Catalpa – Review


Dunamaise Arts Centre


Having walked past an old poster for Catalpa, on which the Washington Post described it as “a soaring theatrical Catalpa…a rip-roaring one man adventure, ”every day for as long as I can remember,  I was really looking forward to finally seeing the show, and I was not disappointed.

Catalpa, written and performed by Donal O’Kelly, tells the story of the 1876 rescue of six Irish prisoners from the Freemantle colony in Australia on a whaling ship captained by Capt. George Anthony. Simply set with a long white sheet suspended in the centre of the stage, draped over a box being the only set pieces (excepting Knight’s keyboard and equipment), the emphasis is on the storytelling throughout the piece. This was a good move as O’Kelly demonstrates a true talent for telling a rollicking good tale. Switching between characters adeptly, creating clear images of every person in the audience’s minds, O’Kelly draws us into the tale; I found myself leaning forward in my seat, flinching, laughing, holding my breath, frowning, grinning and smiling with each twist and turn in the story. The sheet is used to great effect to compliment this, becoming waves, an old mother-in-law’s shawl, a wife’s scarlet dress, and bedclothes, amongst other things.

O’Kelly’s performance is accompanied live by Trevor Knight who ekes brilliance out of the keyboard, bringing the sea, whales and many other parts of the story to life through sounds and music. The lighting design, adapted for this tour by Ray Duffy, is simple yet stunning. It captured every mood in the piece, transformed O’Kelly’s appearance from character to character and further brings to life the captivating tale.

Having been on the go since it premiered 20 years ago, Catalpa has probably clocked up more miles than the original ship, touring numerous Irish venues, travelling to the 1996 Edinburgh Fringe Festival (where it earned itself a first), and to myriad other international engagements from the Chicago Humanities Festival to the Harare Festival of the Arts Zimbabwe. It has deserved the run it has had and the status it has earned as a classic of contemporary Irish theatre; this show is an example of one of my favourite types of theatre. An engaging, exciting, funny and moving piece, Catalpa is intimate, enthusiastic, uncomplicated storytelling at its finest.

A Conversation With Kate Heffernan

Writer Kate Heffernan talks about her work, her thoughts on Irish theatre and advice for people considering a similar career.

Photo by Senija Topcic

Photo by Senija Topcic

Tell us a little about what you do.

I am a writer – a ‘yes but no but yes but’ writer – contrarily uncomfortable calling myself either theatremaker or playwright, but comfortable with the makerly meaning of the word wright. When not agonising over definitions, I write texts for performance. I also do lots of other work to supplement this questionable lifestyle choice, such as graphic design, bespoke show programmes, writing and editing and producing support.

How did you find your way into your field? Was it something you always had an interest in?

I haven’t always been a writer. I’ve worked in lots of different capacities over the past twelve years, from running a box office for an arts festival on an island at the other end of the world, to stage-managing a site-specific dance performance in hotels across this island, to my most recent role as Assistant Producer at Project Arts Centre. My first job in theatre coincided with the opening of Dunamaise Arts Centre in my hometown when I was 16, and I worked as stage-manager for a production by Shake the Speare, a brilliant young ensemble led by Cabrini Cahill. My interest started right there, and I then just said yes to every job that came my way – tearing tickets and unloading sets and putting season brochures in envelopes and hanging lamps while reading English at college lined my pockets, informed by thinking as a writer, and the vast range of performance I absorbed at the same time fuelled my imagination.

You just finished a year as Artist in Residence at the Dunamaise Arts Centre Portlaoise with Maisie Lee, could you tell us a little about that?

Home was a project by, for and about the people of Laois. We encouraged people from all walks of life to get in touch, to make contact, to share their ideas. We spent the first half of the year meeting with groups and individuals of all ages and from a variety of backgrounds from all over the county, discussing and workshopping ideas of ‘home’. We became very interested in exploring radio as a medium that could reach people in their own homes. The residency culminated in Hometruths, a series of six fictional texts for radio, written by me and directed by Maisie, based on all of the ideas collected throughout the year. Recorded for broadcast at Dunamaise and various locations throughout Laois, five of the pieces were performed by a local cast. Hometruths was broadcast live from Dunamaise by Midlands 103 last December.

You had a successful run at the 2013 Dublin Fringe Festival with your play “In Dog Years I’m Dead” for which you won the Steward Parker Award. Could you tell us a little about your experience of writing it and having it in the fringe?

That was a whirlwind. One second Maisie and actor Marie Ruane and I are chatting semi-absently about shared anxieties surrounding turning 30, the next second we’ve made a play about it with the collaboration of actor Rob Bannon, its on in the Dublin Fringe Festival and its selling out, its revived for a month-long run at Bewleys Café Theatre and its winning the Stewart Parker Award. Or at least it felt like two seconds. That was about 18 months in reality, a period in which I took a terrifying leap from being a secret writer to a public writer, with the unwavering support of the brilliant Maisie Lee, and also the incredibly enabling encouragement of Róise Goan, then director of the Dublin Fringe Festival. All of it feels a bit whirlwindy, apart from one moment at the top of our very first preview, Maisie and I glancing uneasily at each other as we stood behind our very first audience, uncertain about what way it would go. That first moment when you feel an audience connect with what you’ve tried to achieve is overwhelming, that energy in the room, whether it’s a laugh, a gasp, or a still silence. That’s the feeling that makes time slow down. And the drug that will keep me coming back for more.

What has your favourite theatre moment of the last 12 months been?

I’ve wrestled with this, and have decided there are just too many to reduce it to one! I was struck by the beauty of L’apres-midi d’un Foehn by Compagnie Non Nova (at the Ark as part of Dublin Dance Festival), in which Jean-Louis Ouvrard transforms plastic bags into a troupe of prima ballerinas. The simplicity of its artistry will stay with me, a simplicity that in my own work always seems just out of reach. The ethereal vocals of Inuk throat singer Tanya Tagaq and Sonya Kelly’s smart slant on immigration, love and a lamentation for avocados in How to Keep and Alien (both as part of Tiger Dublin Fringe), the hypnotic words and fractured world of Chris Goode’s Men in the Cities at the Traverse during Edinburgh Fringe, the irresistible joy of Fabulous Beast’s Rian at Dunamaise for Culture Night. Two design moments will stay with me: a stunning singular second in The Company’s The Rest Is Action, when Rob McDermott as Cassandra, begins to have visions of the future (at Project Arts Centre as part of Tiger Dublin Fringe); and the opening sequence of Schaubühne’s Hamlet, a simple diffuse water hose adding a layer of tension to the farcical burial of Hamlet’s father, and just one of many engrossing sequences during that incredible production (at BGET as part of Dublin Theatre Festival). The Dublin Theatre Festival offered so many moments: the weird growing-up-in-a-small-town vibes of Jonathan Capdevielle’s Adishatz/Adieu, the letter-perfect choreography of BERLIN’s Perhaps All the Dragons, and Pan Pan’s often off the wall, always coherent, unwaveringly engaging (and sometimes tutu’d) production of The Seagull and Other Birds.
Good grief, I’m fierce longwinded.

What do you think of the current state of Irish theatre?

Lots of brilliant things, lots of less brilliant things but – with improved strategy, policy, vision, ambition and rigour at every level – lots of space and possibility for more brilliant things

If you had to pick one change to make to Irish theatre, what would it be?

Less polarity in our thinking, in our language, in our preoccupations: less of centre versus periphery, funded versus unfunded, pre-2008 versus post-2008, new work versus new writing, playwright versus theatremaker (Oh give it a rest, Kate!), self-produced versus every-other-kind-of-produced, emerging versus established, traditional versus contemporary, absolutely incredible versus total shit! And so on, ad infinitum. And by saying less, I imply more: more informed, rounded and active engagement with everything that’s happening by everyone involved. Is that a bit airy-fairy?

What advice would you give to a person considering pursing a similar career to yours?

Don’t be too hung up on gut. I’m not sure I ever had one to follow. Some decisions are hard, some are easy, very few singular decisions will alter the entire course of your life, make the decision that’s right for now, and things will slowly slot into place. Don’t beat yourself up for not being in the place you thought you’d be if indeed you ever thought about such a place. Read a lot, see lots of different types of work, but don’t passively consume it or lazily dismiss it. Think about the artists’ intentions not as a critic might but as a fellow maker does, think carefully about your responses – articulate them. Try and keep a notebook, but don’t worry if it’s not for you, plenty of writers don’t. Find someone who you can share your work with, a reader whose opinion you trust, but not someone who is either too critical or holds such a lofty position in your life that it is crippling rather than enabling. Read Stephen King’s On Writing. Read The Paris Review interviews and keep your favourites close to you during the bad times. Make things – always make things. I had a blast reading English but it stopped me dead in my tracks as a writer, turning me from maker into self-doubting critic, and it took (is taking) years to come back around from that. Don’t stay away from studying literature, but keep creating, being careful not to let your literary analysis skills overcome your skills as a maker. Take all advice with a large flake of Irish Atlantic Sea Salt.

Thanks to Kate Heffernan for sharing her thoughts.

Review – “Swing”

Steve Blount and Janet Moran in Fishamble's Swing, photo by Pat Redmond 10

Fishamble Theatre Company
Dunamaise Arts Centre
1st July 2014

There is no better way to swing into summer than with Fishamble’s sparkling new production “Swing”. I guarantee that this short but sweet show will make you want to dust of your dancing shoes and Charleston!
Janet Moran and Steve Blount excellently portray this hilarious and moving story of friendship. Both capture their main characters, Mae and Joe, to perfection while filling in all of the other characters at the class with ease. From the “amazeballs” instructors to the somewhat intimidating Regina and the homesick Noellia, every character is expertly created. As well as capturing each character, Moran and Blount capture the audience as they engage with them from the moment Mae steps in the door. As she nervously walks in asking the audience “Swing?”, we immediately want to get to know her character. The same goes for Joe who wanders in, bike helmet on, back for more dancing. Both characters are very real, engaging, endearing people.
The characterization is complimented by the smart, funny and touching writing. I don’t think I have ever seen a show produce more genuine belly laughs, chuckles and giggles as this. The balance of physical and verbal comedy, combined with the sweet story makes the production a joy to watch.
This is all topped off with the toe-tapping, heart-warming final scene where Moran and Blount show that alongside being excellent actors, they are quite some movers and shakers too! The upbeat music, simple yet effective lighting and the vibrant performances make this a must-see.