Boland: Journey of a Poet – One-note production of a near-perfect biographical play

Review: Druid’s chronicle of Eavan Boland’s life and work overlooks myriad possibilities

BOLAND: JOURNEY OF A POET

On demand from the Mick Lally Theatre, Galway
★★☆☆☆
Who is the best person to tell the important story of a famous chronicler? The discovery of Druid's streamed play Boland: Journey of a Poet is that sometimes the most qualified is the recorder themselves.

That the late Eavan Boland created a vision of broken silence and alternative myths, positioning women's lives as meaningful subjects in art, makes her poems count as radical acts of documentation. It's fitting that she would leave blueprints behind for a major telling of her own story.

Through script editor Colm Tóibín's researched assemblage of Boland's nonfiction essays and poems, all filled with riveting introspection, this seems as near-perfect a biographical play as we could get. If representation was important for the poet, the possibility that recognising something within an artwork could ignite a chain reaction, then director Garry Hynes's production begins with a nice touch. Our first sight is a new portrait of Boland painted live by the artist Debbie Chapman, a creation depicting someone who understood the power of such.

From a stage picturesquely resembling a still life, Siobhán Cullen is placed in intimate, face-front address to the audience, giving such meticulous attention to Boland's account of her life that the actor seems to be playing the poet

From a stage picturesquely resembling a still life, Siobhán Cullen is placed in intimate, face-front address to the audience, giving such meticulous attention to Boland’s account of her life that the actor seems to be playing the poet. The intonation is pleasingly rich, but you expect it to get raw, especially during the play’s more anguished scenes.

As a starting point for telling Boland's story, the play begins with her parents' complex lives as the family of an Irish diplomat in London. Picking up a book of poems, Cullen reads Fond Memory, where lilts of an Irish song send a young Boland longing to return to Ireland. It's a refined delivery, spoken in satisfying cadences but without the stirring defiance of a fugitive breaking rules. That risks the poem readings – the play's set pieces – falling flat.

In poems such as Envoi, a determinedly lonely search for inspiration, and Is It Still the Same?, a powerfully uplifting expression of representation, Boland seems to be railing against the world of Irish poetry as run by men. Cullen captures the authoritatively intelligent voice of the poet’s nonfiction, but the grim persistence flowing through these verses is missing.

For all of Boland's immense writings about her life, she isn't always the best curator, as some poems crash in without context

Similarly, if the achievement of Night Feed was its joyful yet unsentimental moment between a mother and her infant (“And we begin/ The Long fall from grace”), here it receives the misty-eyed accompaniment of Conor Linehan’s music.

For all of Boland’s immense writings about her life, she isn’t always the best curator, as some poems crash in without context. The Black Lace Fan My Mother Gave Me, for instance, with its prewar-Paris setting and alchemical transformation of a fan into a liberated blackbird, risks being too otherworldly to take in without some preamble.

As a visit to her mother’s deathbed becomes a poignant final image, the play’s myriad possibilities contrast with its one-note production. Boland knew well that telling one woman’s story unlocks that of another.

Available on demand from tomorrow until Sunday, May 2nd

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