Interview with Sarah Jane Scaife – Laethanta Sona (Happy Days) – Dublin Theatre Festival
We had the chance to put some questions to Sarah Jane Scaife, the artistic director of Company SJ, about her new production Laethanta Sona, the Irish language production of Happy Days which is currently running as part of the Dublin Theatre Festival. You can see the results below.
Date(s) – 15-17 Oct, 7.30pm, 16-17 Oct, 2.30pm
When did you start working on this production?
I have been thinking about this project for many years. In 2018 I began to plan the project and made an application for funding in 2019. The idea for inserting Beckett into the landscape of the West of Ireland, particularly Connemara or the Islands, has been in my mind for over 25 years.
We approached the Abbey in September 2019 to discuss the possibility of presenting Laethanta Sona as a co-production and they were excited to support the project. Jen Coppinger and Craig Flaherty both have such a wealth of knowledge of making work in the West, so they were a fantastic support both in terms of the realisation of the vision and in helping us make connections with the arts community in Galway.
Did translator Mícheal Ó Chongaile approach you with a finished script or did you commission it?
No, I commissioned him to translate. I was looking for a writer from the Connemara region and was given his name by several people, including the actress Bríd Ní Neachtain. We met in Dublin and we spoke about my concept and after some back and forth he decided to work with me on it. It was a wonderful working relationship, Micheál has incredible patience and places equal importance on attention to detail.
I can only imagine how difficult a job it is to translate Beckett. How much time did Mícheal spend on this?
It was done over a year really. First Micheál went off to research and work on it. Then came a lot of emails and discussions about what certain sections meant and the importance of the rhythms and the repetitions in the language. I contacted my good friend and Beckett expert Anna McMullan, with many questions when reading it first. I also went through each word with my daughter’s partner who is from Inis Mór, exploring what particular phrases meant and when something could actually be repeated and when not. Meantime Bríd, Mícheál and myself met up and read the play for sound and meaning. When something is translated into the Irish language it becomes much longer because of the way the two languages work. I found this aspect of the project, the translation, so interesting. Bríd was integral to the process as although I know Beckett well, I am not an Irish language speaker. Bríd has performed Beckett and is a native speaker and wonderful performer. I have worked on translations in other countries, so it doesn’t scare me but you have to have the writer and the performer in collaboration in order to achieve the right balance in the translation of drama. The translation process continued on right up until the end of rehearsal with Mícheál coming out to our rehearsals in Áras Éanna on Inis Oirr to work through each detail. It was fascinating to hear them argue over a word or to be part of the discussion itself.
Can you tell me about your experience on Inis Oirr. What were the logistics like of putting on a production in such a remote location?
I have been visiting Inis Oirr for nearly 30 years on a regular basis. My children have very good friends there, that they made while growing up and spending long holidays there each year, there is a connection there for us all as a family. I was nervous of doing a project on ‘The Rock’ as I didn’t want to upset the relationship I had both with the people and the island. It was truly wonderful in the end. It felt as if the whole island was creating the piece with us, down to the sculptural stone set which was built way at the back of the island where no one lives. I had spent two years finding the perfect spot, Creig an Staic.
So, logistically it is so much more difficult than working in a theatre where everything can be delivered to the theatre and accessed fairly easily, even if you are working offsite. You are in control over your environment. On the island, if you didn’t have something, you might have to order it from Galway or England and get it transported down either by plane or boat. Everything becomes more expensive because of this. On the plus side, you are inspired by the location, people help you with pure generosity and so much skill. Listening to the language as the set was being created was just so beautiful. The weekend our designer Ger Clancy came down with the plans and materials to build the set was probably the most magical weekend I have spent there. The sun was shining, the lads from the island, Mairtín Stiofán, Mairtín Celine and Thomas Sharry worked alongside Ger and Aidan to build the set from wood and giant limestone slabs. The skill was extraordinary. All you could hear was the sound of the sea, the hammer on stone, the language and the laughs. It was collaboration in the real sense of the word. As Winnie says ’Neamh ar Talamh’… We also worked with 8 women from the island on a photo/sound exhibition, which was very moving.
Was there ever a discussion of having an outdoors production in Dublin or did the October weather end that idea?
No, they were two different concepts, one was never trying to replicate the other. They represent two different ways of exploring the idea of our language and landscape and the importance they have both had in our cultural past and indeed in our present. The piece was inspired by the language, landscape and people of Inis Oirr, but the two responses were always to be seen in a different medium. Hyper real, at the mercy of the Gods in Inis Oirr, with the weather, the experience of walking to the site and the nature all around. Then mediated by technology version of this in the theatre itself. Our Videographer Kilian Waters filmed everything while we were on the island, as we are going to make a documentary. The idea for the set in Dublin was to use the images of rock from the Creig an Staic to projection map a simulated representation or exploration of it in the theatre. We wanted to create a mediated, sculptural installation for the Dublin set. It feels like Inis Oirr, but we know it’s not. Sarah Jane Shiels worked with Kilian to balance light and projection for the Dublin run. Sinead Cuthbert created the most beautiful costume and props for Winnie and Willie. She always manages to make the costumes for Beckett as if they are a new image rather than a recognisable Beckettian costume.
How important is it for the Irish language, to have works such as this being created through Irish?
I think it is vital to be in a position to be able to collaborate like this. You don’t have to have perfect Irish to be inspired by or work with the language. Beckett works so well in this language, it is just wonderful to hear Bríd sing the words like a musical score.
Can you tell me about the rehearsal process and your cast?
The rehearsal process was wonderful as it played between in the room in Aras Éanna and then walking out to the site 25 mins away each time we rehearsed onsite. It was magical trying to figure out the sound with Chris Somers, how to create the world of Willie behind the mound, through sound alone. Our production team down there, Emma O’Grady leading them, were unbelievable in what they had to achieve, lugging equipment down to the field each day, the attention to detail was so important. Raymond Keane, also not a native Irish speaker was able to support the project so generously with his skill as a physical performer. I have worked with him on Beckett pieces in all sorts of strange and wonderful places and also in the theatre, where he performed in Company in 2018. The balance between himself and Bríd was beautiful to watch, with the physical and the aural complementing each other. We also had great actresses who worked with us as stage management and then for the subtitles, which is crucial to manage properly. We needed someone who understood the rhythms of the language, of Beckett and of Bríd’s interpretation.
What is next in store for Company SJ?
We are going to continue the journey of Beckett sa Chreig, looking for inspiration from the island and the language again. Laethanta Sona will have been the first in this series of work, hopefully. We have such a good production team with Tim Scott and Lianne O’Shea and such wonderful collaborators that there are always ideas bubbling.