The making of a modern Man of Aran


The idea for a reworking of the 1936 film came to Paul Keogan after an encounter on a Tokyo train – but the result remains very Irish

THERE ARE two sides to every story. But how many fictions and realities can share space in a single film sequence? On a bitterly cold day in Galway last week, as the climax of Robert Flaherty’s 1934 movie Man of Aranplayed overhead, the cast and crew of an intriguing new performance project began to unpick a myth.

Flaherty’s film could never be called a documentary without complication. Centred on one family’s harsh life on rugged Inis Mór, it cast the roles with the island’s most photogenic locals – including Maggie Dirrane as the woman and Coleman “Tiger” King as the man of Aran – and sensationalised each hardship: most notoriously, men hunting a basking shark with a harpoon, a practice that had not been seen for nearly a century.

In Druid Lane Theatre, where Paul Keogan’s Man of Aran Re-Imaginedis performing this week, the final scene began to acquire waves of new meaning.

Delivering a text by Síle Nic Chonaonaigh, the performer Liam Ó Maonlaí spoke with sombre cadences over a delicate new score by Mel Mercier and artful sound design from Christopher Shutt. As three men rowed a currach through a roiling sea in the film’s still sharply entrancing print, we heard the recollections of the film’s assistant director, Pat Mullan, an Inis Mór local who was also one of the rowers. Routinely sent back into perilous waters, for take after take, Mullan’s words of grave doubt and cultural deference gave further layers to the visuals. Keogan’s “Re- Imagining” could have demystified the movie. Instead it swelled with greater drama.

This is Paul Keogan’s first professional work as director, a man better known in the theatre and opera as a designer in demand. To glance at his expansive résumé it seems easier to list the productions he has not worked on in a given year, and as a lighting and set designer it’s difficult to pin down his style or his tastes. He speaks with equal enthusiasm about working with different directors; the cinematic references of Jimmy Fay, the clear logical underpinning of Jim Culleton, the physical precision of Selina Cartmell, or the psycho- logical character understanding of Róisín McBrinn.

His one constant, though, is the relish of challenge. When he comments on the arts, its policies, institutions and inherent values, he is both clear-sighted and often fearlessly outspoken. Even as a student of drama in Trinity College, learning about lighting involved overcoming a fear of heights.

Man of Aran Re-Imaginedwas inspired by an accidental discovery on a train journey between Tokyo and Kyoto a couple of years ago when a fellow passenger told him about Japanese benshi – the live narrators and interpreters of silent films for unfamiliar audiences. Enthused by a later performance, Keogan found himself picking an example at random to explain the phenomenon. “You take a film like Man of Aran,” he told the performance artist Amanda Coogan, “and you put it together with someone like Liam Ó Maonlaí.” The die was cast.

For the project, produced by Once Off Productions, Keogan is credited as creator and director, positions, he agrees, that counter the responsive nature of a designer. But the production has been a model of collaboration.

Everyone was equally spurred by a disappointment with Flaherty’s original, diplomatically agreeing that its soundtrack, a saccharine nod to diddly-aye, had “not withstood the test of time”.

“How can you look away from the culture and not bring it into the film?” wondered Ó Maonlaí about its ersatz qualities, its erasures and crudely overdubbed English, just as Nic Chonaonaigh acknowledged that her Irish language text had to involve as much comment and critique as character and lyricism. In the years after the film’s making, Tiger King gave this bi-lingual reflection: “Bhí fhios againne go maith gur bullshita bhí ann.” For all its beauty, does Flaherty’s film strike its new interpreters as a fundamentally dishonest work? “That’s a really tricky question to answer,” said Keogan. “If you look at the DVD as it is with the sound up, you have one experience. If you turn the sound down, you have a completely different one.” Were it not for the deep consideration and painstaking work beneath fitting live performance to a recorded medium, you could see this as an elaborate DVD extra. Keogan doesn’t discourage the association. “That is a reference,” he says, “It’s a live DVD commentary.” It is also the product, he emphasises, of people working outside their comfort zones, bringing a fresh, informed perspective to a problematic classic and seeing something new.

“I’m seeing Liam very much as an actor, with extraordinary musical capabilities, but he’s not a musician here. Síle’s a director who’s being a writer. I’m a lighting designer who’s pretending to direct.” He pauses over Shutt, the witty sound designer who is working on sound design. “Actually Chris,” he says, “you should try harder.”

Man of Aran Re-Imaginedruns from until Sunday in Druid Lane Theatre, Galway