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

‘An Unlikely Institution’, Rough Magic Theatre Company – a Living Archive

The Library’s latest exhibition showcases highlights from the Rough Magic Theatre Company archive which was donated to the Library in 2017. Over the next few weeks we will be featuring a series of blog posts focusing on the archive and start with an introduction by Lynne Parker, Artistic Director of Rough Magic;

Photograph by Alan Byrne

The collective that was formed as Rough Magic in Players’ Theatre in 1984 was a creative ensemble of seven. Over three decades the people have changed but the personality of the company has stayed constant – an eclectic collusion, with unity of purpose, generosity of spirit and an inclusive sense of ambition. 

This exhibition charts the evolution of the company in the context of that original vision; celebrating the people and the productions that formed it, and presenting an overview of a unique piece of Irish theatre history. As an independent, and highly individual company, Rough Magic is an assertion of the maverick spirit in Irish theatre.

Photograph by Alan Byrne

Within these cases, iconic plays, such as Declan Hughes’ Digging For Fire and Arthur Riordan’s Improbable Frequency, are represented by artefacts; publicity material, a stage manager’s prompt copy, the mechanics of production. Each of the objects in the exhibition relates to a milestone in the company’s thirty-five year trajectory, and some of the many shows – over a hundred, more than sixty of which have been Irish or world premieres.

Also cause for celebration is the enduring connection with Trinity, Rough Magic’s birthplace and now guardian of its materials and legacy, in a living archive that will continue to expand, consolidate and enrich our joint history.

Rough Magic exhibition in the Long Room. Back Row L-R: Margaret McAuliffe, Peter Hanley, Helene Montague, Conor O’Riordan, Arthur Riordan, Frank Blake, Stanley Townsend. Front Row L-R: Owen Roe, Gillian Buckle, Venetia Bowe,
Gina Moxley, Anne Byrne, Lynne Parker. Picture by Paul Sharp/SHARPPIX

 

We are currently enjoying a wonderful residency in the Long Room Hub as Artists in Residence to develop a new piece around choral singing across Ireland;  and along with our productions for next year we will be launching a new Methuen anthology of Rough Magic plays, edited by Patrick Lonergan, which in due course will become a part of our archive collection.

By holding, housing and offering access to our Archive, the Library provides a secure repository for Rough Magic’s past that can inform and underpin the implementation of its future.

Lynne Parker

Artistic Director, Rough Magic Theatre Company