When grief and art become a gruelling, physical process

Incantata review: the staging of Paul Muldoon’s elegy for a lover and a fellow artist is grief as an artform

Town Hall Theatre, Galway

How does an artist deal with grief? In the case of Incantata, Paul Muldoon's elegy to his fellow artist and former lover Mary Farl Powers, the poet weaves his art like black magic. Thick with allusions and shared remembrances – invoking baroque and impressionist paintings, Greek and Irish mythology, Sartre and Beckett in just the first four verses alone – it wears its erudition heavily, providing a lamentation that ought to come with footnotes.

But the gathering detail of Muldoon’s verses are really attempting the impossible: a rhythmic incantation overflowing with imagery that might somehow bring her back.

In putting the poem onstage, performed by Stanley Townsend, Galway International Arts Festival and Jen Coppinger's co-production conceives of both art and grief as a gruelling process; as cerebral as they are wearingly physical.


Townsend wears a heavy-duty jumpsuit – the kind favoured by Powers – while fastidiously making potato prints (a feature of her work) on a wide, white space designed by Rosanna Vize illuminated with work lights by Paul Keogan. At once it suggests both a studio and a canvas, animated by Jack Phelan's supple video design. Here, then, in all its display and transformations, is grief as an artform.

Directed by Sam Yates – you could argue adapted, too – the poem reaches us not as a finished monument, but as a sinewy work in progress. Townsend, with his warm, reverberant tones, speaks the poem in running starts and quick repetitions, as though composing. Yates keeps him occupied, with paints and manoeuvres, so that the act of creation insists on getting your hands dirty.

But this grief is also a performance, Townsend knows, often addressing a camera mounted on the back of a plastic chair, which takes on the appearance of a human figure, draped with a sheet and gazing at him.

“[Y]ou detected in me a tendency to put/ on too much artificiality, both as man and poet,” he tells the camera, as though both Powers and now the audience can see right through him. But artifice is still powerful – against Teho Teardo’s sombre, low bowed strings, Townsend appears briefly in clownface, a gesture both self-deflating and moving, while Powers’ is remembered as genuine and self-deprecating.

Nonetheless, there are moments of unadored sincerity. Townsend’s voice cracks with hopeless rage at her refusal of cancer treatment for homespun remedies: “the claim that boiled skirrets can cure the spitting of blood… your face in a bowl of feverfew, a towel over your head.”

Muldoon’s poem performs a complicated dance between the pain of such experience and the solace of art, spinning from the agony of Powers’ fatalism (“The fact that you were determined to cut yourself off in your prime/ because it was pre-determined has my eyes abrim”) into agitated consideration of Lucky’s speech from Godot, as though it held an answer.

The production can seem similarly agitated in consideration of the poem, rushing over its conclusion into a coup de theatre, which reduces the studio to a void, revisiting and remixing its verses in ghostly voice over. It’s stark, certainly, but it feels like overkill. The words themselves have already achieved a kind of reconciliation, through an acknowledgment of art and influence and the effort behind it: “that you might reach out, arrah, and take in your ink-stained hands my own hands stained with ink.”

Incantata is at the Town Hall Theatre, Galway, until July 27th at part of the Galway International Arts Festival. giaf.ie 

Peter Crawley

Peter Crawley

Peter Crawley, a contributor to The Irish Times, writes about theatre, television and other aspects of culture