Dylan Tighe doesn’t tend to stay still for long. In 2001, shortly after graduating with a degree in Spanish and Italian from Trinity College Dublin, the actor, director and writer began travelling around the Balkans, primarily fascinated by acquiring new languages: from Bosnia to Serbia, Croatia to Kosovo. His creative wanderlust extended to the US, Canada and China as an actor on tour with Pan Pan Theatre Company’s Oedipus Loves You. When the tour had finished, Tighe requested that the company would not fly him home from Asia, but provide his train fare for the Trans-Mongolian Express. The voyage crossed two continents and five time zones and formed the basis of his travelogue, Journey To the End of the Night, which took its other inspiration from Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s book of the same name.
“It’s the quintessential anti-travel book,” Tighe told me last year before his solo performance premiered at Dublin Fringe Festival. “It’s a man at the edge of despair talking through his own journeys. It is about travel, the condition of travel and why we travel. At that point I was travelling a lot and meditating a lot on what it meant.”
It’s tempting to see in Tighe a nomadic kinship with his latest project, an adaptation of Frederico García Lorca’s The House of Bernarda Alba set among Irish Travellers in a contemporary Irish halting site. But the starting point for this work, The Trailer of Bridget Dinnigan, was not a spirit but an image: “A group of women,” Tighe recently recalled, “mourning the death of someone for an extended period”. That was Lorca’s premise for the last of his tragic trilogy, set in 1930s Andalucia, in which a tyrannical matriarch imposes an eight-year mourning period on her five daughters. The simmering tension in Lorca between sexuality and societal repression has found Irish adaptations before – notably from Aidan Matthews, Frank McGuinness and Sebastian Barry – but only Lynne Parker’s 1993 version for Charabanc transposed the play to an explicitly Irish context.
Tighe had wanted to translate The House of Bernarda Alba since he first read the play in its original Spanish at university. He was struck by its small-village Andalucian idiom, dashed with archaic elements and a “casual poeticism”, which he had never heard reflected in any English language versions. At around the same time he had begun researching Cant, the Irish Traveller dialect, and developed a hunch that the two languages might find equivalents. In the summer of 2008, supported by a research and development award from CREATE, he approached the Blanchardstown Traveller Development Group with the idea of developing the piece in collaboration with Irish Traveller Women, co-writing the script with Traveller activist Catherine Joyce.
“I’m always interested in this idea of translation and a wide view of what translation could be,” he says. It is not always a direct process. Working with Catherine Joyce on rendering Lorca within an authentically Traveller speech and in a depiction true to Traveller society, they quickly hit problems. The first person to speak in Lorca’s text, for instance, is a servant – an unlikely presence in a modern trailer. The character instead became Dinnigan’s sister. Another impediment might have derailed the entire project. In The House of Bernarda Alba three daughters are in love with the offstage Pepe el Romano, here renamed Paddy Boy, who is engaged to marry the eldest. Joyce was adamant that it would never happen. “Daughters of the same family would never go against each other or squabble within the one family over a man,” says Tighe. The family tree was again redrawn, and now the romantic betrayal is a battle between cousins.
Encouraged by sufficient cultural congruence – the respect for tradition, the practice of arranged marriages, the tension between custom and modernity – Tighe and Joyce sought “culturally accurate equivalents for everything in the play”. García Lorca may have thrown down a gauntlet: “The writer states that these Three Acts are intended as a photographic document,” the playwright wrote teasingly on the title page of his final draft. Did Tighe become similarly in thrall to realism?
“It’s not a documentary about Travellers or Traveller culture,” says Tighe. “It is, at the end of the day, a work of art. The real cultural and linguistic elements have been important to get right, but it is still an adaptation of the original. It hasn’t been about getting bogged down in issues, or making a political comment about Traveller culture. A lot in it is about universal experience and universal emotion.”
As director of the play, Tighe’s focus shifted to a rewarding tension between reality and fiction. Each of his eleven performers go by their own name, for example – Bridget Dinnigan is playing Bridget Dinnigan, in other words – a device that began as a convenience for non-professional performers during early drafts of the play, but which crystallised into an aesthetic. “It was about getting used to being themselves rather than acting a character,” says Tighe. “Although there is nothing on stage from the women’s lives – it’s all fiction – it blurs the lines between artifice and reality. It’s also another way of throwing a spanner into the works of naturalism.”
Tighe has been meddling with the mechanisms of theatre for some time now. Following years as a jobbing actor in Dublin, he experienced “a kind of personal crisis with the theatre I was working within. It was quite a traditional form of theatre. I didn’t feel honest within it. It came down to a crisis of honesty. I felt that rather than waiting for work to arrive with which I found empathy, I should just make my own.” In 2006 he went to London to pursue an MA in Performance Making at Goldsmiths College, University of London, a course that leaned more towards performance art than text-based theatre, introducing him to the practices of Marina Abramovich and Joseph Beuys.
Much of Tighe’s work, preceding and following his time at Goldsmiths, has been formally experimental, politically pugnacious and sometimes madly erratic, marked by acts of provocation. In the first production from The Stomach Box, the company he founded with composer Seán Óg and designer Phil MacMahon, 2003’s Amnon and Tamar, Tighe’s performance involved onstage masturbation (reports varied on whether it was simulated or not). His 2006 performance Mise Éire involved a naked Tighe drinking shots of Guinness – one every minute for 60 minutes – before vomiting on the Irish flag. Was it a deliberately aggressive strategy? “Yeah, I suppose in one way it was. I was interested in pushing the boundary of putting things onstage, presenting images and content which I hadn’t seen before. It might have been perceived as provocative. I didn’t see it personally that way.”
With the double success of Journey to the End of the Night and The Stomach Box’s No Worst There is None (a site-specific promenade performance through Newman House based on the life and work of Gerard Manly Hopkins), Tighe’s work has recently hit an easier balance between style and self-exposure. No Worst There is None, presented at the Ulster Bank Dublin Theatre Festival and conceived as “a nightmare vision of the inner psyche of Hopkins as he moves towards death”, saw Tighe nominated as best director at the Irish Times Irish Theatre Awards, and the show won the award for best production. Tighe considered the manically busy period a coincidence – “It’s more that a few different trains have come into the station at the same time” – but he recognised in that easy stance between the Fringe and the Theatre Festival an encouraging sign that traditional theatre could accommodate alternative methods; his theatrical crisis was partly resolved. “Hopefully it’s indicative of where the theatre is going at the moment. The camps are not as polarised as they used to be.”
When we spoke again, shortly before the opening of The Trailer of Bridget Dinnigan, Tighe was content with its development. “As time has gone on, the original play has faded into the background and the new text has taken over,” he says. “What I’d hoped was that this new image would supplant the original. I really think that has happened now.”
Translation, he agrees, is a constant in his work, using existing texts to create new words and new forms: from one language to another or one medium to another. Spanish becomes Cant. Poetry becomes performance. Politics becomes art.
“I’m looking for a kind of mould into which I can pour my own work,” he says. “It has become a methodology of working.” He mentions A Season in Hell, The Stomach Box’s 2005 show inspired by Arthur Rimbaud’s poem, which now stands with No Worst… as the first instalments of a trilogy of works inspired by poets. The third is currently in development. “In a way – and I’m not entirely sure why – I’m less interested in [creating] my own structure. I have no problem with perceived originality. For me, it’s almost like finding a poetic metre.”
Even preparing his non-professional performers for the stage has been an act of conversion, or, as he puts it, of “finding a lingua franca with people who don’t work in that way to create a piece of theatre. It’s sort of forced me to go back to basics, take nothing for granted; to look at theatre itself completely anew.”
Nor does he take it for granted that theatre is his permanent home. Following The Trailer of Bridget Dinnigan, which he hopes will eventually tour Ireland, Tighe is renewing work on an equally long-gestating album. (Wondering if it would be the musical equivalent of live art, I asked him what genre the songs belonged to. “If I’m lucky, it will be pop,” he replied.). With Journey… recently taking him to Poland and Monaghan’s Flat Lake Festival (where his performance was “the perfect antidote to Crystal Swing,” he joked) and soon destined for the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, Tighe was resisting any suggestion that No Worst There is None might be revived. “There’s just a lot of other work to do,” he reasoned, committed instead to following the next idea to wherever it might lead – like a seasoned traveller.
The Trailer of Bridget Dinnigan runs at Project Arts Centre, Dublin from June 17-19.
Peter Crawley is News Editor of Irish Theatre Magazine and Theatre Critic with the Irish Times.