A row of nooses, a blood-drenched flag, dead animals, and, what’s that dismembered organ, a heart? A sacred heart? With Gothic relish, The Stomach Box have turned the nooks and stairwells of Newman House into a site of hauntings and symbolic tableaux. By the time we’ve passed the seated horse-headed figure with a sword and the pile of newly sheared wool, the audience is working overtime to connect these images to the poetry and life of Gerard Manley Hopkins, whose years in Dublin in the 1880s are the subject of this ambitious promenade piece cum installation.
As Professor of Greek and Latin literature at the recently established University College, Hopkins spent an unhappy, lonely period teaching and living in Newman House, until his death from typhoid in 1889. An English convert to Catholicism who joined the Jesuit order, he expressed in his poetry the conflicts between his calling as an artist and his religious vocation. During his Dublin period he wrote the ‘Sonnets of Desolation’, including the poem that gives this production its title, ‘No Worst There Is None’, which continues, “Pitched past pitch of grief” and goes on to ask “Comforter, where, where is your comforting?”
There is rich material here and the potential to offer insights into the poetic imagination of this extraordinary writer. Some of the symbolism of The Stomach Box’s presentation is far from obvious (at least to me), although each element has evidently been given careful consideration by director Dylan Tighe. An impressively accomplished artistic team is at work here - installation objects, or props, are highly finished, while shafts of light pick out faces of the statuary, or project into interiors. And, although the underlying ideas and the origins of some of the imagery are not always accessible, an atmosphere of oppressiveness, and some foreboding, is eloquently established.
Ushered into a grand reception room, we watch Hopkins (Will O’Connell) scratching out lines of poetry on sheaves of paper, under the impassive gaze of Cardinal Newman (David Heap), a commanding presence. A voice-over repeats penitent lines from the poet’s journal, berating himself for sins – for wasting time, not working hard enough, having impure thoughts, not concentrating in chapel.
The emphasis is on repression – of (homo)sexuality, of joy, of life. Hopkins is ‘time’s eunuch’. The ‘Sonnets of Desolation’ are presented by the cast in voice-over, in direct speech, projected onto a blackboard, line by line, or sung by boy choristers, in sinister Inquisition headgear. These poems, as well as Hopkins’s letters from these years, express extreme despondency, a struggle with faith, failure, self-loathing and at times, pure despair.
No-one who has experienced even a mild form of these states of mind could fail to be moved by the poet’s journey through darkness. Emotional intensity builds until we move upstairs towards his cramped bedroom, where we see him, in video projection, lying in the bed that will be his deathbed, reciting aloud. “Why do sinners prosper? and why must/ Disappointment all I endeavour end?”
Yet the cumulative effect of so much misery threatens to undermine its dramatic effects. Gradually the unrelenting lugubriousness of tone begins to feel like an affectation, as if unhappiness itself is seen as more significant than joy, or even ordinary contentment. When the promenade leaves Newman House and we enter University Church next door, the final funeral scene enacted there seems superfluous, even slightly gimmicky, in its solemn underscoring of the inherent theatricality of the rituals of the Mass.
This production is presenting in theatrical form only a short period in the poet’s life and has no obligation to be either biographically or historically representative. But perhaps some balance is needed: while the intensity of the late sonnets seems to speak directly to our emotions today, they are shaped and given formal brilliance by an artistic mind that remained capable of such aesthetic focus and achievement, despite his troubled state.
By being in thrall to the extremes of his despair, the opportunity to explore its roots more deeply is missed here. As a great appreciator of natural beauty, through which his most intense religious feelings are expressed, perhaps, for Hopkins, one of the sources of his pain in these Dublin years was his loss of connection with the natural world? And yet, during this same period, he could write with apparent serenity, ‘That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire and of the comfort of the Resurrection’, a poem affirming faith and vitality, and ending with the image that he, like Christ, “is immortal diamond”.
Helen Meany is Editor of Irish Theatre Magazine.