Wilde Irish, Berkeley’s resident Irish theater company, will stage a centennial celebration for Ireland’s National Theatre this Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday afternoon at 3 p.m., with two original Abbey Theatre short comedies: Lady Gregory’s The Workhouse Ward and John Synge’s In the Shadow of the Glen.
The staged readings will feature live harp music at the Gaia Arts Center, 2116 Allston Way near Shattuck Avenue.
“One impetus for the celebration was in looking at the centennial books put out by the Abbey Theatre,” said Wilde Irish executive director Breda Courtney. “They actually celebrated in 2004, but the first production of The Workhouse Ward was in April of 2008. Both plays are comedies, and everybody keeps saying we do all the heavy stuff!
“We try to pick pieces not done by anyone else,” Courtney continued, “and not even the Abbey did a Lady Gregory play for their centennial. [She’s] one of their founders, and she’s been undervalued. What I think these two little one acts do through comedic laughter is give us a glimpse of Irish life at the beginning of the 20th century.”
Lady Gregory, who founded the Abbey and the Irish National Theatre movement with poet W. B. Yeats and patron of the arts Edward Martyn, chose material for her comedy that could have been heavy going, indeed.
“Ireland was still smarting from the potato famine,” said Courtney, “and of course were still under English rule. The workhouses was the result of the Poor Laws, what we’re familiar with through Dickens’ depiction of their effects in England. The Workhouse Ward is about two old codgers who are in the workhouse, having nothing, no place to go, though they each once had a little land. They’ve talked the nuns into believing that they’re sick, so they don’t have to work, when the newly widowed sister of one comes to take him home. But, as it turns out, not to rescue him, but to do the work! He finally won’t go, but it’s uncertain whether that’s because his sister looks down on him—‘the penny looking down on the ha’penny,’ as we say—or out of loyalty to his friend, who just argues with him anyway. They spend their time bouncing off each other.”
About Synge’s early play, Courtney said, “Usually, his more famous play, Riders to the Sea, is staged with The Workhouse Ward, but that’s more of the heavy stuff! I believe it was influenced by Ibsen—there’s another Nora in it, and she leaves, too, but really has nowhere to go. What’s striking about it is how much of the language in it is the same as the type he’ll eventually use in The Playboy of the Western World. I spent a lot of time trying to find ghostly images of a frozen glen in winter—most pictures are all green, bright and sunny—to show, as a projection behind the actors, why they’re scared to go out there.”
The Irish National Theatre Movement began as an extension of the Irish Literary Renaissance, reputedly the first national theater supported by its government. The staging of plays by the Fay Brothers was influential around the world in its use of amateurs, influencing other national movements (possibly even neo-realist film, from the Italian Resistance) and community theaters.
Wilde Irish is planning a theater tour of Ireland for next year, after their annual Bloomsday celebration, for James Joyce’s Ulysses, on June 16. This year “Bloomsday is on a Monday,” said Courtney, “not usually the best night for a show.”
But she has a bit of sleight-of-hand (and time) in mind. “Maybe we’ll do a trick—have Bloomsday Sunday evening, the 15th—and say it’s the 16th, in Irish time, that is!”
100 YEARS OF THE
IRISH NATIONAL THEATRE
7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday at the Gaia Arts Center, 2116 Allston Way.