Contributed by Eoghan Smith
2011 is the centenary year of Brian O’Nolan’s birth. Better known as Flann O’Brien, his work represents the last great rebellion of Irish modernism before the naturalist mysticism of Patrick Kavanagh, John McGahern and Seamus Heaney suppressed the comic element in Irish writing. Along with The Third Policeman (1967), At Swim-Two-Birds (1939) is the last outpost on the border between the radical ambition of the Irish modernism, and the introverted helplessness of much of post-war Irish literature. After reading O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds, James Joyce famously said, ‘that’s a real writer, with the true comic spirit’.
Jocelyn Clarke’s adaption of At Swim-Two-Birds for Blue Raincoat Theatre Company is a brilliantly conceived rendition of the true lower-middle class comic voice of O’Brien’s labyrinthine meta-novel. Recounting the tale of a writer who is writing a novel, who then loses control of his characters, At Swim is a riotous affair in which the conventions of storytelling are pressurized until they almost explode. It is also a novel which is stockpiled full of characters, with new ones appearing when the reader least expects it. Such challenges present natural dilemmas for a small theatre company. The always excellent five-person Blue Raincoat ensemble, who do another splendid job here, allow characters to be (literally) born through the inventive use of otherwise stock devices such as hats, false-moustaches and costumes. But it is the physicality of the actors bodies’ themselves which produce some of the finest comic moments in the creation of character. Uniquely attuned eyebrow and lip movements, stances, dances and walks, are all used to produce a galaxy of characters from the public house ‘expert’ to roaming cowboys to the main character’s self-righteous uncle.
To protect his career in the Civil Service O’Brien wrote under multiple pseudonyms, but the benefit of this enforced alteration of identity allowed the author to adopt different personae; the works of Myles na gCopaleen are not entirely those of Flann O’Brien. And so it seems entirely appropriate that each actor themselves should play a multitude of equally idiosyncratic and highly distinguishable characters, bending gender, mutating rapidly, sometimes within the space of a single sentence.
There are times, particularly towards the end, when the production is so frantic it seems on the verge of collapse; but this is perhaps the thrill of At Swim’s aesthetic potency. Part of the joy of O’Brien’s novel comes from reveling in the exposure of absurd conventions of the realist plot; for what could be more absurd than fiction pretending to be real? In keeping with O’Brien’s disclosure of the fictionality of fiction, a parallel exercise in the theatricality of theatre is at work here. Such ironic self-knowingness is hardly a radical aesthetic strategy anymore, but this production of At Swim-Two-Birds is so freshly realized that the audience is constantly challenged to keep faith in a widely implausible plot whereupon that irony is turned towards the faith of communities in the absolute necessity of narrative.This production, then, renders the concept of authenticity ‘all my bum’, as Mr Shanahan might say.
And yet, something is being communicated nonetheless. O’Brien’s genius, which Clarke has impeccably understood, is to use comedy to dissolve gravitas into charm, and turn charm into dissolution. A heightened sense of artifice has no less potency when turned toward the idea of authenticity itself. As with all modernist (or post-modernist) works, art meditates upon its own artifice. Yet this is no self- enclosed spiritualization of the artwork; the greatest comic moments in At Swim are those when the narratives of ordinary Irish life are usurped; the dreamy vision of a Gaelic Ireland, the supposed social solidarity of the labour movement; the literary genius of the Irish people.
Writing at atime when narratives of cultural authenticity had helped to not only shape the ideologies of the nascent Irish state, but had engulfed the European continent, O’Brien was keenly aware of the ideological nature of identity-creation. At Swim-Two-Bird’s self-rejecting narrative is targeted at the artificiality of narrative itself, making absurd any claim to authenticity: just as the Gaelic Leaguers construct a vision of Ireland of superheroic Finn McCools and rabid set-dancing that is alien to the Dublin ‘working man’, the working man who pathetically and famously valorizes his ‘pint of plain’ is a sop to the intellectual poverty of the Dublin working classes.
And yet, for all those political undercurrents in At Swim, Clarke and Blue Raincoat have in this adaption retained the recognizable amiability of all O’Brien’s characters; for all their foibles, it is their humour, however ridiculous, that is presented with joyous admiration, and which infuses their immense likeability with peculiarly Irish self-effacement. O’Brien’s work continues to reveal a spark of modernist comic anarchy that both assails and appreciates gombeenism in all its guises and is a welcome reminder of the dangers of supercilious outrage and the importance of being diffident. In this faithful production, Jocelyn Clarke and Blue Raincoat have succeeded in bringing the comic and intellectual brilliance of O’Brien’s novel to the stage.
At Swim-Two-Birds runs at the Project Arts Centre until 5 March.
Eoghan Smith teaches English at NUI Maynooth and Carlow College. He is currently writing a monograph on John Banville.