The greening of Red Square
An Irishman’s Diary: Raising the curtain in Russia for the Abbey’s rural Ireland
‘Snow was falling softly on Red Square, where two of Ireland’s most celebrated actors stood freezing, dressed in the rural garb of a pair of famous Irish dramatic characters – Tom Hickey looking gaunt and desolate as Monaghan bachelor Patrick Maguire and Niall Toibin, all swagger and bravado, defiantly dangerous as the Kerryman Bull McCabe’
Snow was falling softly on Red Square, where two of Ireland’s most celebrated actors stood freezing, dressed in the rural garb of a pair of famous Irish dramatic characters – Tom Hickey looking gaunt and desolate as Monaghan bachelor Patrick Maguire and Niall Toibin, all swagger and bravado, defiantly dangerous as the Kerryman Bull McCabe. Bemused Muscovite commuters hurrying to work on that February morning in 1988 could hardly have appreciated the significance of the Abbey Theatre’s first visit to Russia, bringing with it two acclaimed productions from its repertoire during the early spring thaw of glasnost under Mikhail Gorbachev. That freezing photocall with the combined Abbey casts of The Field by John B Keane and Tom MacIntyre’s ingenious stage adaptation of Patrick Kavanagh’s epic poem The Great Hunger produced images of soutaned priests and peasants, cloth-capped farmers, young girls in summer dresses and excited children throwing snow balls.
Travelling for RTÉ Radio 25 years ago, my work in documenting that pioneering visit offered revealing insights into the lives and vocation of the actors on tour, both on and off stage.
Veteran Kerry actor and seanachaí, Eamon Kelly, was asked to fill in an immigration declaration form inquiring if he were bringing any antiques into Russia. “Only myself,” he replied with a mischievous grin, “and a small drop of the craythur to fortify myself against the bitter cold.”
The youngest member of the company, nine-year-old Ruaidhrí Conroy clutched a huge teddy bear and stood on his toes to be seen by the immigration official. Ruaidhrí was appearing in The Field with his father Brendan Conroy and sister Neili, making this Abbey trip a family occasion.
In the rehearsal room in Leningrad’s Gorky Bolshoi Theatre, playwright Tom MacIntyre put Tom Hickey and Joan Sheehy through their paces before opening night. He tried with great difficulty to get official translator Natasha to put intelligible Russian on the Monaghan poet’s quirky Inniskeen declaration that “The men are the boys!”. That night a packed theatre watched in silent attention as stooped potato-pickers, forlorn bachelors and hopeless maidens went “down the ruckety path” of Kavanagh’s long elegy for a rural Ireland gone but not forgotten.
Patrick Mason’s imaginative production of The Great Hunger, with the haunting performance of Hickey as the tragic Patrick Maguire, moved but sometimes baffled the audience with its symbolic images and liturgical structure. However, it was The Field by John B Keane, directed by Ben Barnes, with its powerful and more familiar exploration of land hunger, brutal murder and a community paralysed by fear and hypocrisy that brought the Soviet audience to its feet every night.
Even in simultaneous translation into Russian, Niall Toibin as The Bull Mc Cabe managed to project sheer menace and malevolence with Donall Farmer as his obsequious side kick, the Bird Flanagan, hopping about the stage like a demented sparrow. Eamon Kelly and his real life wife Maura O’Sullivan provide welcome comic relief from John B Keane’s sinister plot as the audience warmed to his eccentric Danty Dan who boasts that his wife has “two certificates for making toast and four for making pancakes”.
When the company arrived in Moscow a few days later they were hosted and feted like celebrities, with a visit laid on to a gala night at the Bolshoi Ballet. As Macdara Ó Fatharta and his partner Bríd Ní Neachtain entered the foyer of the magnificent Bolshoi Theatre television cameras whirred and flashguns popped and they were both basking in the warm glow of media recognition until they were politely but firmly swept aside as head of state Mikhail Gorbachev and his wife Raisa were ushered in.
Tourist tales and sometime tribulations were shared over breakfast. One member of the company strayed from the centre of Leningrad and got lost for hours in grey tower block flats he christened “Ballymunski”. Maire O’Neill got a bargain in a silver samovar in the market but a fellow actor asked her where she put the tea bags. Niall Toibin got a bout of what he called “Trotsky’s Revenge” and a bossy woman army doctor was summoned and administered what the actor called “huge white horse pills” that nearly killed him, but they worked.
That memorable 1988 trip to Russia highlighted once again the international reputation of our National Theatre in transcending barriers of language and cultures and through the power of drama transforming the parochial and the provincial into the universal. Patrick Kavanagh was indeed a prophet as well as a poet when he wrote: “Gods make their own importance”.