'At the Black Pig's Dyke' Review by Rhonda Tidy

The Legend of ‘At the Black Pigs Dyke’ at The Life of Reilly Festival 

'The Black Pig’s Dyke' is a fortified series of divisions and ramparts along the boundary of the historic province of Ulster in old Gaelic society. The people who inhabited this area are known as ‘Mummers’ and are presented here as straw-masked tribal warriors. The play, written by Vincent Woods, is teaming with folklore and stories native to the border region. Mummers wander from village to town and entertain those who they meet with local songs and music, all the while dancing and providing a visual spectacle dressed in their towering straw masks, boots and straw skirts dotted with poppies – the first instance of blood imagery and lust for violence. The play is a dark, terse and engaging piece that traces the experiences of a life marked by violence and with questions of identity along Ireland’s border between north and south. The play rapidly descends into fear and violence as the wedded union of a Catholic girl to a Protestant man sets in motion the cyclical motion of revenge and killing. The sectarianism is a direct and unashamed commentary on the conflict and killing experienced by those in the North. The fact much of this story is based on inherited folklore highlights the sad connection that for many in the North and indeed the South, their inherited legacy was that of fear, distrust and killing. The fact the play is set at ‘the Black Pig’s Dyke’ along the border between north and south sets the play in a void between the sectarianism and where identity and connection with the self as a citizen is blurred.

During The Life of Reilly Festival recently, this new production of At the Black Pig's Dyke was premiered to a full house at The Backyard in Moynehall. Directed by Geoff O’Keefe with Co-Director and Stage Manager Kieron Smith, the play is a story of murder, mystery, fairy tale and tragic love set on the Irish border. The production was funded by the International Fund for Ireland under the management of Ann O’Reilly at Cavan Arts and featured local talent from the border region, a mix of professionally trained and talent from the amateur circuit. The story is one of crime: The murder of a mother and daughter by a neighbour bent on vengeance. Terrible as this crime is, it is but the latest link in a chain of murder reaching far back into Irish history and legend, a legend which is artfully retold in this play. Notably, the story is told using the pagan ritual of the mummers' play as a metaphor for Ireland at a time where people laughed at a wake and cried when a child was born. A fine blend of darkness and light, all the elements of this delightfully harrowing work come together on stage to express a timelessness inherent in myth and legend for an all together contemporary experience.

Sometimes the actors play specific characters, men and women on one side or the other of the Dyke's divide, who have weddings and work and rivalries and dreams and schemes in addition to being instances of the ordinary folk who take up the Mummer masks and carry on the tradition.  Other times the Mask Characters, particularly Tom Fool and Miss Funny, function like the chorus and gods in Greek drama, embodying forces larger than any individual. The role of the two protagonists, Tom Fool and Ms Funny were brilliantly performed by Conor Sheridan and Daragh Smith, who were tremendously confident in their lively delivery of the wit and humour in Woods dialogue. In particular, casting Daragh Smith as Ms Funny was a a stroke of genius. His performance gave a novel and humorous twist, setting this performance apart from the renown Druid Lane Theatre Company production who chose it to mark their 100th production in the early 1990’s.

The casting of actual modern-day Mummers in this play along with imaginative costume design by Helen Foy lent an added magic to the play. Patrick Rogers other-worldly singing voice made for a mesmerising performance of 1st hero, Jack Boles, balanced well by the performance of Ray Fitzsimons as the menacing Doctor. Fiona Ryan's set design was sublime and cleverly conceived, transforming the Backyards performance space into what felt like a professional yet intimate theatre space. The physicality of the overall performance was superbly choreographed by Mary Farrelly, combined with the stage set kept the audience engaged and also allowed for a smooth transition between scenes. O’Keefe and Smith have done a superb job in bringing to life the ritualistic dreamscape captured in Woods play.

Today, the Mummers continue the tradition of going from house to house in in some parts of rural Ireland, performing a traditional folk play from the pagan past. In addition to the dancing and drumming and the Mumming in rhymed verse, Woods weaves his spell with songs with and without rhyme, and poetic prose of the most incantatory sort. It is a potent spell indeed and the play is a supremely important commentary in Irish theatre on the despair, passion, killing and loss suffered for generations in Ireland’s North and its border regions.

Directed by Geoff O’Keefe; Co-Director and Stage Manager, Kieron Smith; Producer, Kevin O’Connor; Set Design, Fiona Ryan; Lighting Design, Paddy Farrelly; Sound Design, Michael O’Brien; Costume Designer, Helen Foy; Choreographer, Mary Farrelly; A.S.M. and Props, Noelle Slacke Set Construction, Thomas O’Gorman; Production Photography, Paul Farnan.  Cast: Conor Sheridan, Darragh Smith, Kathy Fitzpatrick, Kay Maguire, Sean Feeney, Gary Lacey, Kealan Braiden, Ray Fitzsimons, Fiona Walsh, Patrick Rogers, Aiden McCabe, Caitriona Kennedy, Mark Connelly. Musicians: Danny McGovern and Lorcan Brady.