Where clowns hit the right nose for singing - a red one
Barabbas was one of the first Irish companies to devote itself exclusively to clown. Established by Keane and fellow-clowns Veronica Coburn and Mikel Murfi in 1993, the company connected its work to “traditions like the Strawboys and Mummers” and “the music hall greats”, Maureen Potter and Jimmy O’Dea.
Indeed, one of the greatest exponents of the Irish clown, Keane says, was Samuel Beckett, who, for all the bleak philosophy of his plays, toyed with some of the oldest clowning routines: a banana in Krapp’s Last Tape, slapstick and identity-swapping in Waiting for Godot.
“Perhaps nearly all of our great playwrights – Yeats, Synge, Murphy, Keane, McDonagh – have drawn on the clown archetype,” Keane says, “embracing its power to entertain, disrupt, dismantle.”
Yet in the 1990s Barabbas was one of the few artists interested in exploiting how the tradition of comic physical performance could be used to entertain theatre audiences and explore Irish culture.
This is the theme of a new book by Carmen Szabo, The Story of Barabbas, The Company, which serves as a welcome introduction to the company, which is still performing, albeit in reduced circumstances. (Barabbas lost its regular Arts Council funding in 2010 and is now funded project by project, while Coburn and Murfi are no longer formally associated with the company.)
Szabo’s book is at its best when it reminds the reader of the company’s early work, which lives on only in the memory of those lucky enough to see productions like Half Eight Mass of a Tuesday or Sick, Dying, Buried, Dead, Out in 1994 and 1995.
I sat in the audience myself as a young teenager, enthralled by half-pint puppets, shadowy silhouettes and red noses shining like beacons in the dark. I had been to the theatre before and thought I understood its freedoms, however, seeing adults so obviously and joyously “playing” opened up a whole different world of possibility to me.
A few years later I was lucky enough to attend a clown workshop, where Barabbas shared the principles of clowning with a motley group of adolescents from various youth theatres.
It was tiring and embarrassing, as Mikel, Raymond and Veronica pointed out how we were actually breaking the rules: fidgeting, grinning, gurning, “acting the clown”.
But this was the rite of passage through which we would earn our red noses. A clown wasn’t a personality you pulled on, was the simple message, but one that emerged from inside you you when you weren’t looking.
* The Story of Barabbas, The Company by Carmen Szabo is published by Carysfort Press.