“I never knew anyone that wasn’t someway prisoner,” says Bridgie Cleary at the very outset of the play bearing her name—an omen that the ties that bind form the basis of this dramatic lament.
The story is based on the real-life tale of a seamstress burnt to death by her husband in rural Tipperary in 1895. Cleary claimed that his wife had been bewitched by fairies and replaced with a changeling. He was jailed for manslaughter. The unusual case was reported worldwide and inspired a rhyme, which is chanted by Bridgie in outbursts during the play—“Are you a witch or are you a fairy, or are you the wife of Mikey Cleary?”
MacIntyre’s play delves behind the facts and into the irrational world of emotions. What drives someone to kill another in such a heinous way? The eternal themes of rage, jealousy, obsession and desire are key, recurring themes. But the delicate and fleeting truth, in all its versions, is woven through the play like the cloth and intrigue that Bridgie spins.
Introduced to the audience while working at her sewing machine, Joanne Ryan as Bridgie was like a pendulum. She had a charming defiance, swinging between innocence and worldliness in tone and body language. The fact that Bridgie had a respected profession made her unusually independent for the time. She made “weskits for the gentry, hats for the quality” and there was a hint of envy and perhaps, suspicion, in the way people said she was “always a step above buttermilk”. Throughout, Ryan occasionally picked up pieces of work, including a blue handkerchief for a lover, later revealed as the “gossamer” man she yearned for in a particularly moving monologue.
There was a sense of the ethereal about Ryan’s performance, not least when Bridgie lapsed into fugue states, and a deep love of the natural world. She described being a child walking the fields on a “spun silver morning” or time’s slow movement like “a frog in a frost”. Using Irish phrases throughout, the colloquial yet sensuous lyrical language takes precedence.
The setting is a strange limbo; part purgatory, part kangaroo court, where the sounds of squawking birds, the wind and other unnerving noises come out of nowhere. Stephen Ryan’s sound design plays a large part in creating the atmosphere.
Then Mikey Cleary appears as if from nowhere. Having outlived Bridgie, at age 65, Mikey (Myles Breen) is dishevelled and confused but wearily admits he expected to see her. Breen’s Mikey was initially skittish and pathetic in demeanour but slowly revealed wilfulness and anger within. He talks about his trade as a cooper; his life after prison in Canada where every woman he met reminded him of Bridgie; his insistence that they were happily married; his guilt—often wistful in tone. He resorts a lot to the formal language used in his trial, a sign that he dwelled on it often, but yet he assigns the blame for Bridgie’s death to others. Breen captured the contradictory character of Cleary very well.
When one of Bridgie’s lovers, a preened landlord’s agent, William Simpson (Pius McGrath), appears, deeper and darker feelings emerge. Cleary and Simpson each regard the other with contempt and the actors demonstrated that, setting up a tension that persisted to the end. At points, their bitter rage and anguished roaring filled up the space. Bridgie explains how trapped she felt in her former life and plans to escape it. Both men are left chastened when they both find their love for Bridgie was unrequited. As the fiery conclusion built, the vulnerabilities of all characters were on display and the performances were very intense.
Emma Fisher’s set was simple yet imaginative. The walls were covered with layers of garments and fabric. They concealed the entry door/backstage area while giving the space a more intimate feel, akin to a small cottage. Towards the back of the stage there was a large pile of clothing, resembling a pyre. This enclosed feeling was not always pleasant. Even though Bridgie was surrounded by the materials of her trade, the set was a good analogy for her stifling home situation.
John Murphy’s direction was tight, with the cast using the space thoroughly. Performed as it was in the basement of a snooker club, the creaking of boards and muffled voices overhead were ever-present. Though occasionally an annoyance, for the most part, the ambient noise complemented the array of eerie sounds throughout. (Unfortunately, one of the bird-calls seemed more like a laser firing and this sci-fi tinged sound effect was jarring.)
Bottom Dog’s brave interpretation of What Happened Bridgie Cleary is the first Irish production since the Abbey Theatre produced it in 2005 and it was equally important that it took place as part of Limerick Arts Encounter. This pioneering pilot programme was funded directly by the Arts Council and Limerick local authorities is association with the Lime Tree Theatre. Funding which would formerly have been earmarked for the now defunct Belltable Arts Centre is to be funnelled directly to theatre groups and arts practitioners to present work in a variety of local venues.
In the end, nothing is explicitly set out and no blame apportioned. In Bridgie’s words, she was “never a witch, never fairy” but superstitions and the supernatural are referred to almost as facts in the play, as was the culture of the time. Unrequited love is a powerful, sometimes murderous, emotion. The question to the fore was: Could a woman have been killed, not because of her indiscretions or petty jealousies, but for simply having a voracious lust for life? The way society punishes those who are different, even today, answers that.
Rachael Finucane is a journalist and arts blogger based in Limerick.