Sunday, August 14, 2022

Muldoon’s Picnic – snacking on imaginative words and great music (Lyric Theatre with Poetry Ireland)

Muldoon’s Picnic is an eclectic mix of poetry, prose and song, curated and emceed by Pulitzer-winning poet Paul Muldoon.

After a spot of nearly-too-clever word play and an opening song from the house band – more about them later – the stage was handed over to a set of guest artists. Roddy Doyle read the short story The Funeral from his latest collection Life Without Children about a newly orphaned drunk who amusingly identifies the fridge as the perfect place to set his noisy mobile phone while he pieces together his non-attendance at his mother’s funeral. The whimsical details and Doyle’s command of dialogue had the stalls chuckling and anticipating the next gleeful twist in the darkly humorous pandemic tale.

Next up was Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin who brought the focus back to poetry with readings that showed off the breadth of her repertoire, before Zoë Conway and John McIntyre wowed the audience with their Irish folk music. Thirteen years after I first heard the pair at the Out To Lunch festival, their mix of fiddling, plucking, strumming and singing still conjures up the sound of four people on stage when there are only two. The instruments become extensions of the folk legends’ bodies, with the music conducted through loving glances and smiles. While the natural acoustic in the Lyric’s auditorium can sometimes be challenging for musical performances, the often rhythmic, sometimes ethereal Conway/McIntyre act sounded divine.

Muldoon clearly revels in the collaboration with his house band Rogue Oliphant. He throws out impossible stanzas – like No Skin in the Game’s celebration of academic superannuation or Lonesome George about a Galapagos tortoise – and the band crafts them into tightly constructed musical gems. Each player makes it look like a labour of love rather than just another night on an overseas tour.

The master wordsmith is definitely a poet rather than a lyricist. I can’t think of a songwriter who’d manage to squeeze Screaming Lord Sutch, Sarajevo and The King (Elvis) into a single verse. Yet as Conway and McIntyre point out, the popularisation of poems by setting them to music is a longstanding practice on this island.

Muldoon’s Picnic could simply have been an aural treat. Sure, some of the connecting introductions and programme junctions are linguistically dense, but the quality of writing throughout keeps delivering imaginative snacks: the notion of every Irish poet sinking into a peat bog will stick with me for some time.

The eponymous poet – though the show’s title is knowingly borrowed and not original – tries not to steal the limelight. He never bounds onto the stage to soak in the audience’s adulation for the previous performer. He waits in the wings and then half shuffles, half moonwalks back to the centre, a self-effacing ringmaster. And then, for the final number, the frustrated rock star bursts out of the performance poet’s shell, rapping the lyrics to The Workers with gusto while Rogue Oliphant carry the music in the background with Conway and McIntyre busking along. I fully expected Ní Chuilleanáin and Doyle to appear in the corner behind mics as dazzling backing singers!

A big hand to the tech team at the Lyric who made the one-off performance sound like it had been rehearsed for weeks (and to Pat on the monitor desk who quickly restored power when the bass amp decided to have a siesta).

Poetry Ireland’s sold-out three-night tour brought a lot of new faces to the Lyric Theatre: some there for Muldoon, but as many there to support other names on the bill, or in the case of someone sitting near me, just because it was advertised as an evening of cabaret. Getting me along to a poetry event would usually require subterfuge or some form of contract! But I can now add poetry cabaret to poetry slams as acceptable forms of engaging with the artform. 

Photo credit: Jimmy Fay

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