Rough Magic: Dreaming It

The second in our series of blog posts on the Rough Magic archive is by Chris Morash, Seamus Heaney Professor of Irish Writing at Trinity College Dublin;

In the almost thirty years that I have been teaching, there is a story I’ve used so many times that I am beginning to wonder if I dreamed it or made it up.

It is of the 1985 Rough Magic production of Brecht’s Caucasian Chalk Circle, directed by Declan Hughes in the old Project Arts Centre.  There is a scene in the first half of the play in which the character of Grusha (Pauline McLynn) is fleeing through the mountains with a baby, pursued by troops.  Rough Magic performed the play in an intimate three-quarter thrust stage, with assorted bits of children’s playground equipment scattered about.  The chase includes a moment in which Grusha crosses a narrow rope bridge, dangling vertiginously over a gorge.  Rough Magic did this simply, but powerfully, by having McLynn make her way precariously over a child’s see-saw. 

Pauline McLynn as Grusha. Image of an original photographic print by Amelia Stein within the Rough Magic collection

Every single person in that audience back in 1985 had, at one point in their lives, done the same thing.   We all know secretly that see-saws are for climbing.  Dangerously.  You start up the sloping ramp on one side, one foot gently in front of the other, all the time knowing that when you reach the fulcrum, the centre of gravity will suddenly shift, up will be down and down will be up, there will be a sudden slamming of wood into dirt, and, unless you keep your balance, you will be thrown on your head.  In the Project that night, everyone in the audience had a bodily memory of what they were witnessing, and so we all identified not just with the character, but with the actor’s peril.  It was pure bodily memory.  Through it, we all understood what Brecht meant when he wrote that “the actor appears in a double role”: not only as the character, and also as the actor-as-character. 

I’ve increasingly come to think that this is one of the keys not just to Brecht’s episches theatre, but to all theatre: it is one of the tricks of liveness, part of the magic that draws us back to darkened rooms against all the odds, again and again.  There is a sense that every time an actor steps on the stage, they are setting out on a precarious journey, climbing the see-saw. Unlike film (where you can always do a retake), every moment on stage the possibility that the actor might fall.  That moment in the 1985 production of The Caucasian Chalk Circle showed an understanding of what was at stake in live theatre as clearly as anything I have ever seen.

However, up until now, that moment that has been so crucial to my understanding of theatre (like so many other moments that Rough Magic has provided over the years) has existed only in the most ephemeral of forms: as memory.  The Rough Magic Archive changes all that, and that is what makes theatre archives so important.  Now I can at last see did I dream it or make it up.

Chris Morash

Seamus Heaney Professor of Irish Writing, Trinity College Dublin