Last night I went to a rehearsed reading of Where the Shoe Pinches by John Mc Clelland, directed by Conall Morrison (Theatre Artist in Residence) @ the Pavilion Theatre in Dun Laoghaire.
Introducing the reading, Conall Morrison described Where the Shoe Pinches as a poem of a play; it is a fusion of the words and ideas of John Mc Clelland and those of Miroslav Holub, the Czech poet and immunologist, who died in 1998. It explores the tension between the individual and an oppressive totalitarian regime, through the lens of Holub’s life and experience.
After the reading, which was staged with great verve by an enthusiastic and committed cast, Conall Morrison had a conversation with John Mc Clelland which included both cast and audience. JMcC described a Miroslav Holub reading he attended in Belfast in the 1990s. He said the poet read in both Czech and English, and answered questions freely. He gave as generously to the 18 people who turned up to listen to him in Belfast as to the 200 (or was it 2, 000?) who’d been present at his reading in Paris the previous night, acted as if he had all the time in the world to talk to them and there was nowhere in the whole world he’d rather be.
JMcC said that his intention in writing the play was not to write a straight biopic, but to try to show the flow and shape of Holub’s life, putting his own words and ideas together with those of the poet, and hoping the join would be seamless. He used lines from Holub’s poems to inform the script, and offered a structure for those lines to flow through. All of this was entirely successful. The play was convincing, absorbing, engrossing – and left people like me, who knew next to nothing about this poet, wanting to know more.
Someone commented that the play reminded her of Ionesco in its circular structure and use of repetition. Someone else compared it (favourably) to Stoppard. A member of the cast asked if Holub had been influenced by Beckett. The answer was, probably not, because the regime under which Holub lived and worked for most of his life would have restricted possibilities for ‘inward influences’. However, JMcC admitted, he himself is influenced by Beckett.
(As it happens, he looks quite like Beckett.)
This all led to an interesting chat about influence. When it comes down to it, JMcC reminded us, its just you and the pen. More generally, there’s no reason why poetry can’t have as much influence in society as anything else: Facebook, 24-hour phones and texts, freesheets on trains, the constant cacophony of daily life. The question is one of choice, and how to make space for what we choose. An evening like this one, at the Pavilion, is one way of making space for the influence of poetry (and drama, and literature in general).
There’s a passage near the end of the play that refers to the Angel of Death. JMcC told us that this was Miroslav Holub’s own idea. During his lifetime, Holub had said that he’d like to write a play. After his death, all that was found in his papers were three paragraphs of notes, including this image. JMcC decided that if that was the play Holub wanted, he’d give it to him.
All of which caused goose bumps to rise on the back of the collective neck of the audience. We were, let’s be honest, an intimate gathering ourselves. We seemed to echo the reading described by JMcC, where a tired but generous poet opened himself to a small group in Belfast, not knowing that one of the listeners was a playwright who would one day recreate his life and work and help to keep it alive. What ghosts, past or future, might lurk in the stalls amongst us while we talked?
Outside, Dun Laoghaire shimmered its way to the end of a hazy evening. The sea was at its provocative best, a dream of calm blue mist. I admit it was hard to turn your back on it and go inside – but it was well, well worth it. The Pavilion is offering a feast of opportunity through Conall Morrison’s residency, and it’s a pity more people didn’t turn up to support this event – weather or no weather. But other people’s loss may well have been our gain – the atmosphere this evening was friendly, informal and inclusive. It was a genuine privilege and a joy to be there.