Picture a chilly rehearsal room in February, rain falling from a grey sky outside and an ensemble of theatre-makers huddled around a paper-strewn table, scribbling furiously. There are six copies of Joseph O’Connor’s Redemption Falls scattered about the scene, all different editions, some being held open as someone searches for a relevant line, some exotically feathered with colourful labels that mark crucial moments in the novel: ‘Jeddo’s Letter’, ‘Salt Lake City’, ‘Eliza in Chains’. Cups of tea, a scattering of crumbs the only remains of a plate of home-made muffins. Except for the scratch of pens on paper, the room is silent.
This is how it began. The idea to follow up our stage adaptation of Joseph O’Connor’s Star of the Sea with an adaptation of his novel Redemption Falls had grown slowly from the seed planted by the author himself after seeing the opening night of Star of the Sea at GIAF in 2014. The question for us was: what would a stage adaptation bring to this novel? With Star of the Sea, we were driven by the desire to put the Irish language back into the mouths of characters, something that couldn’t be done in novel format. For Redemption Falls, we wanted to find both the thread that linked us as modern-day Irish performers to the novel’s subject matter, and the element of the writing that we could draw out and expand upon in a way only theatre can.
So we met for a day of brainstorming in February 2017. This is often how we start to convert the written word to our style of performance. Once we’ve all read the text we throw our ideas down on a long roll of paper. What are the images that have stayed with us? What are the characters that we felt most drawn to, and why? Sometimes, in order to get the creative juices flowing, we set ourselves a task. Something like: if this show was a parade, what would the floats be?
Because we work as an ensemble, with no director, these sessions are an invaluable way of allowing every member to find their own connection to the piece. It’s out of these days of loose discussion that we start to form a tentative bond with the characters and their journeys. Like a spider’s web, only visible in certain light, the outline of the show starts to form.
And then we walk away. We’ve found that this is a crucial element of how we work. It allows the ensemble members to continue to work on different projects, coming back into the rehearsal room with renewed energy and inspiration. But most of all, it gives the piece time to breathe and grow at the very back of our minds, where the richest reservoirs of imagination lie. When we all come together again, for two weeks in March 2017 and then a week at the Abbey in April 2017, the spider’s web has become a shimmering, complex, multi-dimensional structure. A ‘hidden architecture’, to quote O’Connor, upon which we can start to construct the final production.
That being said, had you seen the work-in-progress performance we presented after that development week at the Abbey, you might not have been sure exactly what direction the piece was going to take. At this early stage of development, we like to challenge ourselves to leave the written word aside. Knowing that the gold of O’Connor’s writing is waiting for us when we need it, we concentrate on the elements of theatre that exist outside the spoken word. With Redemption Falls, the obvious focus is music. O’Connor’s novel is a brutal look at the aftermath of war, wrapped in an achingly beautiful lacework of ballads, songs and tunes. A treasure trove of alternative story-telling that not only excites us to bring it to life, but also gives us the opportunity to reinvent ourselves. In order to launch us out of our comfort zone, we decide for the purposes of this piece to think of ourselves as a band, and of the show as a concept album onstage. The result is a work-in-progress performance comprised almost entirely of music and imagery, drawing inspiration from the novel but incorporating very little of its text.
Fast-forward through another four short development periods (and a US and national tour of Star of the Sea, which gave us lots of opportunity for more Redemption Falls chats and workshopping). We’re back in the same rehearsal room as before, only this time the windows are open onto a glorious June morning in 2019. Our stage manager, Sorcha, comes in with a stack of scripts, fresh off the printer. We each take one wonderingly. Is it possible that the glinting spider’s web has solidified into something as concrete as a still-slightly-warm script?
It actually only hits us later that what we set out to achieve in April 2017 has happened: the show is a gig. Every scene is really a piece of music, with a character’s story woven through it. Though the piece is now rich with dialogue and text from the novel, we are rehearsing ‘tracks’ rather than scenes. What started out as an impossible task, set to stretch and challenge us, has somehow become an accepted reality.
Looking back at the long journey of this process, a single red thread is visible, weaving its steady way through every stage, right from the first day: it is the thread that makes this our story to tell. Star of the Sea left its protagonist, Mary, on the threshold of a new world. But to leave our story as a nation at that point is to ignore some uncomfortable truths. The people that emigrated to America during the Famine went on to play a crucial role in the history of the US. They became slave-owners, outlaws, prostitutes, child soldiers and generals. To tell their story is to trace the threads of our own lives back, and find that they are tightly woven into the web of everything that has come before us.
(c) Ionia Ní Chróinín
Production photos (c) Marta Barcikowska
About Moonfish Theatre’s Adaptation of Joseph O’Connor’s Redemption Falls:
Moonfish Theatre follow their acclaimed adaptation of Joseph O’Connor’s novel Star of the Sea with a unique re-imagining of O’Connor’s sequel, Redemption Falls. Presented as a theatre-gig, Redemption Falls weaves traditional folk song and music, visceral imagery and evocative storytelling in a breath-taking and intense theatrical experience. The production sold out at its world premiere run as part of Galway International Arts Festival this summer, and comes to Dublin this autumn, with performances 9th-19th October at the Abbey Theatre, as part of Dublin Theatre Festival.
Redemption Falls focuses on the realities of war; the untold stories that lurk behind the facade of glory and righteousness. The show harnesses the power of music and song to explore the experiences of seven characters who find themselves cast adrift amidst the debris of the American Civil War. Each has their own reasons for survival, but as the story unravels their paths criss-cross, bringing them closer and closer to a final reckoning.
Peacock Theatre, Dublin
THURSDAY 10th October – Saturday 19th October | 8pm
Free preview WEDNESDAY 9th October | 8pm
(Matinee Sat 19th Oct – 2:30pm)
Ticket prices: €25/€22 conc.
Booking: www.abbeytheatre.ie Tel: (01) 87 87 222
Age guidance: 15+