Cathleen ni Houlihan Review

Phoenicia of Dido Productions put on a performance of Cathleen ni Houlihan, directed by Cathy Scoon and co-written by Lady Gregory and William Butler Yeats. Lady Gregory wrote most of the dialogue for the play, whilst Yeats made the impact with Cathleen Ni Houlihan’s hypnotic speeches. The narrative’s primary focus is the 1798 rebellion in Ireland, with the Gillane family being visited by Cathleen ni Houlihan, a mythic figure who embodies the Irish nationalism of the play.

Cathleen ni Houlihan traditionally exclusively follows the Gillane family and the 1798 rebellion in Ireland; however, in this production an innovative decision was made to incorporate Yeat’s poem ‘The Man and the Echo’ (1938), which he wrote after the play, concerned about how the nationalism had encouraged people to go to war and die. This completely reframed the tone of the play, making it not only another performance of Cathleen Ni Houlihan, but an active reinterpretation of the original work. By having Yeat’s desk by the side of the homely scene, the presence of the writer prefigured the play, looming over the performance very effectively, to constantly remind us of the powers of literature as it is through the figure of Cathleen ni Houlihan that Yeats incites Michael Gillane, and many who saw the play, to die for their country.

The setting was intimate, with a small stage, allowing the actors to walk up close to the audience and directly immerse us in the performance. This immersion was heightened by the effective sound design, which made up for minimal props, as the soundscape constructed a wider world beyond the stage. The music similarly played a big role within the performance, with uneasy violin music, provided by Liza Verzhbitskaya, playing throughout. This meant that the deadening silence after Michael Gillane leaves to join the rebellion is made even more prominent.

Overall, the performances were good, although the inconsistent accents, with some characters not having an Irish accent at all, was a tad disappointing. However, the figure of Cathleen ni Houlihan herself was played incredibly well, actually eliciting chills when she talked in a singsong tone about how many men died for her. Cathleen’s performance was enhanced by the costuming, with her dramatic green cloak and even more dramatic leafy dress in the final moments of the production.

Overall, whilst Cathleen ni Houlihan is a short play, contained in a single act, it packs a punch.

Featured Image Credit: Niamh Jones