Rough Magic Memories

The third in our series of blog posts on the Rough Magic archive is by Nicholas Grene, Professor Emeritus of English Literature, Trinity College Dublin

In the summer of 1984, I ran into Lynne Parker and Declan Hughes in Front Square; they had just graduated.  ‘What are you up to?’ I asked.  ‘We’re setting up a theatre company’.   Hardly a surprise there: they had been mainstays of D.U. Players for the four years of their time as students of English.   ‘What are you calling it?’  ‘Rough Magic’.  I was immediately struck. It was simply the most brilliant name for a theatre company — at once ‘rough’ as in experimental, challenging, and at the same time magical, transformative, as all theatre should be.  But it also showed their time in English had not been wasted: they had picked out Prospero’s line from The Tempest, ‘this rough magic / I here abjure’.  The old magus might be abjuring rough magic, but the young Turks were about to create it.

For me the ‘living archive’ on display in the Long Room brings alive vivid memories of thirty-five years of Rough Magic.  There were the shows that Lynne and Declan had staged when still in Players, like a hugely ambitious production of Tom Stoppard’s Travesties which Lynne both directed and designed.  It was an amazingly talented group which included Stanley Townsend and Darragh Kelly, Pauline McLynn and Anne Enright.  Anne, now of course an acclaimed novelist, at the time looked like becoming an actor and playwright; she played for Rough Magic in Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls (1984) and Wallace Shawn’s Aunt Dan and Lemon (1986).  Pauline McLynn, whose wonderfully infectious laugh I remember from first year tutorials, was to star opposite Owen Roe in the magnificent 2006 Taming of the Shrew transposed to a 1970s Irish Midlands pub.  (When she was playing Mrs Doyle in Father Ted, I had to reassure people I had actually taught her – she wasn’t really that old.)

Rough Magic transformed Irish theatre in the 1980s by staging edgy contemporary British and American plays.  I still recall the unfortunate Anne Byrne and Martin Murphy, in different scenes of Howard Barker’s No End of Blame (1985), having to stand stock still and stark naked in the tiny, old Project Arts Theatre, perishingly cold as it was in those days — you could count each goose pimple.  The company gave new currency to classic English plays as in their sleazy production of the Restoration comedy The Country Wife (1986), or Wilde’s Lady Windermere’s Fan (1991) with most of the characters in drag.  But they also commissioned important new work from Irish playwrights: Gina Moxley’s Danti Dan (1995), Donal O’Kelly’s one-man show Bat the Father, Rabbit the Son (1988), and of course Declan Hughes’s own Digging for Fire (1991).  These productions fundamentally changed audiences’ expectations as to what an Irish play might be like.

Music was always a key part of Rough Magic’s work, and Helene Montague, one of the founding members of the group, was very important here, as was Arthur Riordan who wrote the astonishingly funny musical Improbable Frequency with Bell Helicopter (2004).   A part of the daring of their Phaedra (2011) was the collaboration of playwright Hilary Fanning and composer Ellen Cranitch in creating a drama that alternated between spoken dialogue and glorious singing.

When I look through this exhibit, with posters, programmes and scripts for so many shows of Rough Magic that I saw over the years, it serves to renew all the pleasure the company has given me, and as a living archive to enable me to live it through all over again.

Nicholas Grene

Professor Emeritus of English Literature, Trinity College Dublin