13 October 2016


Melbourne Festival
Ancient Rain
12 October 2016
Playhouse, Arts Centre Melbourne
to 15 October

Ancient Rain. Melbourne Festival. Photo supplied

Ancient Rain is far from perfect and still unsure about itself, but it charms with its the imperfection. And it has Camille O'Sullivan, which overcomes any doubts.

Developed by Adelaide companies Brink and Far and Away Productions, it's been co-commissioned by the Melbourne Festival and the Adelaide Cabaret Festival. It had one performance in Dublin before its short Melbourne run and is heading to Wollongong and Canberra.

Ireland's O'Sullivan and her musical collaborator Feargal Murray joined with Australia's Paul Kelly to write music for a selection of Irish poems from the last 100 years. Except for their depictions of a cruel, cold and desolate world where love struggles against loss, the links between the poems are tenuous and while the individual poems have their own completeness, it's difficult to find what they offer together.

This is reflected in the design of mismatched chairs that could have come from hard rubbish and in Chris Drummond's direction that gives a broad theatrical shape to the individual poems and songs, but lets the singers and musicians (also including Paul Byrne, Dan Kelly, Sokal Koka) find their own paths and connections within the limits.

O'Sullivan has a connection to every emotion that created the poets' words. It's like she finds a hidden place in herself that remembers everything the poets felt and experienced. There's a degree of character, but she sings like every song and word is hers.

Her singing of The Statue of the Virgin at Granard Speaks by Paula Meehan, about the 1984 death of a 15-year-old giving birth under the statue, left the room so silent that individual tears could be heard sliding down cheeks.

Her pure emotion contrasts with Kelly, who holds back on emotion and – like the poets – lets the words have their own power. This is far more powerful when he sings – some poems are spoken – and lets music add the unconscious emotion.

The combination of styles could cancel each other out, but they support each other and fill in the emotional spaces that the other misses. She gives his unspoken emotions an almost corporeal form; he gives her the emotional distance that’s needed to find understanding.

Both are voices that are difficult to forget. This could be because neither force their voices to be anything other than the sound they hear in their heads. O’Sullivan could have a clear, pitch-perfect voice, but she lets herself be husky and raw. Kelly could belt out like a rock god, but he sings like he speaks.

Ancient Rain began with poetry and finds its way back to the poets by giving them voice in voices that the poets may never have heard in their heads, but are the voices that might bring new readers to their works.

The Statue of the Virgin at Granard Speaks 
by Paula Meehan

It can be bitter here at times like this,
November wind sweeping across the border.
Its seeds of ice would cut you to the quick.
The whole town tucked up safe and dreaming,
even wild things gone to earth, and I
stuck up here in this grotto, without as much as
star or planet to ease my vigil.

The howling won't let up. Trees
cavort in agony as if they would be free
and take off — ghost voyagers
on the wind that carries intimations
of garrison towns, walled cities, ghetto lanes
where men hunt each other and invoke
the various names of God as blessing
on their death tactics, their night manoeuvres.
Closer to home the wind sails over
dying lakes. I hear fish drowning.
I taste the stagnant water mingled
with turf smoke from outlying farms.

They call me Mary — Blessed, Holy, Virgin.
They fit me to a myth of a man crucified:
the scourging and the falling, and the falling again,
the thorny crown, the hammer blow of iron
into wrist and ankle, the sacred bleeding heart.
They name me Mother of all this grief
though mated to no mortal man.
They kneel before me and their prayers
fly up like sparks from a bonfire
that blaze a moment, then wink out.

It can be lovely here at times. Springtime,
early summer. Girls in Communion frocks
pale rivals to the riot in the hedgerows
of cow parsley and haw blossom, the perfume
from every rushy acre that's left for hay
when the light swings longer with the sun's push north.

Or the grace of a midsummer wedding
when the earth herself calls out for coupling
and I would break loose of my stony robes,
pure blue, pure white, as if they had robbed
a child's sky for their colour. My being
cries out to be incarnate, incarnate,
maculate and tousled in a honeyed bed.

Even an autumn burial can work its own pageantry.
The hedges heavy with the burden of fruiting
crab, sloe, berry, hip; clouds scud east
pear scented, windfalls secret in long
orchard grasses, and some old soul is lowered
to his kin. Death is just another harvest
scripted to the season's play.

But on this All Souls' Night there is
no respite from the keening of the wind.
I would not be amazed if every corpse came risen
from the graveyard to join in exaltation with the gale,
a cacophony of bone imploring sky for judgement
and release from being the conscience of the town.

On a night like this I remember the child
who came with fifteen summers to her name,
and she lay down alone at my feet
without midwife or doctor or friend to hold her hand
and she pushed her secret out into the night,
far from the town tucked up in little scandals,
bargains struck, words broken, prayers, promises,
and though she cried out to me in extremis
I did not move,
I didn't lift a finger to help her,
I didn't intercede with heaven,
nor whisper the charmed word in God's ear.

On a night like this I number the days to the solstice
and the turn back to the light.
O sun,
centre of our foolish dance,
burning heart of stone,
molten mother of us all,
hear me and have pity.

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