Dark songs from the edge of the world

Performance Corporation’s new site-specific work is inspired by tales of exile from Mayo

At the edge of the Atlantic Ocean, nestled in the curve of Blacksod Bay, sits a concrete tank that is transformed at high tide into a tidal swimming pool. Locals track the moon and gather at the lido when the pool is full: to swim, of course, but to talk and share news too. As composer Ellen Cranitch puts it, the outdoor pool is “a place of light. There is the physical light of the sun glimmering on the water, or going down on the horizon, but there is also a metaphysical light. Over the past couple of years, it has been a beacon of hope and a literal lifesaver from a community point of view.”

As she describes it to me, Cranitch talks about all the local people who swim there regularly, those who discovered the tidal pool during Covid — “it was an outdoor space within 2km where they could meet safely within regulations” — and those who learned how to swim for the first time in its briny depths. This September, with Cranitch’s help, the tidal pool will become a different kind of focal point for the community: a theatre, where stories of the sea will be told by Performance Corporation, the theatre company founded by director Jo Mangan and playwright Tom Swift 20 years ago this year, with the mission of creating “daring theatrical adventures in surprising places”.

Performance Corporation have more than lived up to their ambition since they started producing live performances in 2002. They have made work in rowing boats and on lakes, in shopping centre plazas and sports stadiums, in sand dunes and car parks, in libraries and, of course, on traditional stages. Swift explains the genesis of Disappearing Islands in Belmullet, a place that he and Mangan know well. “Jo’s family have connections in Mayo,” the writer explains. “Her dad is from Belmullet and we have been visiting for years.” Fifteen years ago the couple decided to make a show there, inspired by stories of exile from the area, specifically the Inishkea Islands, off the coast of the Belmullet peninsula. “It was an incredible experience,” Swift remembers. Before he wrote the play, the company spent a week exploring the area and talking with locals, gathering stories for what would eventually become Lizzie Lavelle and the Vanishing of Emlyclough. The drama was performed by professional actors and a community cast “in a natural amphitheatre in the sand dunes”. The production ran for only four nights but in the research stage, Swift had gathered a lot of material that he knew he would like to use again some day. “The area has such a rich history and folklore and there are so many beautiful, interesting places, so we were keen to make something else there, something that would be focused more on the sea.”

Tom Swift was also interested in delving into his own relationship with death and grief

Of course, the sea is a capricious collaborator, and as Swift began researching ideas for a new play earlier this year, he was very conscious of how difficult it can be to work in outdoor spaces, as well as “the dangers of the sea and the local tragedies” that have affected the surrounding community, both historically and in the present day. “Recently, there was the Rescue 116 disaster [in which four coastguards died in 2017], but that is just one of many tragedies over the years. There was a terrible tragedy just off the Mullet Peninsula in the 1920s when a dozen men and boys died in a terrible fishing accident; [afterwards] the people who inhabited the islands gave up and moved to the mainland. So there is a lot of dark history there to explore.”


Swift was also interested in delving into his own relationship with death and grief. Swift’s brother, the actor Stephen Swift, died of cancer in 2018, “so there was that personal experience of loss that I was interested in, but I am also conscious that we got a chance to say goodbye to [Stephen] and to come to terms with his death a bit in a way that people often don’t. I was interested as a writer in exploring how people cope with loss, how they move on, what the best way is to remember people.”

From the beginning, Swift imagined writing “a song cycle that would bind together local myth, legend and loss in a series of vocal works.” One of the stories that really captured his imagination was the legend of Hy-Brasil “a mythical mystical island supposedly off the west coast of Ireland”. Weaving together these disparate elements, Swift came up with a story about a woman who has returned to Belmullet after many years away. “It emerges that she hasn’t got long to live and she is trying to make peace with herself, with her family, with the idea of leaving this world. She is sort of becoming one of these disappearing islands herself.”

Composer Ellen Cranitch came on board and as Swift set about writing lyrics which would provide a narrative drive to the story, Cranitch joined him in Belmullet to explore the area and “get a feel for the place that I could feed into the music. We met so many fantastic people,” she explains, “who are living in and documenting the area in many different ways: retired lighthouse keepers, fishermen, local arts officers, farmers, wildlife rangers. We put all that savouring of the area into the pot, trying to figure out a way that we could make a piece that would be relevant. I am a contemporary musician, Tom is a contemporary playwright. We wanted to make something that would have an immediacy and be relevant both to ourselves as artists and the community who live there.”

When Swift and Cranitch came across the tidal pool site, they knew immediately that it was the place where their collaboration would be performed. “The pool itself is like a disappearing island,” Swift explains. “It is a liminal space that disappears at a certain time twice a day.” As with all site-specific, outdoor performances, he marvels, “there will be a completely different lighting design and set for each show”. Cranitch, meanwhile, describes the “magic that takes place when you are performing in a space where real-time is unfolding as the play is happening. The sun is setting, or the tide is coming in, or a seagull steals your sandwich, or there’s a swell out at sea, and there is nothing you can do about it.”

Voice is the key instrument of the resulting song cycle that Ellen Cranitch has composed to accompany Swift’s lyrics and story

She admits “it is challenging, but stimulating” both for the performers, but also from a compositional point of view. “Certain instruments [like wind instruments] don’t work well in an outdoor space,” she explains.“You don’t have the natural acoustic bounce that you would if you were in a theatre.”

Voice is the key instrument of the resulting song cycle that Cranitch has composed to accompany Swift’s lyrics and story. The score will be performed by opera singer Naomi Louisa O’Connell and Coda, a six-piece male-voice acapella ensemble from nearby Westport. A blend of live and pre-recorded music — composed of piano, percussion and found sound — will accompany the singers, with two contemporary dancers providing added visual interest, with a community of local sea swimmers diving into the action for the finale.

At least that is the plan for Disappearing Islands on the day we talk. Cranitch is canny enough to recognise that “we will be tweaking away at everything until the very last minute. The subject matter, the execution: it is all fluid until you are there on the day performing.”

“That’s theatre,” Swift concludes drolly. “And you have to be comfortable with the challenges, especially when you are making site-specific work. There are so many unexpected obstacles, but they can provide the really special moments. The creative solution you have to come up with at short notice is often where the magic happens.”

Disappearing Islands: Songs from the Edge of the World takes place at Belmullet Tidal Pool from Friday, September 16th, to Monday, September 19th

Sara Keating

Sara Keating

Sara Keating, a contributor to The Irish Times, is an arts and features writer