I Must Be Talking to My Friends
by Micheál Mac Liammóir
Celtic Twilight Productions
St. Thomas Black Box Theatre
Micheál Mac Liammóir is probably best known as the creator of the one-man show The Importance of Being Oscar, and only slightly less well known as the co-founder of the Gate Theatre in Dublin and, there, as a "discoverer" of Geraldine Fitzgerald, James Mason and Orson Welles -- and eventually Iago in Welles' film version of Othello. He assembled I Must Be Talking to My Friends as a kind of homage to his adopted "native" land.
One of the earliest and most elaborate versions of the St. Patrick's Day Irishman, Alfred Willmore, born near London, fell under the spell of the version of Ireland found in the work of W. B. Yeats and converted himself into a thoroughgoing Irishman -- changing his name, moving to Dublin, learning Gaelic well enough to write books in it, and in general becoming the Emerald Isle's Grey Owl. The script for the play is an assemblage of great moments of Irish literature, pieced together with connecting narrative by a speaker who is not very different from Mac Liammóir / Willmore himself, and presents, in about an hour and a half, a neatly potted literary history of Ireland.
As such, it has all the advantages and disadvantages for a performer (and an audience) that you might expect. Lots of wonderful, rolling, evocative language (topped off by a chunk of Joyce's Ulysses), lots of passion, and, well, lots of sounding brass and tinkling cymbals. The main challenge is that it doesn't have much in the way of structure, and can easily become kind of tour of the monuments of the writers to whom the old woman, Ireland, has been a muse . . . a sort of "and then she wrote" without much to maintain your interest if you're not utterly fascinating by everything and anything Irish (Mac Liammóir, of course, was, which was why he put the piece together). Indeed, the title comes from Yeats' Cathleen Ni Houlihan, where the old woman, who is Ireland, says:
Sometimes my feet are tired and my hands are quiet, but there is no quiet in my heart. When the people see me quiet, they think old age has come on me and that all the stir has gone out of me. But when the trouble is on me I must be talking to my friends.And indeed, it is helpful to be a friend; the more interested you are in Irish literature and history the more you'll find her compelling. On the other hand . . .
Mac Liammóir, if history can be trusted, carried the piece off with flamboyant, excessive overacting, dramatically punctuating the transitions from one voice to another, from the narrator to another voice, with the charismatic and unrestrained brilliance you can catch a glimpse of in his portrait of Iago. In this summer's Black Box production Robbie O'Neill gives a skilled and sensitive and comparatively restrained performance of the piece, nicely shaped by Tania Breen's blocking and wonderfully supported by Mike Doherty's lovely and sensitive soundscape. Though at times the lighting seemed more theoretical than genuinely effective (a red overhead in Robert Emmett's gallows speech, for instance, didn't seem actually to affect the quality of the stage lighting much, and a flicker meant to suggest waves around an island seemed, well, more a flicker), all the production values were thoughtful and skilled. Particularly effective, in the intimate setting of the Box, is the way a single candle is used as a focus to begin and end the evening.
The central challenge of the production is to find a way to shape that evening by clearly differentiating Mac Liammóir's fairly pedestrian continuity from the extracts from Irish texts -- from, for example, the wonderful dialogue between St. Patrick and the angel, or the moving passage about Gertie McDowell and Leopold Bloom from Ulysses. O'Neill does so in part by taking his time -- the candle and the music at the beginning tell us there's no rush here, and O'Neill gives us time to feel the transitions. He also finds ways to give us various accents and wildly different styles of body language to differentiate the characters and bring out their voices. Even though there really isn't much structure, O'Neill manages to make almost all the extracts work effectively.
Oddly, this poses a further difficulty, in that without Mac Liammóir's bluster, the prose connecting passages often seemed rather flat: his narrative explanation of Yeats' importance simply doesn't measure up to Yeats' poetry, for instance, and the list of contemporary writers nodded to at the close seems, well, perfunctory. It might, in fact, help to skip some of Mac Liammóir's somewhat self-indulgent explanation in favour of the power of the original texts, or even his wonderful parody of a "stage Irishman" -- a bit that O'Neill carries off brilliantly. Still, as I watched and listened, listening to the lovely language and admiring O'Neill's skill, I kept wondering what it must have been like to have encountered Mac Liammóir in full flight doing this piece.
Failing that, you won't find a warmer or more entertaining introduction to Irish language and literature than this show.