At the Hawk's Well by W.B. Yeats

“Wisdom must have a bitter life,” sing the Musicians near the end of Blue Raincoat’s production of W.B. Yeats’s At the Hawk’s Well, a curious, if oddly satisfying lunchtime diversion now playing at Sligo’s Factory Perfomance Space. There are bitter lessons for the characters and the playwright alike here.

In At the Hawk’s Well, we find Yeats looking eastwards in pursuit of a more timeless theatre, particularly towards the Japanese Noh tradition. While one feels something would be lost in translation if the great practitioners of the classical Japanese form were to sit amongst us in Yeats Country, Blue Raincoat’s stark, threadbare production would engross them nonetheless.

It’s obvious from the moment the theatre darkens that we’re outside both time and convention. Two men in white masks, an Old Man (played with an admirable hunchback by Ciarán McCauley) and Cuchulain (Niall Henry) at the bottom of an arid hawk’s well. Stone and sand are scattered around them. They seek the same thing: a drop of the well’s sacred waters, which grant immortality. The Old Man has wasted his life waiting for a chance to imbibe eternal life, and scorns his fate; Cuchulain arrives cockily, feeling that fortune is on his side. A dormant she-hawk (Marketa Formanova) protects the well’s prowess.

This is not Noh as anyone would know it. Yeats clearly felt shackled by the limits of realism and hoped that by transposing some of Noh’s formal attributes – the masks, the darkness – onto Celtic mythology, he might be able to give big themes like immortality and death a more universal poignancy. Cynics might say he is piling exoticism upon exoticism.

Regardless, like the Old Man, time has been cruel to At the Hawk’s Well, which was written in 1917. Today, it feels more reactionary than experimental, though director Kellie Hughes does an admirable job unmasking the seriousness of the script. The dust-covered Musicians (John Carty, Fiona McGeown and Sandra O Malley) are employed to great effect both as chorus and orchestra. They are the play’s singing conscience, but also provide the score, through the whistles, wooden percussion instruments and bongos they carry. In fact, the most dramatic interaction in the play takes place between the Musicians and the she-hawk, as they summon her to life with live instrumentation. Formanova’s seduction of Cuchulain, a dance of death, meanwhile contains a potency absent in the script’s haughty lyricism. And though they provide a layer of artifice, the white masks that conceal the men’s faces, designed by Bettina Seitz, are both ghostly and practical: Yeats’s words, evoking desolate rural landscapes not far from where this play was staged, are always clear.

Running at about 35 minutes, At the Hawk’s Well is merely a meditation and a nod to the playwright’s own worldliness, even if the material could not be any more divorced from reality. Interestingly, Yeats believed he had invented a new form of drama with his Noh-influenced work, in his search for a more “passionate theatre”. Irish playwrights like Beckett would conjure similar wastelands, while spurning such 'passion'.

Donald Mahoney is a writer and journalist based in Leitrim.

  • Review
  • Theatre

At the Hawk's Well by W.B. Yeats

27 July - 7 August, 2010

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

Directed by Kellie Hughes

Lighting Design: Michael Cummins

Sound Design: Joe Hunt

Set design: Jo Conway

Masks: Bettina Seitz

With: Ciarán McCauley, Niall Henry, Marketa Formanova John Carty, Fiona McGeown and Sandra O Malley