The Death of a Muse
BelleVedere Theatre Company
Lock 91, Manchester
Plays based on fact, especially those concentrating on real-life individuals rather than events, are a bugger to get right. They tend to be over-reverential and feature awkward dialogue full of exposition. The BelleVedere Theatre Company gets the formula spot-on with The Death of a Muse, a gleefully irreverent and at times silly play that draws out the humanity of people who, while remarkable, were far from perfect. Notably, the play is based on the lives and lies of Maud Gonne and William Butler Yeats.
Maud Gonne (Kerry Ely) was an Englishwoman and political activist. To further her appeal to Irish voters, she married an Irish patriot who beat her and molested her ten-year-old daughter. Gonne was also the muse of poet William Butler Yeats (Patrick O’Donnel) and inspired some of his greatest verse. Yet when the duo re-unite in the afterlife, their relationship is so far from cordial they invite the audience to vote on which of them should be condemned to Hell.
Author Rois Doherty refuses to glorify her subjects. The script, while full of historical details, constantly draws attention to the ridiculous antics of those involved. When Gonne refuses to marry Yates, he considers marrying her daughter just to gain access to her mother. Yeats is something of a peacock, very aware of his status, while Gonne is dismissive of anyone (including her daughter) who does not further her political ambitions.
Doherty’s storytelling style is audacious. The characters work out their fates by reading the summary in the programme and have a knowing attitude to events ("it’s called a ‘flashback’"). The script is full of great gags with Yeats constantly inspired to write what are recognisable as pop lyrics. Doherty does not cheat by relying on the power of Yeats’s poetry to make an impact. Quotations from the poems are used sparingly—a brief extract is dismissed by the woman he hoped to impress. Ely suggests a prudish element to Gonne as if she is faintly repulsed by Yeats's passionate but earthy approaches.
Xenia Lily and Sarah Neubrand (who co-directed with the author) take inspiration from classic mismatched comedy duos. Every time O’Donnel makes a flamboyant gesture, he nearly slaps Ely in the face. It is a fast-paced, very physical production and no-one is afraid of a bit of slapstick.
Kerry Ely and Patrick O’Donnel work together like an old music hall double act. O’Donnel shows the absurd extremes to which the poet is driven by infatuation. Squeezed into a too-small suit, he is the more physical of the two, throwing himself around the stage and perching on chairs with little regard for his dignity. Ely on the other hand shows how Gonne takes herself very seriously with an aloof, almost smug attitude like the cat who got the cream.
The Death of a Muse combines an irreverent method of storytelling with biographical detail in a highly imaginative manner. Maud Gonne and William Butler Yeats may have been charmless in real life but this is an absolutely charming production.
Reviewer: David Cunningham