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Theatre Review: Captain Wagtail
There be a proto-feminist, a woke academic, lots of rum and discussions of what it means to be a woman in Captain Wagtail writes Pádraig O’Connor
Although not always agreed upon as a strict definition, loosely speaking, a feminist is a person who seeks equality between men and women. A proto-feminist, however, is a term used to describe someone who espoused feminist characteristics or aspects of feminism before the beginning of the modern feminist movement. In Captain Wagtail written by Éidín Griffin and directed by Yvonne Coughlan, we meet one such proto-feminist: the 18th-century Irish pirate Anne Bonny.
At the outset of this production, the protagonist, played by Katy Mullins, finds herself in the proverbial ivory tower; a university lecturer’s office and though we are never quite told how this actually came to pass, Bonny begins by snooping around the room, inspecting the stationary and furniture, before she is quickly interrupted by the appearance of her modern day academic researcher, played by Griffin herself, and the ensuing action consists of both women trying to figure out who the other person actually is.
Separated by three hundred years, the two characters seek to find some common ground, with Bonny demanding alcohol to help proceedings along. It is quickly apparent that in many ways, the two women are not so dissimilar and could in fact, represent Freud’s flawed separation of the human psyche, with Bonny standing in for the id or primal instincts, happy to recount her sexual conquests and pleasure seeking, while the character of the academic, embodies the ego and superego, keen to think rationally and maintain social standards at all times, although her mask does slip in this regard a little too early on in the play.
In this good-natured clash of epochs and egos, there are some humorous elements in the verbal exchanges and many clever plays on words. However, the language Bonny uses does begin to grate a little on the modern ear. Her broken questioning, 'What be this?' and wildly fluctuating use of terms, is far from consistent and becomes somewhat irritating after a while
Mullins plays the role in a wild, feral manner, gyrating over and across the stage, while Griffin in stark contrast, is stiff, anxious and jittery throughout and while both are quite convincing, at times their performances become slightly clichéd, and would have benefited from being toned down a notch or two.
Both actor’s movement however, is tremendous, and the audience’s eye is constantly being dragged to different levels, as the rum they’ve been knocking back begins to kick in and we learn more about the history of Anne Bonny and how she started her colorful life in Cork, before then becoming famous as one of the only recorded female pirates in history. No mean feat for an illegitimate child born to a lawyer and servant woman in Kinsale in the early 1700’s.
The hometown audience naturally lapped all this up and why wouldn’t they, as Captain Wagtail is fun-filled and light-hearted and the jokes roll in at a steady pace over the hour and ten minutes duration.
However, at its core, the play is primarily an examination of feminism through the prism of Bonny’s storied life, albeit with the occasional gentle nod to other topical issues like the housing crisis and political correctness. The character of the academic, is after all, a very stereotypical woke member of the bourgeois, appalled at the language Bonny uses and quick to take insult on behalf of minority groups, like the traveling community, people whom, of course, she would have nothing to do with in her own life.
The dichotomy between the two women is further evident in that one has vast experience of the world, while the other has experience of writing about the world and this raises some interesting questions about how we can come to learn more about ourselves and others. But it is feminism and women’s role in society throughout history that dominates the play.
In this regard, there are some troubling notions of what a feminist icon might be, as some of the suggestions here lend themselves more wholly to advancing the capitalist ideal of how best to maximize both sexes' labor output for the benefit of the economy, as opposed to any true development of a natural femininity; however that is a discussion for another day.
A final word then, on the costumes, both of which are rather well put together, as the academic is rigid and confined in her office attire, while Bonny is free and easy in her outfit and there is an intriguing historical revelation about Bonny’s clothing and how it helped her in her crusade around the Caribbean.
All proceeds from Captain Wagtail went to raising money for the Kinsale Youth Theatre Project, which is housed in the yellow building beside Dino’s on the Pier Road in Kinsale. It is wonderful to see such initiatives and hopefully the people of Kinsale can look forward to many more homegrown shows in the future.
Captain Wagtail is now embarking on a mini tour and will play a show in Inis Mór on October 21 and also in the Whale Theatre, Greystones, on October 26.
Pádraig O’Connor is a writer based in Cork City.