Academic journal article DQR Studies in Literature

Fear and Loathing in Fermanagh: Apostasy and Ambiguity in Vincent Woods' at the Black Pig's Dyke

Academic journal article DQR Studies in Literature

Fear and Loathing in Fermanagh: Apostasy and Ambiguity in Vincent Woods' at the Black Pig's Dyke

Article excerpt

There is great interest in contemporary Irish theatre in transformative, radical, and metatheatrical drama as seen in works that involve promenade staging, site-specific work, and pilgrimage performance. Speaking on the current state of Irish theatre at the IBam conference in Chicago in November 2011, poet, playwright, and RTE Radio Arts Show host Vincent Woods spoke excitedly about recent site-specific theatre being enacted in Ireland, with particular focus on the challenging performance work of director Louise Lowe, in such events as Laundry and World's End Lane (both 2011). The latter production was performed in the area of Dublin once known as Monto, reputed to be Europe's largest red-light district, and focuses on the lives of some of the women who worked there. The demolition of Monto after its closure in 1925 allowed for the expansion of the Magdalene Laundry connected to the local convent. Performed in the Gloucester Street Magdalene Laundry, Lowe's Laundry was designed to confront individual audience members with the experiences of that institution's inmates in an intimate and uncomfortable way.

Woods finds such mutable theatre an important incursion into the ontological discourse of the meaning of drama, theatre, performance, text, audience, stage and space. Indeed, it is clear that the questioning of these concepts has compelled Woods for some time, as an analysis of his own 1992 award-winning play At the Black Pig's Dyke reveals. This play performed a dramatic intervention into the political, social and cultural drama being enacted in Northern Ireland, which bled across the border areas between the Republic and the North. Woods' astute deployment of a troupe of mummers capable of talented musical performance figures prominently in the play's force field of atavistic attraction. So too, the mummers' literal masks figure in the indeterminacy of characters' actual roles in the play as well as in the ambiguity of their roles as agents or victims of violence, thus highlighting the instability of subjectivity inherent for those inhabitants of the Leitrim/Fermanagh border.

As the title of At the Black Pig's Dyke indicates, Woods sets his play at a contested boundary site in a land where ritual and reality, communal myth and contemporary traumatic memory consistently elude containment. In the play, realistic characters recite cryptic tales of the treachery of Strange Knights, while circles of masked mummers surround and figuratively imprison murder victims in the makeshift enclosures of their straw-clad bodies, heightening the terror of their acts with the percussive pounding of staves on the stage floor. Mummers double as actual characters, and the characters themselves double as their own ancestors. Initially seen as harmless entertainers, the mummers' role in the play's violence is ultimately uncertain: who knows what's behind a straw man", Tom Fool says, to which Miss Funny replies, "There's more to all / Of this than mummin'".1

Woods weaves the mumming tradition of rhyming, ludic figures into his contemporary story of three generations of women, doomed by mixed marriages, whose lives straddle the border. The central narrative of At the Black Pig 's Dyke is a story of generational violence where the political invades the domestic, where "Revenge is the longest road" (51). The play's central narrative involves some ten murders that are variously recounted as local legend, directly dramatized, or re-enacted by mummers, who sometimes mime in juxtaposition with characters who narrate the loss of loved ones. The mummers, initially perceived as innocent masqueraders or performers, gradually acquire more sinister dimensions when the suspicion is aroused of their complicity in homicide.

In an unexpected extension of the play's multi-layered architecture, At the Black Pig's Dyke itself engendered a site-specific "dramatic intervention" of its own, when near the end of a touring performance in 1993 in Derry, an unknown masked group overtook the stage, thoroughly frightening both the play's performers and the audience in an agit-prop theatrical intrusion. …

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