Ancient Rain review: seems designed to tantalise us with what might have been

Dublin Theatre Festival: Irish poems set to music beg the question - why?

Camille O’Sullivan in Ancient Rain at the  Olympia Theatre,  as part of Dublin Theatre Festival

Camille O’Sullivan in Ancient Rain at the Olympia Theatre, as part of Dublin Theatre Festival

 

Ancient Rain ★★
Olympia Theatre

It is just as well Camille O’Sullivan could sing the electoral register and make it riveting. Otherwise, this ill-considered show would be a shambles. Hanging over Ancient Rain is a question: who is this actually for? And the answer seems to be: for people who don’t like reading poetry.

 There is a sequence in this 80-minute compilation of Irish poems set to music (bizarrely broken by a 20-minute interval) that seems designed to tantalise us with what might have been. O’Sullivan performs Paula Meehan’s The Statue of the Virgin at Granard Speaks. The musical setting – fractured, pained, confrontational – matches the poem and O’Sullivan embodies it in a way that is mesmerizingly theatrical. Alas, this musical and theatrical aptness is almost entirely exceptional.

 Ancient Rain begins with Seamus Heaney’s Digging and ends with a gauche staged reading of the last section of James Joyce’s The Dead. It would take a PhD in geometry to trace the line between these points. There seems to be some stab at an Easter Rising theme, but it is half-hearted. Instead, we get a greatest-hits compilation with no internal coherence or dramatic momentum.

 If you’re going to set great poems to music, you’d better be able to convince us that something’s missing from, for example Yeats’ conception of Easter 1916. But for the most part the music here is generic, unambitious soft rock. An Irish Airman Forsees His Death reconceived as an Aussie-accented country ballad by O’Sullivan’s collaborator Paul Kelly is interesting but not in a good way.

The ironies of a poem such as September 1913 are drowned out when it becomes a stomping rocker. The poignancy of Patrick Kavanagh’s Memory of My Father can’t survive a bombastic electric guitar riff. All of which might be easier to tolerate if anyone could tell us why. 

Fintan O’Toole

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