November 17, 1990

Irish Green for the Red Shed


The Red Shed Company’s final production for the 1990 is a new play by Irish writer Frank McGuinness.  Murray Bramwell  talks with director Cath McKinnon and actor Eileen Darley about Cathaginians which opens next Thursday night.

Ask anyone about the Punic Wars and they will tell you that they were waged by Rome and Carthage between 264 and 146 BC. The first war was a power struggle over Sicily, the second starred Hannibal and ended in humiliating defeat while  the third saw the complete destruction of the North African city and scattering of its inhabitants. Razed by the Romans, Carthage burned for seventeen days.

In Carthaginians, Playwright Frank McGuinness makes connections to the continuing struggle with the British in Northern Ireland. As director Cath McKinnon explains, “There’s not an exact link but there are a lot of things in the story of Rome and Carthage that have analogies with the Irish situation. I think the basis of it has to do with the final war which demonstrated the spirit of the people of Carthage. In defiance of all the odds they decided to stay and fight for their homeplace.

“McGuinness is interested in what happens to your inner spirit in such conditions. Rome had a paranoid fear that Carthage would come and take over even though all the statistics said it was impossible.”

Eileen Darley left Belfast with her family when she was ten and has just returned from a three month visit to Ireland. Now her first show back with the Red Shed is Carthaginians.

“You always find a way into a play but when I read this one I experienced that whoosh of affirmation that someone was writing about my cultural background. I suppose it is the same way people feel in Australia when they involve themselves in Italian theatre or whatever. It means a lot to me.”

One of the attractions of the play for the Red Shed is its distinctive cultural identity. Cath McKinnon, author of two plays already performed by the company, has recently been in Mindanao in the Philippines researching a new project.

“People over there have such a strong sense of their culture it makes you think as an Australian – what is your culture? In the theatre we tend to focus on what is happening in England while in TV the influences come from the US. Carthaginians gave us a chance to move away from that and look at a national civil struggle that has been going on for years. This script talks about that in a way that is engaging and even humorous for audiences.”

“We tend to get blasted a lot by TV images and generally people are so full of what’s going on in the world that there isn’t time to sit down and get behind the headlines. Frank McGuinness has written from a psychological perspective, looking at the effects of the struggle on a small group of people and the society they live in.”

“One of the reasons for doing the play,” says Eileen Darley, “is that we were aware that part of the war in Northern Ireland is a war of words and it has been a propaganda war for the past twenty years. Obviously the main weapons, like the media, are in the hands of the British state. We really only get that perspective.”

“Certainly I grew up as a Catholic,” adds McKinnon, “thinking the Irish question  was totally to do with religion – that gets implanted in your brain as a child. You need something more, something stronger so you think about why these conflicts develop. That’s what this play does. It allows people to sit back and reflect on it without really making a strong sway one way or the other. It makes you look at what happens to people.”

Recently McGuinness shared a playwrights’ award with Jim Cartwright, author of Road, a powerful play about the Lancashire underclass, which attracted enthusiastic young audiences to the Red Shed’s work when  the company performed it last year. Were there similarities with Carthaginians ?

“McGuinness’ work is different,” Cath McKinnon observes,     ” He is an Irish writer who is picking up on James Joyce and Beckett and an Irish style of telling a story, making it humorous. That’s what attracted us. Road was a from-the-gut, this-is-what-I’m-saying piece. Carthaginians is more lyrical.”

Set in a graveyard in Derry the play is about three women waiting for the dead to rise. One of them is Maela, image of mother Ireland. Various characters representing aspects of the struggle enter and tell their stories, some with song.

“We’ve developed the music more than in the original production,” McKinnon explains, “We thought for Australian audiences it develops the sense of Irish culture- so we have added Irish folk music.”

Actor and musician Andrew Donovan, a regular with the company has been working on the music and the from Thursday through to Sundays ,after the play Guinness will be available and members of the cast which includes Peter Finlay, Michael Griffin, Sally Hildyard, Mary-Anne Pitman and Geoff Revell, will perform a set of Irish songs a cappella.

The Red Shed Company has just received the good news that Federal funding has been renewed with an increase and in the next few weeks members will begin preparing their program for 1991. They are commissioning three new plays -one from Cath McKinnon, and one each from David Carlin, author of Frankenstein’s Children, and Melissa Reeves, whose play In Cahoots was revived and toured this year.

As the company consolidates, approaches to the work change also. As Cath McKinnon notes, “In the last year we have been talking a lot more about the process of acting and directing and developing it from our training at Flinders. We have a different attitude now. On the one hand we work hard in preparing the play and on the other hand we are busy deconstructing what we do.”

“You can only get that after working together for a while. You get over the insecurities of working with new people. It doesn’t mean that those things go away but you can build a stronger relationship. The director still has to be the director in the process of building the play but it is important that the contribution of the actors is not lost.”

“We like to see ourselves as an ensemble of intelligent actors,” adds Eileen Darley,”not passive or like children, as actors are often perceived, working on instinct or waiting for the muse. The intellectual work and vision should not be left just to the director.”

Cath McKinnon nods in agreement. “You still do your own work but what it adds is much richer. We are developing into something better.”

“Red Shed Put on the Green” The Advertiser, November, 17, 1990, p.14.

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