"To strengthen this town of Cork I have been of late casting up certain earthworks, but that your Lordship may know that I have a care of her Majies person, the charge thereof is defrayed 'tho unwillingly yielded unto, by the town and county, each of these according me 200 labourers, the Queen being at no other charge than the use of her shovels and spades."
Sir George Carew to the Privy Council, 1601
How site-specific can you get, I wonder, as Pat Kiernan of Corcadorca, playwright Patrick McCabe and composer Mel Mercier stride among the "certain earthworks" of Elizabeth Fort, yielded unto them, as it happens, by Cork City Council for their new play, Sacrifice at Easter.
The fortress is a mass of ramparts and bastions built in 1601 as a defensive massif on the western edge of the city. Pat McCabe is sitting in one of the terraced houses on the west side of the fort’s great square: “Everything I do proceeds from a small town; a small town with a terrace of houses.” The buildings within these walls make up something like a village. They were originally used as a barracks and more recently as a Garda station prior to the restoration of the fort by the OPW and its adoption by the city council.
Pat Kiernan says the company's engagement is with the site as much as with the script and the music for Sacrifice at Easter. "Each element as a piece is responding to the site; what's possible with this world is that it's unique, complete, a world of its own, not aligned to the people outside it, only to itself."
For composer Mel Mercier, recently appointed chair of performing arts at the University of Limerick and now also involved with Deborah Warner in a production of Shakespeare's The Tempest at Salzburg in July, the new production is attuned to the physical spaciousness of the fort. "Its closed-in structure allows us to think about the courtyard as a kind of memory space, where time is collapsed, where echoes float in and out in an accumulation of stories, sometimes told in poetry, or in sound, some coming from the back catalogue of the last 100 years, ideas which have a more enduring complexity. We will tap into all of that."
“The fort suits me,” says McCabe. “It’s a militaristic structure, with its rhythms, its liturgies, its prayers. That kind of place does have an impact on the language you use: regimented, repetitive, the notion of forming squares – all that stuff. I haven’t written a consciously political play here but the themes do overlap with ideas of sovereignty and republicanism. It’s a metaphysical journey which starts off in the Middle Ages and ends up in the next century to this – [it’s] sort of an impressionist journey.”
“In a sense this is the beginning of the making of the piece,” suggests Mel Mercier. Kiernan says there is no linear structure; the action is far more episodic than a play with a traditional plot. McCabe then remembers that what was solid and definite was “thrown out really – that’s the way Pat and I work together, it seems”.
None of the three was happy with the first draft, so they decided to work in collaboration on the script as well as on the direction and the music. "It was a similar process to the way in which we worked on Pat's first play The Big Yum Yum in 2013, distilling and settling into something, so there's been a huge development in the work over this period of time. We are making theatre with his ideas rather than making a play," says Kiernan.
Like Kiernan, Mercier enjoys the opportunity for free association, improvisation, and an element of installation, “trying to tie into the poetry of what it is we’re trying to make”. They had something to work with, given that McCabe says the script was “not entirely thrown out – it’s a source which we’re using, like a box to pick things from”.
McCabe sits back with a resigned air of letting the other two describe what they’re doing with his play. “We’ll take this week’s draft, write it all down and then we’ll see what we can identify. But there’s no sense of a re-enactment or a re-telling of the 1916 event. We’re trying to look at who we are, where we are, over that 100 years,” says Kiernan.
McCabe adds that he writes from his own background, using traces of the world in which he grew up. "One of my themes is religion. I have an ex-nun remembering her novitiate and now seeing social housing where once there were convents. I think of ordinary inoffensive clergymen living now in a bewildering world. My background of Catholicism, republicanism, those things leave after-shocks. The title Sacrifice at Easter was there from the beginning, but 1916 was not what was in my mind."
The production’s first performance is at the Cork Midsummer Festival this month, so the Easter Rising events will have run their commemorative course. Kiernan says that when the proposal began to take shape as a production 18 months ago the company was already sick of uniforms and rifles. “Our ideas may be related to impressions of that year but are shooting off to places that are not historically specific. That year, those events, will be so mediated by then that there will be no impact from our production, which allows us to make a piece of theatre trusting that it will be referenced by all that stuff but not going there at all. We’re looking at something more fluid, not setting the characters in any particular time.”
Words, music, light and darkness (the performance begins at 10pm), a walking audience and a large community cast led by seven professional actors can’t be folded into a neat preliminary package. Neither can the visionary collaborative approach taken by Corcadorca, which celebrates its 25th anniversary in May. But on leaving the star-shaped fort and looking through the cannon placements laid in stone over the city’s roofs there is a strong suspicion that audiences, like Sir George Carew, will be surprised at what can be achieved within his earthworks.
Sacrifice at Easter opens at 10pm on June 21st, with previews from June 17th