Inside University College Cork’s Aula Maxima, on a grey and rainy Saturday, ‘the Priest’ is rehearsing his lines for the forthcoming production of Cork’s World Theatre, an apocalyptic parable about man, nature and the end of the world. “You shitheads,” he tells his flock, “you bowls of puss, you living corpses! You make the roaring of the End Wind into a business. You turn your own downfall into money. O may wrath be upon you. O may derision come upon you.”
Director Peadar Donohoe, of the Cork-based Cyclone Repertory Theatre Company, is looking at ways of introducing some humour into this sombre piece of monologue. He provides the attendant Mass-goers with a response to each accusation: a droning, automated ‘Yes Father’. “They’ll wear you out because they’re not listening,” he tells veteran actor, Peter Jankowsky, who is playing the role.
Manfred Schewe, a lecturer in German at UCC, came across the work of Swiss-born writer Thomas Hürlimann through some of the literature he was teaching. In 2000 and again in 2007, Hürlimann, a leading playwright and novelist, had reinterpreted the German-language version of one of seventeenth-century Spain’s most famous religious plays: El Gran Teatro del Mundo (The Great Theatre of the World), written by Pedro Calderón de la Barca. Since 1924, the play has been staged, at five-year intervals, in the Swiss pilgrimage town of Einsiedeln, where it takes place as a community event with the entire village becoming involved, and where, over a three-month period, it can attract audiences of about 2,000 people per night.
Schewe was in Switzerland for the 2007 production of Das Einsiedler Welttheater, which Hürlimann had adapted to suit the new millennium. Although the play tells a universal story of the dangers of, among other things, greed and excess, Hürlimann turned some of the original seven characters, which Calderón had created as representative figures from feudal society, into more recognizable members of contemporary society, with the King becoming a bombastic local politician.
The original play and project have their origins in the Passion Play form and are linked to both baroque and medieval theatre, but, in contrast to Calderón’s affirmation of traditional Catholic doctrine, Hürlimann’s drama culminated in an overwhelming vision of ecological disaster and economic collapse, heralded by the mysterious East Wind. It was portentous and sombre, but enormously powerful, and Schewe says he saw a “lot in it for Ireland today”.
Certainly, there is much in the work that appears to make sense for this country: the priest, for example, continues to denounce his audience by telling them that the work of God has been “misconceived by you, botched by you, turned into money by you!”, while in an earlier speech he roars that they “have befouled, besmirched what was given to you, God himself, yet you are not consumed by fear, you live your life, you snort, you snaffle, you slurp. You think: we’ll get away with it, we’ve always got away with it.” Given the lack of accountability in this society, he seems to have a valid point.
The “world theatre” aspects of the show – the fact that it plays with distinctions between the universal and the local; different national cultural traditions and time periods; and incorporates a multiplicity of languages - also convinced Schewe that the play could be transferred to a city such as Cork.
Schewe has a long-time interest in community theatre, and although this particular production is a work-shopped one – with eight professional actors from Cork and Dublin, and two choruses – he is hoping that it will pique the interest of theatre-makers in Cork. He has already reached out into Cork’s artistic community, engaging John McCarthy, of the Cork School of Music, to provide the score for the piece, and working with students from UCC’s BA in Drama and Theatre Studies, as well as some local adult drama groups, to create the choruses. Ultimately, he hopes that the staging of the play now will pave the way for a large-scale community theatre event either on the UCC campus or in the city, and will establish a tradition of world theatre in Cork.
For the moment, however, the Aula Maxima, the symbolic heart of the university, is providing the location for the play. The hall, the venue for many of UCC’s formal events, is an atmospheric space, moody – with its high, arching ceiling, its books, grave behind their cages, and its portraits of past presidents staring down. Even the entrance door, which opens heavy and creaking, appears to offer an indication of the doom-laden scenario due to be staged within.
It took Schewe two years to translate Hürlimann’s work into English, and he did so with the help of Stephen Boyd, who lectures in the college’s Department of Hispanic Studies. The challenge was to make it relevant to an Irish audience – the translators changed some character names to “Murphy”, and the script makes references to locations such as the Honan Chapel in UCC and Gougane Barra in West Cork – and to remain aware of the nuances and differences that exist between one culture and another. The play is written in rhyme, and the translators were also concerned to retain the poetic quality of the language, and to keep any humour inherent to the piece.
In fact, Schewe is intrigued to see how an Irish audience will engage with what is largely a very intense, potentially very provocative piece of work, which includes scenes from the Bible, and which features the crucifixion of a child. One production of the play already caused controversy in Switzerland, primarily because of its staging in front of a Baroque Cathedral, but Schewe, who is German, and who believes that “fun is very central” to the Irish psyche, wonders how open people here will be to a work that is “trying to deal with a very serious matter”.
Director Peadar Donohoe has also been considering the issue of humour, and has taken minor liberties with some of the monologues – as with the priest’s speech – in order to “jazz it up” a little. “Because it’s based on a passion play, we have the freedom to interpret it,” he says. For him, the introduction of humour is vital, because, despite the play’s apocalyptic message, the work needs to be able to find its way to an audience’s heart, as well as its head. “As I’m directing it I feel I am able to bring something to it, to breathe it into life,” he says.
The play ends in death and destruction, and ultimately with the End Wind, making its seventh and final approach on the world. The women and men huddle together in pairs, waiting helplessly. “There’s so much I wanted to say to you,” says one to the other. “Don’t be afraid, just hold me dear, it’ll soon be over,” comes the response. So accurate a reflection is it of where Irish society finds itself today that it almost sends a shiver down the spine. Whether it is a reflection Irish audiences will wish to consider through the medium of theatre is something that remains to be seen.
Cork’s World Theatre runs at the Aula Maxima, University College Cork, from November 29-Dec 1, at 7.30 p.m.
Rachel Andrews is a writer and journalist based in Cork.