Writer: Joseph O’Connor
Music: Morgan Cooke, Grace Kiely and Máiréad Ní Chróinín
Reviewer: Siobhán O’Gorman
Fans of Joseph O’Connor’s best-selling novel Star of the Sea (2004) are flocking to see the world premiere of its stage adaptation – collectively devised by Moonfish Theatre and presented as part of the Galway Arts Festival. The book’s main action is set on the eponymous ship, which is taking hoards of starving Irish people, and a minority of first-class passengers, to New York. A murder mystery, the action revolves around the intertwined lives of David Merridith (Lord Kingscourt), his family servant Mary Duane, and a shadowy steerage passenger, Pius Mulvey, who appears to haunt the ship’s deck at night and ends up incarcerated on board. The story is constructed from the perspective of a fictive American journalist, Grantley Dixon, who shares with us his research in the form of interwoven documents including testimony and diary entries from a range of viewpoints. As such, the novel becomes an evocative collage, crisscrossing aspects of these characters’ backgrounds with accounts of their experiences on board.
Fittingly, the style of Moonfish’s adaptation serves to reveal the company’s own devising process and to offer a pastiche of fragments rather than a coherent, linear story. The production showcases an appropriation of Brechtian elements – including supertitles, songs and an episodic structure. These, however, serve practical and aesthetic purposes rather than creating the kind of alienating, politicised spectacle associated with Brecht. Moonfish blends English and Irish language, with the use of the latter becoming more frequent as the action progresses. English supertitles briefly summarise Irish language conversations, honing in on key aspects of the novel that the company have chosen to dramatise. These, in conjunction with the performers’ skills in movement, tone and emotion, ensure that Star of the Sea accords with An Taibhdhearc’s goal of producing drama in Irish that is widely accessible. Moreover, handwritten supertitles appear gradually – as if they are being scribed on the spot. This encapsulates the subjective approach of the journalist Dixon, the unreliable moderator serving as the novel’s framing device. The reductive nature of these ‘notes’, which in their brevity are at odds with some complex, lengthy Irish language exchanges, also points to the wider loss of indigenous Irish culture expedited by the country’s mid 19th Century Great Famine.
Lian Bell’s scenography is key to the execution of Moonfish’s vision. Her subtle, evocative set remains constant throughout, allowing the stage to become a range of locations during the production, with the help of suggestive recordings and Matt Burke’s apt nuances of lighting. Performers sporadically position themselves within linear sections stage right and left to offer songs, narratives and simple but powerful sound effects. Props are minimal, with such features as stylised mime and clever lighting effects variously conveying places and activities. Three large, roughly triangular sheets of cloth near the back wall stage right form the focal point of Bell’s set. Evoking the ship’s sails, these also facilitate Moonfish’s trademark shadow-work as well as offering a backdrop resembling torn sheets of paper for the supertitles. Cherie White’s understated costumes often appear bleached or washed-out in keeping with the colour scheme of the production and its publicity materials – which suits Star of the Sea’smotifs of seafaring, cultural dilution, bodily disintegration, death and loss.
The performers’ creative skills are well-served by their own ensemble direction in which, as the programme reveals, the actors ‘direct each other.’ Ionia Ní Chróinín and Simon Boyle powerfully embody the lead rôles of David and Mary respectively – particularly in the opening scenes which take us from awkward moments depicting abuses of sex and power to charming memories of mutual caring and comradery. This juxtaposition is usefully in captivating the audience by promoting questions regarding the journey of the relationship between these two figures. Boyle’s acting improves as he progresses; he handles with particular proficiency a section of dizzying movement conjuring David’s descent into denial, fuelled by the use of opium and prostitutes. Zita Monaghan and Grace Keily show great skill in their cross-gender rôles as Mulvey and Dixon respectively. Morgan Cook captures the transformation of Mulvey’s brother Nicholas from modest Irish farmer, to proud father to broken man. The scene depicting the peelers beating Nicolas is particularly harrowing; this is down to the actors’ skills harmonising with the creation of sound effects on stage.
The performers also showcase their expertise in embodying a variety of rôles (most notably, Monaghan also doubles as David’s wife Laura). Yet, these and other production choices mean that some aspects of the story might be lost on audience members unfamiliar with the novel. The focus on David and Mary’s stories, for example, mean not only that some of the novel’s important moral ambiguity depletes but also that Dixon fades into the background. Although those who have read book will see Dixon positioned in the supertitled notes, for those who have not, his rôle in shaping the story (and, as such, the impact of the ending) may be compromised. However, the production is commendable in its beauty and elegance, as well as its sophisticated use of a range of media. Viewers who have not read O’Connor’s novel might be so impressed by its stage adaptation that they will resolve to do so in future.
Photo by Marta. Runs until July 19th