65 – Ghostly Visitations: If there’s something strange… On the Irish stage

Back in the carefree days when this blog was simply a way of letting my parents know that I was still alive, I attached the tag ‘ghostbusting in the Hollywood hills’ as a throwaway joke. There was even less time given to coming up with the title, by the way; people often ask what inspired it. It was inspired by an espresso in one of LA’s hip cafes. Ever since, and each time I find myself humming the film soundtrack as I write (If there’s something strange, in your neighbourhood) I think about changing it. Then I forget again.

But this week, I was directed to a wonderful book entitled The Haunted Stage. Marvin Carlson has written all about “ghosting” — the term he gives to the imprints actresses leave upon parts, or parts leave upon them. (His theory is wider than that, as he also looks at haunted texts and productions but I’m going to focus on the performers.)

So, ‘ghosting’ is what happens in that moment when you watch Tom Vaughan-Lawlor in Howie the Rookie and can’t stop seeing Karl Shiels huddling in his coat in one of the shadowy corners, having stepped right out of the 1999 production. For me, perhaps the most ghostly presence was watching Aoife Duffin play Jessie Taite. I’d be hard pressed to separate when she was Aideen and when she was Jessie, although Aoife knew nothing about her.

“Celebrity”, Carlson points out, can be as simple as watching someone you know from the day job performing in an Am Dram production; or seeing somebody at the Dunnes checkout arguing with the  cashier, the day after you’ve seen the same person on the stage of the Gate theatre. Long after Arthur Shields, Barry Fitzgerald et al had left the Abbey Company, they continued to be known as the ‘Abbey Players’. They wanted even less to do with the institution than it wanted to do with them, but John Ford billed them as the Abbey Players for The Quiet Man and other movies. The Company imprinted them indelibly.

As I mused this all over, walking the prom in Salthill, I found myself asking: can there be ‘ghosting’ if the audience have never seen the original performance? Or, if the actress has never seen the performer she is reportedly ‘quoting’? Who is being haunted here – the audience or the performer?

And then, can you identify ‘ghosting’ even where you don’t know the source of the spectre?

It’s amazing what an ice cream cone can inspire, because I remembered a visitation:

A few months ago, I attended the performance of a new play in the New Theatre in Temple Bar. I wasn’t there by choice, and I had personal issues with the representation of mental health issues so it wasn’t the most engaging evening and I won’t name the play. But halfway through the second act, a woman appeared on stage. It was the briefest of moments. The character had wandered into the wrong room in the psychiatric hospital. The actress might have been in her early sixties, with the figure of a much younger woman and a costume designed to show off her legs and cleavage. But more than that, this lady had enough presence to blow the rest of the actors off the stage – which she quite nearly did. With a few quips, a wink and a sashay she was gone again.

I realised I wasn’t the only one drifting off to sleep in the audience. The arrival of this actress (perhaps more than one generation older than the other performers) had caught our attention again. There was a burst of laughter; several sat forward waiting expectantly for her to appear again.

And she did. This time, staggering a bit from drink. Despite the lengthy monologue of the other actor, all eyes were on this actress. And it may have been something more than her presence (although there was that too). In her precise physicality, and considered delivery, she might have walked off a different stage in a different time and stumbled onto the bijoux space of the New Theatre stage.

I strained to read her biography in the darkness after she’d exited the stage and watched the rest of the action wondering: did the director know when he cast her of the ghosts she was bringing with her? Did he simply find an actress of the right age and neglect to notice her training, her style — so different to the minor-key naturalism of the other performers?

At home, I took out my programme again and started googling. The actress was Maire O’Neill, of the Abbey Theatre Company.

She’s not the Maire O’Neill that Synge adored at the turn of the century – that would be an ACTUAL ghost and I’m not (totally) crazy.

But she is the Maire O’Neill that trained at the Abbey School and joined the company in 1965. In 1966 she was cast in The Plough and the Stars as … guess who? Rosie Redmond. I told you there was something about Rosie… The ghosts never leave. They just hang around, waiting for the right moment to stumble onto the stage unexpectedly and delight many bored theatre goers.

I don’t want to ‘bust’ those kind of ghosts.

2 comments on “65 – Ghostly Visitations: If there’s something strange… On the Irish stage

  1. Ciara – So happy you’re back! Interesting entry on ghosts -Check out this new book by my friend Leslie Stainton STAGING GROUND. AN AMERICAN THEATER AND ITS GHOSTS -…All best, Helen http://www.amazon.com/Staging-Ground-American-Theater-Ghosts/dp/0271063653/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1405514987&sr=1-1&keywords=staging+ground

  2. Hi Helen, Hope you’re well! That looks fascinating … Will definitely check it out! Cx

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