The Big Chapel X review: A story of schism brings a community together

This huge adaptation of Thomas Kilroy’s novel is both an impassioned critique and a persuasive illustration of crowd control

The Big Chapel X: Niall Boland, Eoin Byrne, Grace Collender, John Rice, Derek Dooley, Stephen Lafford, Kevin Tynan and Sean Bryan on the streets of Callan. Photograph: John D Kelly

The Big Chapel X: Niall Boland, Eoin Byrne, Grace Collender, John Rice, Derek Dooley, Stephen Lafford, Kevin Tynan and Sean Bryan on the streets of Callan. Photograph: John D Kelly

 

THE BIG CHAPEL X

St Brigid’s College, Callan
★★★☆☆
As a large crowd snakes through the dusky streets of Callan, the storied Co Kilkenny town, you may notice the darkened windows of several homes beside our lanterns and hubbub and wonder where everybody is.

Given the sheer scale of Asylum Productions and Kilkenny Art Festival’s long-gestating adaptation of Thomas Kilroy’s The Big Chapel, which swells to include almost 100 performers, and half as many again among its crew, it is probably safe to assume they are right beside you.

An impressive feat of community theatre, led by professional artists and supported by the Abbey Theatre, the undertaking is an impressive act of mobilisation. That brings a pleasant irony: Callan’s history of religious schism in the 1870s, immortalised a century later by Kilroy’s bold, fracturing novel, is now bringing people together.

Setting their version in a theocratic dystopia – a kind of Handmaid’s Tale Gilead where female education ends prematurely but iPhones, hoverboards and Matrix references still abound – the Big Chapel X seems both a sincere critique and a fluent demonstration of the same thing: crowd control.

Convened in the hall of the local girls’ school, the audience are addressed as “children”, prepared for a religious procession by Aideen Wylde’s comically worrisome schoolmarm. But the town of Kyle is not so obedient, as John McCarthy’s HP Butler makes clear, given the body armour and pomposity of an embedded news reporter.

Against the repressive orthodoxy of the blue-bearded High Shepherd (Ciaran Bermingham) comes the radical reformism of the Red Priest, Fr Lannigan. The division splits one family in particular, sundering the philosophic School Master Scully from his son, Marcus, and adopted daughter, Nina, whose own secret affair is reason enough to welcome revolution.

Writer John Morton and director Donal Gallagher recognise both the echoes of history and a timely allegory for the entrenched divisions of today, where the Red Priest’s sly denunciation of the others as “Schismatics” could describe any participants in the bitterly polarised and performative debates of politics today.

Given jury-rigged ingenuity by designer Medb Lambert, the trail of resistance on Bridge Street – “You are now entering Free Kyle” reads a familiar slogan – to the flare of war at a crossroads, and later scenes of slaughter and sacrifice, actually owe something to ancient religious rituals themselves. Like the attendance for the pageantry of a mystery play, we are all followers.

Hearteningly, the project embodies a greater faith in the wisdom of groups and the spirit of collaboration, where the flow of action and marshalling of attentions come off as harmoniously (and occasionally as impishly) as the efforts of Irene Buckley’s massed choir, as likely to pursue a reverent hymn as an irreverent lift from a pop song.

Like the production’s see-sawing styles, from the awesome glow of lighting designer Paul Keogan’s hollowed-out house backdrop to the tremble of hand-held torches, the production’s move from comedy to tragedy may come in uneasy lurches, while the complexities of Kilroy’s story are often simplified to amplify the message. But such an inclusive, co-operative, large-scale communion is a feat in itself, and an instructive lesson. “It gave meaning to the place in the beginning,” Kilroy wrote of his imagined troubles, and here it does so again. The Big Chapel X is very broad church.

Runs until Saturday, August 17th

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
GO BACK
Error Image
The account details entered are not currently associated with an Irish Times subscription. Please subscribe to sign in to comment.
Comment Sign In

Forgot password?
The Irish Times Logo
Thank you
You should receive instructions for resetting your password. When you have reset your password, you can Sign In.
The Irish Times Logo
Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.
Screen Name Selection

Hello

Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
Forgot Password
Please enter your email address so we can send you a link to reset your password.

Sign In

Your Comments
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Standards. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or by filling out this form. New comments are only accepted for 3 days from the date of publication.