Garter Lane Arts Centre, Waterford
During a recent RTÉ radio interview, one listener fondly related his childhood recollection, from the early 1960s, of finding a copy of Edna O'Brien's "dirty book", The Country Girls, hidden under his mother's mattress. O'Brien wasn't surprised.
A knotty tale of sexual awakening in 1950s Ireland, written in self-imposed exile, it had been variously banned, burned and privately devoured in her native country. "There were more Country Girlsunder mattresses," O'Brien recalled, "than there were mattresses."
Forty-one years later, when a tale of two girls indulging in convent-school eroticism, premarital sex and adultery would count as a slow week on Fair City, can O'Brien's theatrical adaptation be anything more than a sentimental journey? With Mikel Murfi's unabashedly nostalgic production for Red Kettle and Garter Lane, where vintage Bovril ads and a Virgin Mary statue float above the stage like a mobile of Irish-kitsch, it seems she's been given little option. Still, there's something culturally revealing about a book of inflammatory importance reconceived as a prettily designed, attractively cast, crowd-pleasing night out: Gothic romance turned into John Rocha pastoralism.
Maybe it's inevitable. Time has not been kind to The Country Girlsfor two reasons: first, O'Brien can adapt her text, but not its context – after Sex and the City,whose mixture of romantic fantasy and sexual pragmatism bears passing resemblance to this story, mattresses gave up their secrets willingly. Consequently, you need to be reminded of the subversive charge of O'Brien's social critique, where women could not be themselves, but only Ben Hennessy's set, brutally erasing its colours with whitewash, alludes to a culture of suppression. The second reason is that time works differently in the novel and on the stage. The transition of O'Brien's heroine, Kate, from innocence to experience, is reflected in the book's gradually maturing first-person perspective.
On stage, though, O’Brien relies largely on brisk episodes and a rush of symbolic dialogue: “They say lilac is unlucky in the house.” “There is much beauty in your soul.” “We all want that . . . big, deep enchanted things.”
Murfi, a director who always seems to be in a hurry, covers a lot of ground but loses a lot of impact through sheer acceleration: as Kate, the winsome Holly Browne’s passage from girlhood to womanhood is signified by a gradual loosening of her cascading blonde ringlets and stepping into a pair of red heels.
Can it generate any frisson without seeming forced? Even one awkward moment of full-frontal nudity courtesy of Peter Hanly’s Mr Gentleman (any relation to Mr Big?) seems perfunctory where the wittier self-reflexive option would have been to censor him.
That may sound like a churlish suggestion, but there’s another, sweeter reason why this adaptation seems in thrall to its source. We know Kate’s romantic desires, so incompatible with the world, have been shaped by Yeats, Joyce, Brontë – books. Ironically, it’s a point on which O’Brien and her long-dead censors vigorously agree, and one that this affectionate adaptation can’t adequately contain. Literature is gloriously corrupting.
Runs until November 5th, then Gaiety Theatre, Dublin November 7th-12th