The Great Hunger – Smock Alley – Review


The Great Hunger – Smock Alley – Review
Bare Bodkin Theatre Company – Monday 7th – Saturday 19th March at 8pm in The Boys’ School

Maguire himself is patting a potato-pit against the weather –
An old man fondling a new-piled grave:”

Patrick Kavanagh wrote The Great Hunger in 1942, approaching the centenary of the famine. This hunger is something quite far removed from the original intention however. This is the tale of Patrick Maguire, a man who lived on and for the land and is set around the time it was written. He was a bachelor farmer who lived with his mother and spinster sister. He sees his life slowly slip away as he yearns for the companionship and love of a wife, but for whatever reason he remains alone until the end of his days. The 14 verse poem is widely considered Kavanagh’s greatest work and was described by Seamus Heaney as ‘a masterpiece’.

“His mother called down to him to look again
And make sure that the hen-house was locked. His sister grunted in bed
The sound of a sow taking up a new position.”

Peter Duffy is the lone performer in this production, which aims to let the words and language do the work. Peter is dressed as a simple peasant farmer, with clothes that have seen better days; a torn coat and pants. The stage has a potato pit on one side and a simple table and chair on the other. There are brief intermissions between each stanza of the poem, with the sound production and lighting setting the scene. We hear the sounds of a field on a summer’s day, or the crackle of an open fire in winter. They are brief diversions but set the location well for the impending verse.

“To a mother’s womb by the wind-toughened navel-cord
Like a goat tethered to the stump of a tree –
He circles around and around wondering why it should be.”

Duffy feels right for the part. He’s a man in his 50s, who was raised on a small farm in Monaghan. His accent suits the language and you have little difficultly believing him in the role. The story itself does have the odd moment of levity but for the most part is a bleak vision of a man who gave up his chance of happiness due his timid nature and an over powering mother. While the poem was never intended to be performed as a play, it converts easily enough to the setting and there is much rich language and imagery for any actor to explore. It is more a series of observations than a linear story. While not being the easiest night of theatre you will experience, this vision of rural life is ruggedly portrayed. Kavanagh had a fractured relationship with the countryside, he saw it as a grim and desolate place, filled with loneliness and isolation. At the same time, he saw it as an integral part of Irish life and admired the simplicity and authenticity of it. This duality is captured in this great work.

Find out more about Bare Bodkin theatre here.


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