A woman's take

 

A WOMAN of mature years in a low cut dress sprawls in sand and croons to herself; two heads rise up from a piece of household furniture and speak the insular, inane codes of the long married couple. A man crouches alone on the stage, devolving into a half human, half beast as he recalls days of sweetness with a woman from his past.

These images are pure Beckett, recalling Happy Days, Endgame and Krapp's Last Tape respectively. They are drawn from Anne Hartigan's three short plays, collectively entitled Jersey Lilies, which were performed, appropriately enough, in the Samuel Beckett Theatre in Trinity last week.

Hartigan is one of the many Irish poets who writes for the stage their number includes Sebastian Barry, Brendan Kennelly and Seamus Heaney. But Hartigan's stage writing relies far less heavily on the spoken word, either for dialogue or for lyrical effect. She is more interested in the Beckettian elements of expressionistic image and sound, with mime, movement, silhouette, song, mask and voiceover.

Her characters hark back to Beckett's absurdist, dislocated figures and their self referential monologues in which sound frequently communicates more than actual words. These men and women partake in symbolic rituals rather than sit around naturalistic kitchen tables and have their tea.

Hartigan's trilogy is also distinctive in that it is a woman's take on the history of the war in Jersey. It starts with the strongest play, La Corbiere, originally performed during the Dublin Theatre Festival in 1989, and now much improved as a monologue performed by Hartigan herself.

The story concerns a boatload of ageing French prostitutes who were brought to entertain the Nazi troops occupying Jersey. The women were not considered young enough to please the German soldiers and they were put back on the ship and sent home. The ship went down in a fog off the rocky coastline of the island and the women drowned.

The searing lament in this play is for the bodies not just of those particular prostitutes but for all women, and how they are too often seen by men as throwaway flotsam. The language is pared down and powerful, dwelling to a great extent on the range of sounds which Hartigan injects into words, revising their meanings as her voice achieves an amazing range of pitch and timbre. In a few repetitions, the word "whore" changes from a hissed insult, to a sympathetic cry, to something close to wind and waves on a lonely beach. The sounds of the sea are evoked in a series of onomatopoeic words: "great grind, grit, growl - the suck back."

She lolls, vulnerable and sensual in a party dress, her hands playing with a long sheet which becomes in turn bridal veil, baby blanket, and shroud. She enacts a chilling rape scene, her voice speaking both sides of the assault. The words are simple: "Not that/Like this" but the force is all in her utterance and the eloquent image of her legs opening, her head thrown back, her feet kicking fruitlessly.

There is a powerful reclaiming of the female body, where Hartigan touches different parts of herself, repeating the word "mine". Such self possession is crucial given that women so often feel defined and dismissed by men. Hartigan speaks a litany which includes: "your dirt, your hate, your punchball, your mother, your madness, your toilet, your dustbin, yours!

In a poignant sequence the dead French prostitutes are described floating in the water: "No one is searching, no white arms over the boat's side ... no one will light a candle at your head and feet ... you bob your last dance on the sea's fold ... spreadeagled on the indifferent sea." Each body part is named and followed with the word "sand". The living, heaving flesh, from belly to breast, from beauty to ugliness, finishes thus.

The second part of the trilogy, Le Crapaud, performed by Robert Gordon (who also directs), is slight, dwelling on the experiences of the prisoners of war on the island, whom the Nazis treated like slaves. The most successful part is the brief cameo of a modern day woman in a Jersey memorial, trying to come to terms with their suffering and to explain the war to her child.

Les Yeux, the third play, is about two women photographers on Jersey who were imprisoned by the Nazis for resistance activities. Although it is too long, Les Yeux (performed by Anne Hartigan and Robert Gordon) benefits from the injection of nursery rhyme words and imagery, a foil to the intense poetry of La Corbiere. The Nazi interrogator wears a wolf mask; the woman he is questioning wears the face of the little pig. Nursery ditties take on a malign new meaning when associated with, the presence of the Nazis: Who's afraid of the big bad wolf?/If you go down to the woods today,/Ding dong bell, pussy's in the well." The two sisters are, after all, sentenced to death for their playful attempts to win the Nazi soldiers over to the side of the Resistance.

Apart from Marie Jones and Marina Carr (whose early work is also influenced by Beckett), women are not writing plays and presenting their vision to us on the Irish stage in any great number. Anne Hartigan is helping to fill that gap which presents us not only with a woman's view of history, prostitution, and the body, but also with a broad range of theatrical devices and inventive ways of telling that contemporary Irish theatre sorely needs.