Whilst many spent their first September Sunday evening squelching in a field in Stradbally, I skipped to the Abbey Theatre for for a different bout of live performance. Our MC for the night? Paul Muldoon, poet extraordinaire, who of late has brought his entertainment project Muldoon’s Picnic from New York to tour Scotland and his native Ireland. The idea for the night is pretty simple – Muldoon, along with his creative partners and house band Rogue Oliphant, perform songs and spoken word pieces, interspersed with cameos from (mainly Irish) literary and musical greats. Tonight, at our national theatre, these guests included Eavan Boland, Jennifer Johnston, Paul Brady, and Camille O’Sullivan.
The night was pitched by producers Poetry Ireland as an ‘omnium-gatherum of poetry, prose and music’, capitalising on an Ancient Roman theme that would continue throughout the night. The stage was set like a Roman cave, a small dance floor set on a bed of sand and earth, with the original Muldoon’s Picnic logo from the 19th century New York vaudeville group as the backdrop. After standing to welcome President Michael D. Higgins and his wife Sabina, the audience settled into their seats, most quite unaware what to surmise from the evening, but with expectations high nonetheless.
Muldoon took the stage with a measured assuredness I can only imagine comes with being a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet. He is blessed with the musicality of a Northern Irish lilt; this tunage, alongside his baritone, meant his spoken word pieces blended with Rogue Oliphant’s background music into a rhythm and blues song. Muldoon’s ventures into lyricism are no secret – he writes songs for Rogue Oliphant, and in 2013 published a book of lyrics entitled The Word On The Street.
This house band Rogue Oliphant offered varied performances, each with an ease and jubilance to be playing such wonderful surroundings. The band consisted of Chris Harford, founding member of The Pogues Cáit O’Riordan, and virtuoso drummer Ray Kubian. The songs jumped between genres: rock, folk, blues, punk. No subject was too poignant or too silly; sadists, the Pope, life on the road, and falling for the wrong person were all referenced. Lyrics such as ‘In orange and Ulster counties / I’ve been followed by bloodhounds / I’m just not wanted by you’ were boasted by Muldoon’s witty penmanship.
Eavan Boland was the night’s first guest speaker. Elegantly walking on stage to an introduction mentioning her promotion of advocate and activist as roles of the poet, she powerfully read two of her best-known poems: ‘The Lost Art of Letter Writing’ and ‘The Pomegranate’. Delving into themes such as the amalgamation of different art forms, children and poets as representatives in the first act, Boland chose to focus on Irish history upon her second saunter to the stage. Telling the audience “History will always, always be the official version of who we are”, she read her famous love poem ‘Quarantine’ and ‘An Elegy For My Mother in Which She Rarely Appears’. I myself welled up at her rendition of ‘Quarantine’, the delicate portrayal of hunger and complete selflessness which proves a powerful reminder of what many of our ancestors went through during the Great Famine. Boland left the stage to an awestruck audience, reminding us that “They [the people in ‘Quarantine’] were, and what they were, is profoundly in us”.
A highlight of the evening was undoubtedly Camille O’Sullivan, slinking about the stage story-telling with wonderment, showcasing songs such as ‘Port of Amsterdam’ by David Bowie, Nick Cave’s ‘God Is In The House’, and Leonard Cohen’s ‘Anthem’. With a red Trilby and lips to match, O’Sullivan was both polite and infectiously appreciative for such an opportunity to display her artform. Throughout the night, she spoke of light and hope still existing in our “cracked” times, about how poets are still there to turn to for warmth. She switched between performing a cappella and with piano accompaniment by Fearghal Murray, sometimes not even bothering with a microphone – her voice was big and alluring, with a gentleness to complement her performing bravado.
Jennifer Johnston remained her legendary self, modestly hushing the audience to stop their fervent applause. She read a piece about mortality, about books being her home causing people to become redundant, and about the perils of aging. Paying homage to our own war poet, Johnston also read Francis Ledwidge’s ‘Lament for McDonagh’ – ‘slanting snows her fanfare shrill / blowing to flame the golden cup’. Later, it was the presence of Paul Brady which once again filled the theatre with warmth, singing a few songs from his upcoming album Unfinished Business. Brady captured the audience with his waveringly sultry voice and touching performance; a fitting reminder of the power of voice as an instrument on a night where many art forms were explored.
The night concluded with all of the performers returning to sing, and Muldoon thanking all of the wonderful organisations that helped to realise the night, including Poetry Ireland and Culture Ireland. I left the Abbey reflecting on the sheer loveliness of the arts, on the sundry storytelling methods each act utilised, on the colourful characters on stage and on the page. Muldoon’s Picnic was an opportunity to explore creativity and relish in the imagination of this island, with an open invite to everyone – except philistines!