At Swim Two Birds

Uncle and Mr Corcoran in Blue Raincoat's 'At Swim Two Birds'. Photo: Dickon Whitehead Photography

Uncle and Mr Corcoran in Blue Raincoat's 'At Swim Two Birds'. Photo: Dickon Whitehead Photography

The decision to produce a stage adaptation of Flann O’Brien’s 1939 At Swim-Two-Birds will strike many as an enormous gamble. Yes, Blue Raincoat did a great job with their version of O’Brien’s The Third Policeman back in 2007. And, yes, the novel has been adapted a few times before, most recently by Alex Johnston at the Peacock in 1998. And of course, we know that Brendan Gleeson has managed to assemble an amazing cast for his forthcoming screen adaptation of the book. But it still seems a monstrously difficult task.

One reason for that difficulty is that the book’s narrative direction is deliberately unstable. “One beginning and one ending for a book was a thing I did not agree with,” announces O’Brien’s unnamed narrator on the first page – before giving us three different stories, all of them distinct but inter-related. The first of these is about a ‘member of the devil class’ called the Pooka McPhellimey, the second about a fictional character called Furriskey (who is born at the age of 25), and the third about the legendary Irish hero Finn Mac Cool. These tales overlap and contrast with each other, and are presented in a bizarre combination of styles, ranging freely from the epic to the mind-numbingly bureaucratic – until it becomes difficult to distinguish one style from another.

But the joke here is that the novel does in fact have only one beginning. It starts off with the narrator’s announcement that he’s going to create the subsequent three stories – so the entire text is mediated through that narrator’s consciousness, and organised in relation to his own awareness of each of the three tales. So do we see At Swim as presenting three stories? Or does it actually just present one story, about an author who’s thinking about writing three different books, but can’t decide which one to start first? And how can we describe this unwieldy accumulation of narrative? We might call it a montage or a palimpsest, but neither of those terms seems adequate. So in the end, could it be most accurate to suggest that At Swim is a novel that sets out repeatedly to show that it is not actually a novel? Perhaps, but it’s an open question. How, then, can a company transform this into something theatrical?

One answer might be to see O’Brien’s novel as doing for fiction what Pirandello did for theatre: if the Italian was giving us six characters in search of an author, O’Brien was giving us one author in flight from (at least) three of his own characters. It’s not clear if this resemblance is intentional - Pirandello isn’t mentioned in the show’s programme, and there are no explicit allusions to his work in the performance. But that playwright seems an obvious point of reference for Jocelyn Clarke’s adaptation.

Walking into the Factory’s performance space, what we see is… well, a theatre. The centre of the auditorium is filled with a thrust stage. To its left and right are the normal paraphernalia that one expects to be hidden away in the wings: lights, costume rails, microphones, and so on. At the back of the auditorium is a proscenium arch, with a melodramatic red velvet curtain covering it. So before anything actually happens, it seems as if we’ve been transported to a slightly grotty nineteenth-century music hall, designed with characteristic wit by Jaimie Vartan.

As the actors arrive on stage, it quickly becomes obvious that the novel’s exploration of fiction has been re-imagined as an exploration of the theatrical. Whereas O’Brien thought of his narrator as the author of three different stories, Clarke’s At Swim Two Birds (the company omit O’Brien’s hyphens from their title) seems to present the narrator as a playwright/director/ring-master with three different dramas to put on.

As the play begins, the narrator (played by Sandra O Malley) summons his characters to the stage – with the roles shared out between Carty, Hughes, McCauley, and McGeown. These characters burst clumsily through the curtains, stumbling to the front of the stage in ill-fitting costumes, delivering their lines in accents that veer from the shaky to the overconfident. It’s as if an under-prepared (and largely untalented) troupe of actors has suddenly found itself in the mortifying predicament of being confronted unexpectedly with an audience. And the results are extraordinarily funny.

The novel’s other characters are therefore re-imagined too. As in the novel, the narrator’s friends will help the narrator to drink as much as he can, as often as he can (a pint of plain is still your only man). And his uncle will still ask him if he ever opens a book at all (he doesn’t – another example of the novel’s tendency to deconstruct itself). But those characters will also seem like an increasingly stressed bunch of actors and stage-hands, leaping in and out of their different costumes in a desperate (and occasionally unsuccessful) attempt to deliver their next line at the appropriate time (do you ever go to a play at all? an audience might ask them, in growing consternation). O’Brien’s text is flamboyantly literary, but this production has a kind of manic theatrical inventiveness that deserves comparison with celebrated shows like Barrabas’s The Whiteheaded Boy or Corn Exchange’s Dublin by Lamplight.

There are times when this manic energy threatens to overwhelm the production, just as O’Brien’s novel occasionally seems in danger of collapsing entirely. And, like the novel, the play will occasionally confuse people who are encountering it for the first time. As is inevitable with any adaptation, people who know the book well may miss something that has been omitted (Finn Mac Cool has a smaller presence in this version than in the novel – a relief for me, but probably not for everyone).

Nevertheless, this is a superb production – probably the best I’ve seen from Blue Raincoat so far. Dynamic, energetic and often very funny, At Swim Two Birds is a genuine celebration of the theatrical: it sent me back to the original novel – but it also left me waiting impatiently for an opportunity to go and see the play again. 

Patrick Lonergan teaches at NUI Galway. His book Theatre and Globalization has just been published in paperback.

  • Review
  • Theatre

At Swim Two Birds by Flann O'Brien, adapted by Jocelyn Clarke

3 - 14 November; on tour February 2010

Produced by Blue Raincoat Theatre Company
In The Factory Performance Space, Sligo

Directed by Niall Henry

Designer: Jaimie Vartan

Sound Design: Joe Hunt

Lighting Design: Michael Cummins

With: John Carty, Kellie Hughes, Ciaran McCauley, Fiona McGeown, Sandra O Malley

This production will be touring in February 2010. The tour dates are:

4 - 6 Feb: Town Hall Theatre, Galway
10 - 12 Feb: The Factory Performance Space, Sligo
13 Feb: Backstage Theatre, Longford
15 - 20 Feb: Everyman Palace, Cork
25 - 27 Feb: Garter Lane Arts Centre, Waterford