"We were all walking out into new ground," poet Theo Dorgan says of the making of Loco por Lorca, a celebration of the great Spanish poet, which embraces multiple artforms and related themes, including the poetry of Michael Hartnett, dubbed "Limerick's Lorca" by Seamus Heaney, and the problematic legacies of civil war.
The show premiered in Madrid last year, and will tour Irish venues in mid-October, before visiting Granada, homeplace to the poet and the site of his controversial shooting, by a Falangist death squad, at the outset of the Spanish Civil War.
I believe firmly that we don't write poems, the poems write us
“What I love about working with musicians,” Dorgan continues, “is that it’s like going for a walk in the country with people who have different reasons for being there. You’re all on the same walk, but you don’t know what you are going to see.
“There’s something about an audience that comes for a night of traditional music and poetry. If you are very lucky, your poems go to the place that music comes from. Part of it is allowing yourself to be spellbound by the material, giving yourself as player, writer, audience.”
“The sense I have of Lorca,” he continues without pause, “is that he was racing desperately to keep up with the poem. I believe firmly that we don’t write poems, the poems write us.”
The originator of the project, musician Cormac Breatnach, echoes this idea. "You are the instrument for the poems, we are the instrument for the music, we are . . ." he hesitates for a moment, "receptors. As I get older, and I hope wiser, I come to see more and more that we are in some way receptors," he says.
A conversation with Breatnach and Dorgan is itself a little like listening to improvised verse and music. They are both formidably fluent in ideas, and riff off each other constantly, interweaving diverse topics, looping back to add grace notes to points made earlier.
“I think there is something else,” Dorgan adds. “For me the fascination of Lorca was always the duende.” This is the notoriously elusive concept of heightened experience and authenticity that Lorca borrowed from flamenco.
“Poetry is that form of verse that has duende,” Dorgan says with conviction. “It’s that sense of otherness, that sense of ‘otherwhere’, which nonetheless always feels like home. You get it in a sean nós song when suddenly there is a moment when time goes away.”
Loca por Lorca, like their conversation, shifts back and forth between a myriad strands: between music and poetry and visual art, between four cultures and four languages, and between two countries and three centuries. And all that in the space of about 70 minutes.
Its premiere last year may have been attended by a number of ghosts, since it took place in Madrid’s legendary Residencia de Estudiantes. This is where Federico García Lorca stayed during his student days, as did Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí. Breatnach and Dorgan give credit for securing this prestigious venue, and for much else, to the Irish ambassador to Spain, Síle Maguire.
There were stellar figures, too, among the living audience. The distinguished Irish Hispanist, and biographer of Lorca, Ian Gibson was there, as was the poet's niece, the president of the Lorca Foundation, Laura García-Lorca. Their presence in the same room might have created some tension, as they have differed quite sharply about whether or not Lorca's body should be exhumed from its unmarked grave.
But there seems to have been a harmony of response to Loca por Lorca. As Breatnach discerned a broad smile on Gibson’s face, and tears on García-Lorca’s cheek, he reckoned they must have been doing something right.
What they were doing originated in a series of meetings of minds across many years. Breatnach grew up in an exceptional household, where the family spoke “Castilian Spanish to my Basque mother, Irish to my father, and English outside.”
Lorca, he says, was discussed by his parents “over Sunday dinners”. Indeed, his father Deasún Breatnach, a veteran republican journalist and writer, published a translation of a Lorca poem into Irish, La Luna Asoma/An Gheallach Ghliucaioch, which is revived for this production.
Breatnach says another significant encounter came in 1995, when he toured with his innovative traditional group Deiseal to the Azores, and became friends with Carlos Beceiro and Jaime Muñoz of the iconic Spanish folk group La Musgaña.
Lorca, as Gibson highlights in a programme note, had looked often to folk music for inspiration and material. Despite this affinity, it appears that Loco por Lorca is the first time his poems have been presented alongside Spanish folk music, and certainly the first time alongside Irish traditional music.
Breatnach stresses that Lorca's work is the core of the show; the music is a tribute, a reflection. In 2015 he began talking to Dorgan about creating a multi-media event to celebrate the 120th anniversary of Lorca's birth last year. A grant from the traditional music section of the Arts Council put some fuel in the engine.
Dorgan suggested contacting Keith Payne, an Irish poet resident in Santiago de Compostela, who had been publishing translations of Galician poems.
“I left the choice of poems entirely up to Keith,” says Breatnach. The four musicians (harpist Cormac de Barra had joined them) then “read and reread the poems and discussed what music would be appropriate. Once we agreed the music, I was inspired to compose. Composition was an integral part of the project, as important as choosing the right Spanish folk melodies.”
Payne decided to include one of the poems that Lorca wrote, rather surprisingly, in the Galician language. Madrigal de Santiago thus adds another cultural dimension to the show. It prompted a remarkable piece of vocal improvisation from Breatnach at the event in Madrid. Performing Mná na hÉireann after the poem was recited, he segued vocally over the score, from Lorca’s Galician Chove en Santiago to Peadar Ó Doirnín’s 18th-century Irish Tá bean in Éireann.
Dorgan also pointed Breatnach towards the work of the late Michael Hartnett, who had translated Lorca’s Romancero Gitano (Gypsy Ballads) into English in 1973. And in Hartnett’s famous Farewell to English, in which he declared his shift to writing exclusively in Irish, the Spanish poet appears as a tragic figure, first among the poets he mentions: “my Lorca holding out his arms/to love the beauty of his bullets”.
We don’t know how exactly how Lorca died, of course, but this poem plays a central role in the production, with its defiant conclusion, “The act of poetry/is a rebel act”.
The Spanish Civil War is also referenced through the show’s music. There is the Himno de Riego, an old anthem embraced in several new versions by the Spanish Republic, and El Trapero (The Rag and Bone Man), composed by Beceiro and Muñoz for the show, in homage to the poor who tried to rebuild their lives after the carnage and repression created by general Franco’s military uprising. As Breatnach says, the Spanish, like ourselves, are still trying to come to terms with the painful and complex legacies of fratricide.
The inclusion of Hartnett is echoed in Dorgan’s decision to add yet another strand to the show’s tapestry, translating the Lorca poems chosen by Payne from Spanish into Irish. It’s the first time he has attempted such an exercise, and he was happily astounded at the response in Madrid. This has prompted him to translate the entire Gypsy Ballads to our first national language, in a collection due to be published in November.
“Something happened that night in the Residencia with an entire audience sitting up, listening to a language they had never heard before,” he says.
“What they were hearing was the capacity of the Irish language to carry the music over . . . and the emotion of the poem . . . in the sound patterning of the translation. And of course it was buttressed by, and opened out by, the music.
“Indeed, both Keith and I found ourselves phrasing the poems to the music we had just heard, so that the whole thing was fitting itself together as a single sensory experience.”
Which brings us to the final element in the show, the lighting design by Luis Poveda. He met Dorgan while they were both working on Riverdance, and has produced highly evocative images, on which lines from the poems in four languages flicker like elusive dreams, even on a laptop.
You may be wondering, however, whether so many different strands can really work in harmony. Gibson, who can be a very tough critic, says they do. “It was thrilling,” he told The Irish Times. And then he adds: “It has duende.” There is no higher praise from someone who has lived intimately with Lorca’s work all his adult life.
Loca por Lorca plays in Rathfarnham Castle (October 16th), Seamus Heaney HomePlace (October 17th), Mermaid Arts Centre, Bray (October 18th) and Farmleigh House, Dublin (19th), and the Centro Federico G Lorca, Granada (November 7th). cormacbreatnach.com