This summer Sugarglass Theatre takes residence in TCD’s own Samuel Beckett Theatre, carrying their production of David Greig’s Outlying Islands across the pond from its 2016 run in New York. The play tells the story of two Cambridge-educated naturalists who are sent by the British Ministry to a secluded Scottish island in the summer of 1939. Their aim is to make an inventory of the natural wildlife, unaware that this information will help determine the location for military anthrax testing. Soon the caretaker of the island is dead, leaving just his niece and the two outsiders to survive the elements while dealing with their grief and the perils and delights of youth.
This is the test run of Sugarglass’s new method of performing: New York throughout the academic year, while spending the summers showcasing to an Irish audience. It is an innovative move that is successful already; Outlying Islands is beautiful, visceral and sensual, balancing severe sexual tension with themes such as isolation, youth and institutionalism.
TN2’s Theatre Editors sat down with actors Leonard Buckley, Peter Corboy, Maeve O’Mahony, and musicians Lester St Louis and Lara Gallagher to chat about this highly anticipated performance.
What drew you to the story of Outlying Islands?
Maeve O’Mahony: Well, Peter and I would have auditioned for the role about a year and a half ago in New York, and I guess what drew me was the beautiful language – it actually used to be a radio play, so the language is very poetic and descriptive but in a way that doesn’t hinder the narrative at all which is quite rare.
Leonard Buckley: There’s something very nice about this flow of writing as it can really catch in the ear. It could seem really hokey or something, whereas in this production the language is high flute and poetic. I didn’t audition with these guys. There were two different actors who played my part initially so I didn’t know much about the play until Marc [Atkinson, director] approached me with it. I guess what I found in the play was the general theme of isolation, and what happens in that intense isolation and what it does to people.
Peter Corboy: I just think it’s loads of fun, I think as an actor you’re always drawn towards plays that are just a bit of craic, and this is like a big, juicy, fuck-off play. When Kirk, the caretaker, dies and the island descends into this wild youthful energy, there’s something beautifully energetic about that as an actor to just run about. The set is very earthy, and we get muddy and wet and it’s just very enjoyable to do.
You’ve mentioned the poetic language, the earth and mud – the play seems to really appeal to the senses. Did the music draw inspiration from this? Did the poetic language of the play inspire you in any way during composition?
Lester St. Louis: Absolutely, I think working with Marc in the past as a director leads to a situation where nothing is too prescriptive, so the ability for some high-level abstraction, which is totally my world, can be imposed onto the world created by the script. You can find different ways to represent all these various elements which are so well-represented in the set and in the characters musically, but in this way which isn’t the first musical choice. Of course it is incredibly poetic, but the greatness about poetry is that there is no exact mark, so it gives you so much room musically to do so much with it.
Did you find in the creative process you were drawing most inspiration from the script or was there space in the rehearsals to develop it more from interpretation?
St. Louis: Yeah I have to say it’s more inspiration from the actors. Music is important but in some ways secondary: it has to serve what’s going on. It would be the worst thing if we just threw so much music on top, so seeing what [the actors] do and what is absolutely necessary is where the music kind of sprang from.
Corboy: It really influences the way you perform as well. As an actor, you’re trying to reach this emotional ‘thing,’ which is very easy to do when you have this badass cello in the background or this piano playing this ominous music, it’s way easier to be like, ‘Oh my god, something weird is happening’ and inhabit that world – they kind of overlap onto each other.
Buckley: Like Lester said, it’s secondary and takes its cue from the action, but there are one or two moments when the music enshrouds the action completely and there are points where I don’t know if the audience can hear what I’m saying as I can’t hear what I’m saying because of the music, and it’s this swallowing action that’s really cool.
Marc Atkinson is directing this show, who has done a lot of big things in Dublin recently with The Great Gatsby (2017) in the Gate. What creative decisions has he brought which excited or challenged you?
O’Mahony: I think he does a really good job of mixing a play of different genres of theatre in one production. The way the play begins is quite pastoral and tends towards a more naturalistic performance, but the the rules of that begin to break down, so the space starts to mean different things, the music gets more abstract. I think what I enjoyed most was his ability to bring in all of these elements and make it all connect to the thing you’re trying to say and the thing we think the play means.
Corboy: It also used to be a radio play, so there’s lots of things in it that are there because when it was originally being performed they needed to be like, “Pass me the bag,” for the listeners, and Marc stripped a lot of that away so that it’s literally just the bare course of what is happening on stage, and all the peripheral items become secondary to what’s going on between the characters.
How do you feel the Dublin theatre scene measures up to bigger cities, like New York or London?
Corboy: I think it’s getting really exciting, I think the Abbey are doing lots of really cool things now with new management and I think the Gate are doing things that they never would have done before and I think even to have a show running in the Samuel Beckett Theatre for three and a half weeks is a weird thing to happen. So I feel like the Irish theatre scene is in a bit of a jumble at the moment which is quite nice, and it will be interesting to see what it turns into in the next couple of years. Even the Fringe [Festival] is going through a mix up at the moment.
How does it feel to be back performing on Trinity grounds?
Corboy: Really good! I was joking with an ex-classmate of mine that every time I leave Trinity I’m like, “Cool, bye Trinity,” and then within six months I’m like, “Hello again, Trinity!” It’s where we all studied so it’s nice to be back.
O’Mahony: It is. It’s also a wonderful space. It’s a beautiful theatre. It feels great to be in such a huge space with so much possibility for technical things.
Did you need to make any changes to bring the play to the Beckett, in comparison to the performance space you had in New York?
Lara Gallagher: Soundwise, the space is much much bigger, and the gantries just go up and up and up and up, everything can just get lost. For us to create the atmosphere we want to create, we have to try a lot harder than we did in the smaller space.
Corboy: We’re also a lot closer. In New York, it was a proscenium so we were up on a stage and the audience were below us, and here we don’t have that. So for me, I’m very conscious when we’re performing, when we’re standing at the front of the stage, that the audience will literally be sitting right there. So that’s cool, but scary also.
O’Mahony: Even though it’s much larger, it feels more intimate, to an extent.
Were there any challenges you had to overcome throughout the process or anything that cropped up which you didn’t expect to happen?
Corboy: We had a super-short rehearsal period. Because we were remounting it, two of the cast, me and Maeve, had done it before; two, Lenny and Karl were new additions who did a fucking stunning job and came in the first day pretty much totally off-script.
O’Mahony: More off-script at times than we were, which was embarrassing. [laughs]
Buckley: I’ve never done such a short and intense rehearsal period. I think I prepared for it to be more disarming than it ever was because everyone I was coming into work with was so generous in every way they could be. Maeve and Peter are two of the most generous actors I’ve ever worked with. Under normal circumstances, when directing a play you’d have six weeks rehearsals for a two week run – still, amazingly, I’ve never seen Marc lose his temper. It’s rare, you know, at that high energy point and across the board it’s just been a safe place.
St. Louis: There’s a musician called Eoghan Quinn who was in New York with us and then Lara came on here and she’s frigging crushing it.
Buckley: You two spend, what, fifteen minutes by the piano? And you’re ready to go. Just like, everything’s packed up and here you go.
Corboy: I’m always so curious when they’re like, “Musicians, do you need a second?” and they just spend about ten minutes like ‘compose compose compose’ and then they’re like, “Ready!” with a beautiful piece of music.
O’Mahony: When they’ve done something and you realise they’ve just improved it and it’s like “What?!” It’s amazing.
What’s been your favourite part of working on this play?
Buckley: There’s just something about the space and the set and the way it’s built. And also the designing of the place is generally musically, aesthetically, across the board where very little acting has to take place, you know, where I’d have to go – [gasps]. There’s always something to actually react to and I don’t feel like I’m making it up, which is the most important thing, for me anyway.
Corboy: I think as well as an actor there’s a real luxury in coming back to a play after having put it to bed and to not just remount it on the stage as the same production but to come back at it again with new people and new musicians and with a new lens yourself. I think at the end of every run every actor’s like, “Oh, I could have done this,” or “I should have done this,” and it’s a really enjoyable thing to be able to come back and make those changes and investigate those paths that you didn’t get to do the last time.
Buckley: It’s also great over such a long run to have all that time for exploration throughout the run as well because especially if you have a three-night run or even one performance we have to come with the best finished polished product as opposed to having room to mess with it and find a different show every night – without being reckless.
Do you think an Irish audience will respond differently to it? What do you hope the audience takes away from it?
O’Mahony: What I hope they take away from it is a really enjoyable experience of a story but also of that sense of struggle between order and chaos.
Corboy: I think this time will probably feel a lot closer to home. When we were doing it in New York, I was thinking in my head that Scotland is so distant here, but I feel like to an Irish audience the idea of this remote outlying island being bombed that’s literally between Ireland and Scotland is a lot closer to home. They keep talking about this idea of what happens when all these institutions you’re so familiar with suddenly start crumbling, and I think in Europe at the moment, with Brexit and everything that’s going on with the EU, there is a feeling of where once there was union now there’s this weird drift happening.
O’Mahony: And a generational drift as well – now for the first time maybe since World War II there feels like such a huge difference between the demographic of 60-plus and 30-and-under and we’re seeing worldwide that people’s values are different and what things mean to people feel different, so I think hopefully people will get a sense of that.
Buckley: I think politically as well, even more recently than Brexit or even just Trump getting elected, the North Korea stuff is going on as well at the moment. I think personally for me whenever I think about – from what I understand of the New York production versus this one, there’s more work going into creating the presence of war on the outskirts. My own thing is you know, when you look back on World War II, it’s just such a concrete thing that can’t be removed from history. You don’t think about the days leading up to that where it was like, “We don’t know whether it’s going to happen; hopefully it won’t happen,” and like, that’s where we’re at now. We’re there having this glaring parallel that this is our world now and I think that it is relevant, particularly in terms of the last few weeks.
Without giving too much away, what was your favourite line of dialogue or favourite moment in the play?
St. Louis: “He was never happier than at a funeral of a friend.”
O’Mahony: That’s a really hard question. They’re my babies.
Leo: I don’t know. I don’t think I can really choose a favourite.
O’Mahony: “You talk about me as though I’m from a two-penny novel.”
St. Louis: I think my favourite line of [Peter’s] is “How do you lose a report?” It kills me, man.
Corboy: I think all the earth stuff. I get really muddy at one point and I like that. It’s nice to be just covered in shit on stage and have no shoes on, it’s not something you get to do quite often.
Why do you think people should come and see it?
Gallagher: It’s beautiful. It’s so stunning.
Corboy: It’s beautifully written. It’s just really nice to go and see – whatever about the performance, whatever about the production, but a really well-written play. A really well composed piece of theatre.
Buckley: And one that doesn’t age as well, nearly twenty years after it was written.
Our TN2 theatre team had the opportunity to visit Irish Premiere of Sugarglass Theatre’s production of Outlying Islands. Our intriguing interview with the cast and musicians left us with high expectations for this show, and to our delight, the performance met each and every one of them. The set design is self-limiting; although the Beckett’s stage is expansive, the action takes place on a relatively small circular platform which brilliantly captures the isolation of the island. With its leaking roof, broken door and restricted space, the audience is whisked away to the remote island, where tensions run high and puffin is plentiful.
Leonard Buckley and Peter Corboy excel as counterpoints, playing opposite each other as a philosophical enthusiast of nature and sex alike and a nervous but eager researcher who feels bound by social customs. Their performances are equally mesmerising as their characters’ are forced to reevaluate their environment, each other, and themselves. Maeve O’ Mahony shines in Act Two. A force to be reckoned with, she moves effortlessly between portrayals of emotional extremes. Musicians Lester St. Louis and Lara Gallagher are the play’s secret weapons, emitting music that heightens the most intense moments of the play to dramatic highs and bringing the island setting to life.
Ultimately, Outlying Islands is a story of contrasts and how human relationships navigate around them. Young and old, paganism and Christianity, men and women, past and present, and life and death all crash together like waves breaking on the shore in this impressive portrayal of change, desire, and reclaiming our natural selves.