How do you stage three plays at once? A company is faced with such a question adapting Flann O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds for stage, a labyrinthine, some might say proto-postmodern work (though the renownedly no-Bullshit author might not have liked this name…) with as many levels of narrative disorder as it has unruly characters. Blue Raincoat’s production succeeds in every aspect; in wringing every last moment of hilarity and suspense from O’Brien’s dense, flamboyantly convoluted plot, and in capturing a voice that delighted in wordplay, bureaucratic confusion and high philosophical irreverence. The author’s presence looms over this shadowy, burlesque-inflected production, present in every detail down to the proliferation of long coats and fedora hats used as costumes.
Though this Flann-obsessed writer cannot talk, the play is slapstick and frighteningly familiar enough (Irish ‘cuteness’ and pedantry comes under particular attack) that even audience members completely unacquainted with the novel will find humour in the shady rural shysters, the outraged Good Fairy and criminally lazy ‘author’ Dermot Trellis, whose pragmatic -yet meta-textually dazzling- approach to his art involves hiring out characters from other novels and putting them to new, unlikely purposes. When these characters revolt, separate levels of plot start to collapse in on eachother, and the stylishly bare stage of the Project becomes loud and chaotic with dancing, raving forms in frock coats and red plastic noses.
Blue Raincoat have superior writing and direction on their side- director Niall Henry is schooled in absurdism, having spent recent years touring Ionesco with the company, while writer Jocelyn Clarke previously adapted O’Brien’s The Third Policeman, as well as Alice in Wonderland. But the infectious, unflagging energy of the play is down to its impressive cast, who tackle O’Brien’s distinctly text-based brand of humour with aplomb. The female-heavy group animate every extravagant syllable of the novels tongue-twisting prose, from the earthy natterings of Jem Casey and co in a Rathgar pub, to the loftier bardic verse of legendary king Cuchulainn and the tale of Sweeney Astray. It takes a very dynamic production to bring to life such pronouncements as ‘It is a popular fallacy that all spirits are accomplished instrumentalists’. But Blue Raincoat do it like no other. Take in their manic brilliance while you can; surely their like shall never be around again (not til the film adaptation, at least, which we hope to be even half as good as this one!).