Review: Star of the Sea

How do you bring a novel on a famine ship to the stage? With delicate balance and theatrical invention

Morgan Cooke and Ionia Ní Chróinín

Morgan Cooke and Ionia Ní Chróinín


Star of the Sea

An Taibhdhearc, Galway



Joseph O’Connor’s 2004 novel doesn’t exactly beg for the stage. It’s a beautiful, layered and dense read, set against the lofty sails of a famine ship. But Moonfish is an ambitious company that has a knack for deconstructing and rebuilding deftly.

In Star of the Sea, a landlord, a lover, brothers and others are layers stacked in a very delicately balanced production. Shadows are cast over famine-era Ireland, and it’s in the shadows that this production comes alive, thanks to inventive subtitling, projections, musical interludes and soundtracking. The cast take turns in standing back generously while the interlocking stories play out, with perfectly pitched sound pouring over a sepia-tinged landscape.

There are inevitable structural issues with a story that flips from Connemara to a crowded ship deck, from London opium dens to pre-famine shebeens, but it manages to rein everything in – just.

This is a series of obligations: to family, to landed gentry, to journey, to duty, although a central focus on the landlord David Merridith, who is teetering on demise, is a little unfortunate given his unsympathetic disposition, even if it is well-played.

Morgan Cooke’s sensitive portrayal of Nicholas Mulvey, the less ambitious brother of Pius, reaches a heartbreaking pinnacle with a brutal beating, along with the retelling of a walk among the starving. It’s during that monologue that the desperation of the era becomes visceral, as bags of salt or grain, or whatever else they didn’t have, empty behind him.

Where keening tunes could be hackneyed they are affecting. The heart of the matter – the cruel and brutal starvation and the micro-soap-operas that unfold within that context – isn’t exactly ripped open, and the nonlinear framework requires attention, but this is gorgeously assembled theatre, with lighting and sound design hitting every mark.

Moonfish deserves plaudits for producing a bilingual play that is accessible to non-Irish-speakers. The approach is neither pedagogical nor worthy, but deft and completely natural. While An Taibhdhearc encases this production beautifully, one wonders how it could soar on a larger stage. Until July 19

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