It’s morning in California for Colm Tóibín, with sun streaming in the window; Garry Hynes is in Dublin as the dullish day ends. Technology enabling the conversation will also allow streaming of Druid Theatre’s latest project, Boland: Journey of a Poet, a new theatrical production about poet Eavan Boland, edited by Tóibín and directed by Hynes, towards the end of April, one year after Boland’s death.
Their locations are serendipitously appropriate, as Boland’s life and work had one foot in Stanford and one in suburban Dublin. The production explores the mind and imagination of one of Ireland’s great poets, melds her life and her work, as she did herself, “in the large, uncharted space between the lyrical and the political” as Tóibín describes.
Hynes and Druid were “looking at poetry, at a time where I think there’s a great need for the people to connect” and asked Tóibín to curate a series of poems over the 20th century. What started as one production – Coole Park Poetry Series of 10 actors reading 10 poems, from Austin Clark to Paula Meehan, broadcast during St Patrick’s Festival and more outings to come – grew into a second project.
Tóibín talks about “the two volumes of autobiographical essays, which are remarkable, which throw extraordinary light on the poetry, and on the life”.
"Slowly it emerged that, actually you could make a piece from that, using the poems and using the prose, and that they could throw light on each other, and you could make a narrative." You could do that, said Colm. Could you do that, asked Garry. They both laugh now.
He came at it from a point of knowing Boland, having spent two periods at Stanford (in 2006 and 2008), where she led the writing programme, as well as return visits and many events and festivals, including Kilkenny, together. In Stanford, “she would call my office and say Colm, can I come up for a minute. We just talked poetry. She had an astonishing knowledge of what was happening in American poetry, and in Irish poetry too”.
She knew the poets personally, knew each poem: “I got an education from her. Hearing the voice I knew from the radio, in different contexts. I really found her tremendously good company as well. Very, very funny. She ran the programme and had an astonishing amount of power, which she used judiciously and kindly.”
In editing Boland: Journey of a Poet into a piece for performance, “the most important thing for me was that every single word would be hers. The ‘ands’ and ‘thes’, they’re also hers” (echoing, without thematic connection, Mary McCarthy’s famous attack on Lillian Hellman, that “every word she writes is a lie”).
In two volumes of autobiographical essays more than a decade apart, sometimes “she was adding to some story in the second telling. So I would bring those two things together and do an awful lot of editing, trying to keep the narrative going. And knowing which poems then would work against the prose”. The script moves in and out of Boland’s poetry and prose, each reflecting on the other through her journey. Siobhán Cullen performs the piece; inspired by expressionist painter Frances Kelly, Boland’s mother, Irish artist Debbie Chapman will also be on stage, creating a piece of art in response, over four livestreamed performances.
There isn’t a model for what Druid is doing. Hynes: “It felt really simple and kind of obvious. There was a sense, if Siobhán was alone on stage, it just became a kind of reading, something that there was an imposed shape on. If we were to put someone else on the stage, who would that be? That it would be a painter working on a painting just came quickly. I didn’t sweat it, it felt right straight away.” She smiles self-deprecatingly. “Which is unusual for me.”
Chapman will be at rehearsals, “but what she does as a painter will be absolutely real, not something constructed by me as director. Her painting is not a process I will intervene in”.
Rehearsals will be “a very strange process for a theatre maker”: a few days in, director of photography Colm Hogan will join them, “the cameras will start and we’ll have to start making choices” for the livestream. The technical template for this was created by playwright Sonya Kelly and director Sara Joyce when Druid premiered Once Upon a Bridge online in February. “That model delivered up, so we’re using it, with tweaks we learned, and trying to learn a bit more.” It sounds like a multilayered fortnight of breakneck innovation, and they hadn’t even started rehearsal yet. “And if you think it’s terrifying, can you imagine what I think it is?” observes Hynes.
The script format is also fresh because, as Tóibín says, very few poets have explored their own work like Boland. “This deliberate glossing of her life as a poet, in autobiographical prose, is something that Eavan did, in a way no other poet did.”
He talks about the journey of the title. “As a young poet, and she writes beautifully about this, she had all the technical skills, and as someone said, all doors opened for her. She was immensely clever, ostensibly a privileged person. But she felt eventually her life as a woman was missing from poetry: not just from her own poetry but from poetry. And when she got married and went to live in Dundrum and had two daughters, that world of waking in the night, of feeding children, of being in a suburban house, was not in the Irish poem. She said Irish poems were about women; but women were not the people who wrote the poems. And to turn that around, to make it – I am the woman writing the poem, and my experience, my domestic life, my suburban life. To put that into poetry was an extraordinary amount of effort, thinking it through and then finding the images.”
In her poem Night Feed, “the poetry becomes much more about statement. The ornamental thing, rhetoric, has gone from the poetry. She changes it, it’s a journey she’s on, to try and put myth back into poetry, to make the experience connected to something much larger. While it’s the story of a life, it’s really also the story of struggle, and of a journey”.
He mentions two poems about her mother, The Fire Gilder and And Soul, bookending the script, “so you’re creating a sort of circle. And from that, you tell the story”. Among other things, “it includes her greatest hits, the poems people love by her, the poems I love by her. I was very happy with what we were able to do”.
“There’s a poem called Love, an account of being in a Midwest town, a place where myths elide. She brings in Icarus, Orpheus, Persephone, in a very natural way, with a poetry of statement, using very clear images, about her husband being on the bridge in Iowa, with snow on his shoulders, and carlights coming towards them. It’s image that is so pure, so unornamented, and yet there’s so many levels of feeling in it, and true feeling.”
Hynes is “terribly struck by her craft. She says she practiced writing poetry in her teens in order to prepare herself to become a poet. The consciousness of craft, and the ability to deploy it in terms of a very intended message. It wasn’t waiting for the muse to strike”.
For this livestreamed production “we’ll be looking at the experience through a camera”, and though remaking it in a different form for a future live incarnation would be possible, “when you’re making theatre, form is content, form follows function”. For now, “one of the things Druid wants is to continue to reach its audience in whatever way possible”, including Druid at Home livestreams, and an “outdoor theatre major production later this year”.
“If you could construct something to directly attack live performance, you couldn’t invent anything better than Covid,” says Hynes.
Druid’s The Cherry Orchard played as part of Culture Ireland’s SEODA online festival last month, and Kelly’s Once Upon a Bridge was viewed in 35 countries. “It’s a whole new world in a way. It’s an odd world. It’s a frustrating world. But pushing yourself to reach out to audiences at a time when technically you can’t, and finding different ways. I think it’s good for us, to be honest with you, because it forces us to rethink and reinvent, and that’s what you should be doing in theatre, all the time. If we’re not actually making theatre, what else are we doing? We’re not baking sourdough bread. We have to reach our audiences or else we’re not a theatre.”
Druid is partnering with Irish venues where they normally tour. “That’s a special part of it for all of us: even though we can’t actually physically travel, they’re partners in helping us make the project. It’s a long-term relationship. It’s so hard not to be able to have our Galway audiences, and our audiences all around the country, but we’re reaching out in this way. Then when we can come back to live performance, there has been a continued conversation from when live performance stopped.”
Druid presents Boland: Journey of a Poet, livestreamed from the Mick Lally Theatre, Galway, April 22-24, and on demand until May 2. In partnership with venues including An Grianán Letterkenny; Backstage Theatre Longford; Dunamaise Arts Centre Portlaoise; Glór Ennis; Lime Tree Theatre Limerick; Pavilion Theatre Dún Laoghaire; Siamsa Tíre Tralee; Town Hall Theatre Galway; Everyman Cork. druid.ie