At the Black Pig's Dyke

By Vincent Woods
Directed by Carmel O'Reilly
Sugan Theater
At the Boston Center for the Arts, through November, 1999

Reviewed by G.L. Horton

Carmel O'Reilly brought back the acclaimed  Sugan Theatre production from early this year, "At the Black Pig's Dyke" to the BCA for a  November encore.  I almost missed it during this second run, too: what a loss that would have been!  I must confess that as an admiring adapter and director of plays from the English Mystery Cycles, I have a passion for well spoken rhymed verse. A hefty chunk of Vincent Wood's "At the Black Pig's Dyke" script is written in rhyme, which the Sugan's ensemble speaks very well.  Woods' excuse for reviving this ancient jingling form is a modern crime: the murder of a mother and daughter by a perpetrator hidden among the Irish Mummers, whose all enveloping costumes offer an impenetrable disguise for a neighbor bent on vengeance.  Terrible as this crime is, it is but the latest link in a chain of murder reaching far back into Irish history and legend.  The particular double murder Woods shows at the beginning of his harrowing play may have been very recent, or it may have been in our grandfathers' time: the clothes and speech of the Irish country folk give few clues.  The murder also seems timeless because the rhyming scripts and massive costumes of the Mummers have been passed down, modified but slightly, from generation to generation. The Mummers still go from house to house in in some parts of rural Ireland, performing the traditional folk play from the pagan past--- a play whose basic form is familiar to many people in the Boston area because they have seen the English version of it in the celebrated Christmas Revels, popular here for a quarter of a century, or perhaps even the St. George I used to produce every year at the last Sunday service in December at the Arlington St. Church.  In the Irish version, the costumes worn by the figures of the Mummer Characters are made of straw, and the effect is monumental, like a hut or a haystack set in motion and taking on a personality. The huge heads of the masks loom over the action like the idols on Easter Island, reanimated from a dark and superstitious past where fertility rituals and blood sacrifice were commonplace.

Wood's play is is at once ancient and contemporary.  The largest part of it consists of  actual Mumming, the actors performing the militant dances with staves and swords that repeat in symbolic form the Druidic rite of human sacrifice to revive the dying sun, and enacting a version of the ritual "Play of St. George" where, in a fight between boasting knights, the one who is slain represents the Old Year.  After being killed by Winter the Year Knight is brought to life again with a magic pill from the Doctor, symbolizing the promise of spring.  But Woods demonstrates that the fight must also be seen as the seemingly endless cycle of fratricide: in the dimmest Irish past between Pagan rivals, and more recently between Irish neighbors and kin who are born into the ongoing warfare between the Protestant Orange and the Catholic Green.  The Black Pig's Dyke of the title is part of the background, a primitive fortification enhanced ditch and ridge that is the mythical border between Ulster and the rest of Ireland.  Sometimes the Sugan actors play specific characters, men and women on one side or the other of the Dyke's divide, who have weddings and work and rivalries and dreams and schemes in addition to being instances of the ordinary folk who take up the Mummer masks and carry on the tradition.  Other times the Mask Characters, particularly Tom Fool and Miss Funny, function like the chorus and gods in Greek drama, embodying forces larger than any individual. In addition to the dancing and drumming and the Mumming in rhymed verse, Woods weaves his spell with songs with and without rhyme, and poetic prose of the most incantatory sort.  Susan Dibble is credited with choreography, and Ger Cooney with Irish dance, but where one ends and the other begins is not visible from the audience.  Like the set, masks, and costumes by Mick Spence and Marcella Grogan, Katrina Owen's sound and Marc Klureza's lighting are all elements that combine seamlessly to make it possible for Wood's script, premiered at the Druid Theatre in Galway in 1992, to cast its spell on a Boston audience.  It is a potent spell indeed.

Carmel O'Reilly has written in a director's note an account of herself as a four year old in county Fermanagh thrilled by the Mummers come to do their play in her family's kitchen. It is a magical description of a magical occasion, and the magic carries over into O'Reilly's own performance. In addition to directing, O'Reilly plays Lizzie Flynn Boyle, who married her employer Jack Boyle when young and moved with him to the other side of the Dyke, and, soon widowed by the code of retaliatory tribalism, has grown old worrying over her daughter and granddaughter.  I have seen O'Reilly's award winning performances in Beckett's "Happy Days" and Friel's "The Freedom of the City",  as an actor I have performed under her direction-- more, as a crony-colleague, I've had many a cup of tea with her, accompanied by good theatrical gossip. She's "Carmel", not "O'Reilly" to me, to tell the truth: a quick bright cricket of a woman, with warmth and wit overflowing. But when Carmel appeared on stage in "Black Pig", I did not know her, although she was in no way disguised by costume or make up.  Her voice had dropped an octave, the very rhythm of her bodily functions was altered beyond recognition, into a new way of standing, sitting, moving, speaking, singing. There is such a thing as poetic acting, acting that delves beneath and sails above realism.  It lifts the hair on the back of your neck.  I am used to praising actors for creating three dimensional characters, but what O'Reilly and her ensemble-- Billy Meleady, Ciaran Crawford, Sid Quilty, George Saulnier, Karen Woodward, Irene Daly, Douglas Rainey, Maureen Lane, Dierdre and Maureen Lenihan,  -- have accomplished in "At the Black Pig's Dyke" goes beyond that, into a fourth dimension where spirits walk and the past possesses the actors' bodies and minds.  Such an experience plunges one back into childhood, where the world was filled with imaginings that threatened to to turn into realities at any moment, and the people and places and customs still bore the bright outlines of the imaginings that shaped their history.