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Theatre in Review: Give Me Your Hand (Irish Repertory Theatre Online)

Dearbhla Molloy

The Irish Times once called Paul Durcan "the most playful poet in Ireland" and seeing Give Me Your Hand, one can easily see why. This theatre piece, taken from a 1994 volume of the same name, is a kind of guided tour of London's National Gallery; each poem is based on a painting featured there. With the excellent actors Dermot Crowley and Dearbhla Molloy acting as our docents, this is a museum visit unlike any other. Filmed at London's Coronet Theatre, its combination of sharply observant words, gorgeously resonant voices, and vividly reproduced artworks transforms what might be a dutiful piece of reader's theatre into a surprisingly sensual and stimulating experience.

Durcan's poems -- which are nimble, witty, and laced with longing and regret -- often give voice to the subjects of the paintings. For example, the two opening pieces amusingly posit a kind of romance between a male portrait by the Italian Renaissance painter Parmigiano and Peter Paul Rubens' Portrait of Susanna Lunden; the two works have been placed on opposite walls, leaving them to gaze at each other for decades. (As love affairs go, it is a rather blunt affair -- the lovely Ms. Lunden is given to strikingly erotic feelings about her creator -- its terms perhaps dictated by the unique circumstances.) Gainsborough's Mr. and Mrs. Andrews, a portrait of a prosperous couple in the British countryside, becomes the meditation of a wife who, fed up with "fanning myself in the Suffolk desert," remorselessly murders her spouse with his own gun. "The nice thing is that the neighbors/Think it was an accident," Molloy says, in a voice that combines clipped aristocratic diction with fluty high notes. "I think," she adds, "my feeling was that I did not really want/To have to share my landscape."

More often, Crowley notes, the poet "glides in and out of the subject, or the content of each painting. He projects himself into the people and situations, he dreams up developments in the action, treats the paintings like kites in the gusty air of his imagination." Thus, another Gainsborough work, The Painter's Daughters, manages to work both Muhammad Ali and Lucien Freud into the sketch of a patriarch who obsessively collects 5,000 torches (flashlights to you). The Young Spartans, by Degas -- a study of classically beautiful male and female bodies -- is the platform for a vivid sketch of youth looking for trouble in Trafalgar Square, as well as a wickedly satirical portrait of a clergyman who revels in the attentions of matrons while pontificating on "the young folk of today." (You have to hear for yourself the sequence of tones Crowley squeezes out of that phrase, exposing it in all its fatuity; it is a lovely thing to behold.)

Parent -- child relations figure prominently. A poem based on Sir Joshua Reynolds' startlingly homoerotic portrait of the professional warrior Sir Banastre Tarleton morphs into the melancholy meditation of an elderly man -- confined to a wheelchair at the Brighton seaside -- on his son, who has died of AIDS. "Bloody awful lonely here in Brighton, son," he calls out. "Bloody awful lonely here in Paradise, sir," comes the imaginary reply. (Crowley's voice captures the exact timbre of a life running down, all energy and passion spent.) Similarly, a piece based on Adriaen van der Werff's The Rest on the Flight of Egypt transforms Mary, the Mother of God into a woman musing on the shrunken body of her AIDS-ravaged son; the words are both tender and macabre. ("Let me play the lute of your soul/Your small male skull.") Molloy assumes an eerie detachment as the mother of Vincent Van Gogh, "come to heal the wounds of art history," and making short work of art critics while offering a benediction on his painting, A Cornfield with Cypresses, which she dubs "the serenest canvas I have ever seen."

Don't be surprised if the sheer eccentricity of Durcan's poems -- of, indeed, the entire project -- proves to be a slight obstacle at first. It took me three or four short pieces to get on his singular wavelength, to embrace the fullness of his unique double vision. Once that happened, I felt thoroughly transported. In an especially frantic month, in a world going madder by the minute, Give Me Your Hand offers a soul-restoring reconnection with civilization, a combination of gorgeous visuals with the ideas of a highly original mind. It is surely the nicest gallery visit you can make right now. --David Barbour

(16 October 2020)

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