after Cuchulain’s death.
Mask and costume also aided the transition from the young and vibrant Cuchulain played by Trip Venturella’s ’12 to the aged and wearied Cuchulain, played by Preston Kavanagh’s ’12. This was achieved through the used of the same gold mask and red tunic, but was aged by a down-turned expression and faded, fraying garments.
The set was relatively bare with only two platforms at the back and some scattered wooden flats and cubes. The simplicity of the design, while not all that attractive, was well-suited to the variety of settings within the five acts; the pieces were all mobile and the actors often changed the scenery themselves. The bare set was also suited to the timelessness of the mythology. In the last act, the setting is abruptly shifted out of folklore and into contemporary Ireland, where buskers rapped the ancient tale as people passed them by on the street. The set helped to smooth this transition.
This idea of the timeless tale, present in the Cuchulain cycle, is also noted elsewhere in Yeats’ work. The Nobel Prize website–Yeats won for literature in 1923–lists in its biography of the poet his recurrent theme of “cyclical theories of life.” This theme embodies the ideas of death and rebirth, as well as immortality through oral history. In the fourth act, “The Only Jealousy of Emer,” Cuchulain experiences a resurrection of sorts after an ill-fated battle with the sea. In the fifth act, “The Death of Cuchulain,” the hero’s story lives on through the song of the street buskers. These ideas are also present in Yeat’s poem “the Second Coming,” selections of which both the actor-manager (i.e. Yeats), played by Eli Dupree ’13, and the full company recited in the last act.
The appearance of the playwright in his own play, as well as the shift to contemporary Ireland, were surprising to the audience member expecting to see a play advertised as being set in mythical times. Dupree’s few moments as Yeats were engaging, casually breaking the fourth wall and granting momentary relief from the more structured language of the play. “I am old. I belong to mythology,” he quipped, giving reason to his production of such plays about old heroes.
Other notable performances included Kavanagh as King Conchubar, another solemn and aged character, to whom Kavanagh gave presence. Dan Echt ’11 and Doug Newkirk ’12 elicited many laughs as Legaire (“Leary”) and Conall respectively, foolish but steadfast friends of Cuchulain in the second act, “The Green Helmet.” Smith and Ahmed Asi ’12 made for another humorous pair as the bantering fool and the blind man in the third act. Smith in particular gave life to the fool, both endearing and witty.
The acts were performed in chronological order according to the narrative rather than the chronology of when they were written: for instance, the third act, “On Baile’s Strand,” was written before the first and second acts. This allowed the narrative of the hero’s life to come together, despite the sometimes inaccessible poetic language and the cycle’s complex relation to “the Second Coming,” written in the same year as the cycle’s resurrection act.
Overall, the company took on an ambitious task and came together to create a unique piece with an end result to be proud of. The play cycle required more of the performers than simple acting. Some actors played instruments on stage–Tyler Parrot ’13 skillfully played the lyre–in addition to working with the complexities of the text, performing with masks and bringing to life the timeless tale of the hero, Cuchulain.