Devil's in the detail at Druid rehearsals

‘BUT I SEE them, a herd of innocents, starved and diseased, thrown up on a foreign shore, the sacrificial offerings of a modern…

‘BUT I SEE them, a herd of innocents, starved and diseased, thrown up on a foreign shore, the sacrificial offerings of a modern world. This prosperous Christian world. I wonder is there another part of the world today stricken like ourselves? And I wonder is there a body of leaders, principled men, believing in an ideal for the world and letting a great chance go by.

“Because this is an opportunity, and the leaders should be rushing forward to grasp it with all the love and help they’ve got to further the hope of the ideal. Otherwise, better stop talks of ideals entirely and say that life is based on a lie . . . Maybe economies can only survive and cater for the catastrophe of war . . . ”

These words written in the late 1960s are drawn from the mid-1840s, and the location is the rural Irish village of Glenconnor. However, playwright Tom Murphy’s dialogue, delivered by actor Niall Buggy, could be set here, now, anytime, anywhere.

Buggy, cast as local priest Fr Daly, has just been confronted with the year zero “solution” devised by a Famine relief committee for his starving parishioners. The exchange is at full tilt, with Capt Shine, Rory Nolan’s patronising landowner, and Edward Clayton’s silk-tongued agent Simington, at their objectionable best, and . . .


And the director interjects.

It’s a detail about timing and movement, and within minutes Garry Hynes is off stage and back in the well of Galway’s Town Hall Theatre. Stage manager Paula Tierney, speaking through her headset, issues instructions to resume.

“I find it a very difficult scene to do in bits,” Buggy remarks.

“I know,” says Hynes.

“I’m sorry, I’m not complaining, I’m just making an excuse really,” the actor adds, almost to himself, and quickly turns to resume his lines.

With just three days to the opening night in Galway, and the penultimate day of “tech” or technical rehearsals, it’s a surprisingly civilised exchange between two seasoned professionals during a long, hot, steamy afternoon. Earlier, there had been innumerable breaks during scene four of Famine, the least produced but most potentially challenging of the three works selected by Hynes for her ambitious DruidMurphy project.

Maeve Connor, a 16-year-old girl played by Beth Cooke, has encountered young Liam Dougan, played by Gavin Drea, in the dark night of a wood, and he has given her an apple and some nuts. This is the love scene; a kiss “three times” over has to be fine-tuned.

“As I rove over one summer morning . . ,” they sing together, holding hands before Maeve suddenly breaks away and flees with a “Chris-jays!”, having been startled by the moon lighting up two bodies under a bush. Hynes halts it there; “unless Maeve is blind”, the director says, she has “not acknowledged that she has seen the bodies”.

“I didn’t see the bodies,” Cooke says cheerfully. No response.

Head down, Hynes mounts the stage. Movement director David Bolger makes some suggestions. One of the bodies takes advantage of the pause to sit up and have a good stretch.

A crate is produced. Liam will stand on it as he sings, before being interrupted by a dying groan. A section of Sam Jackson’s musical score is played, and replayed, by sound designer Greg Clarke – fine-tuning the precise cues for essential elements of the scene change.

More discussion, this time between Hynes, Bolger, Clarke and Jackson, and then Hynes suggests that Maeve stands on Liam’s shoes, as they hold hands on the crate.

In her slip of a muddied dress and shawl, the girl’s fragile bare feet contrast against the tough boot leather of the young man. The response is unspoken, but one knows one has just witnessed Hynes at her most inspired, devil-for-detail best.

“Dissecting the piece and putting it all back together again,” is how lighting designer Chris Davey describes it – this being the longest technical rehearsal in Hynes’s entire career. Although Davey has collaborated with design director Francis O’Connor (see panel), and has worked with the Abbey, this is his first time with Druid in Galway.

The director has been keen to ensure that there are visual motifs linking all three plays – Conversations on a Homecoming, A Whistle in the Dark and Famine. Such motifs will reward audiences booking for the “cycle” days when the three run back to back.

The links must be explored in Joan O’Clery’s various period costumes, in O’Connor’s set, and in the atmosphere created by Davey and colleagues on the large production team. There is no doubt that Famine is the “most difficult”, Davey says.

“The other two have a clearer structure, whereas there is no limit to the scope of the third. Famine is such a visual piece, and what we are doing is trying to build on a foundation of extraordinary language. The fact that we have so much dark theatre time, and that Druid pays such attention to detail, helps to create what we hope will be this big broad picture,” Davey says. “At the same time, we will be tweaking it throughout the run, even after it plays in Hampstead Theatre.”

Composer Sam Jackson says: “Things move quickly in tech, the tone changes, and so we have to be here constantly.” Editing his score “on the fly”, he says that there is “always a careful balance to be kept between doing something practical, and something that is artistically good”.

Part of that involves maintaining a close working relationship with sound designer Greg Clarke, who is responsible for some 80 to 100 cues in this play. It is Clarke’s fifth time with Druid; he worked with Hynes last year on the Dublin Theatre Festival staging of Colm Tóibín’s Testament.

“Garry isn’t entirely prescriptive,” Clarke says. “The director has to be like a filter, and so I’ll offer stuff up and she’ll make a judgment as to whether it fits her overall arc.”

The actors have taken a break; five of the entire cast of 17 are in all three plays, manager Tim Smith explains, as is stage manager Paula Tierney. “So it’s very tough, and everyone is working 12-and-a-half hour days,” he says, except for the two boys, Isaac O’Sullivan and Joseph Ward. Sharing the part of 10-year-old Donaill Connor in Famine, their working day must be restricted to three hours each.

The cast has barely vanished when production manager Eamonn Fox has moved in with his team. Master carpenter Gus Dewar, all goggles and drill and sawdust, is too busy to talk as he lays into sanding a door. Fox and company move between the stage and two 40-foot containers out the back of the theatre, which have been booked to ship two identical sets across the Atlantic Ocean and Irish Sea.

Hynes agrees that this project is far more demanding than DruidSynge, which premiered at the Galway Arts Festival in 2005. Her design team includes fight director Malcolm Ranson, whose influence is central to the riveting final stages of A Whistle in the Dark.

Although DruidSynge comprised six plays, several were shorter scripts; this cycle involves two full-length and one slightly shorter play, set in different periods. Hynes was always going to select Famine, she says, but agrees that it is particularly resonant now.

She has no apprehension about its staging in London, although she is not sure if she might have felt the same 20 years ago.

“I think the reaction to it will be similar to the reaction of audiences everywhere,” she says simply, for it reflects a forthright and fearless exploration by Murphy of universal themes.

Three plays: One set

How do you create a set that works for a west of Ireland pub in the 1970s, a house in Coventry, England, in the 1960s, and a Co Mayo village in 1846? If you are designer Francis O’Connor, you explore the possibilities of sheets of corrugated iron.

“Yes, no dry stone walls!” O’Connor laughs, explaining how he came up with an abstract backdrop that has been painted and textured to resemble rust. “I think I was trying to create a world that isn’t a cliche, while also trying to be pragmatic about the fact that this had to work for a trilogy that would involve one half hour and one hour interval when the three plays are staged as a cycle.” As a material, he found that corrugated metal used in shanty towns across the world provided a “visual unity” for the three plays. The landscape unfolds in a type of subtle progression – or regression.

“So you have a bar, and a house, and then this environment of deprivation. Very different worlds, yes, but there is a sense that you can connect all three. What is the world of famine as we know it?” he says. “On one level, it conjures up images of sheets of rain on tilled fields and rust, but then you have this material that is a common currency in places where famines occur.”

Once the idea was in hand, there was another challenge. Two identical sets would have to be created, given the demands of the tour. Five days after closing in London, DruidMurphy opens several thousand miles away in New York. “So every time we make an alteration here, we have to be sure that it is being replicated by the team working on its Dublin twin.”

DruidMurphy is at Galway's Town Hall Theatre until June 9th. For details of special events see It then tours both here and abroad