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

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