Limerick is a cursed place. At the mouth of the Shannon estuary, the city that has been sacked at various points throughout history by Vikings and Danes was also once famously confounded by a Saint Munchin. An irreverent 1868 poem documents the incident, wherein Munchin appealed to some locals to help heave a stone to the top of a church he was building. The locals refused, but some passing ex-pats (Danes, perhaps) obliged, whipping the saint into such a frenzy of indignation that he cursed all future generations of Limerick natives and blessed all immigrants to the city.
‘And ye’re harbours shall lose their big ships,
Till ye’re state shall be laughed at, for pity.
And the beer that ye’ll raise to your lips,
Shall be brewed far away from your city.
For your breweries, and marts, and trade-halls,
Will run dry, like an odd, empty puncheon;
When ye look at their bare, shivering walls,
Ye’ll remember the curse of Saint Munchin,
While ye flock to the poorhouse, like crows.’
This idea, of an inescapable curse that thwarts all efforts before they’re made, was the starting point for Chamber Made Opera’s Wake, a Limerick City of Culture commission. The Australian theatre company worked with Irish director Maeve Stone, Irish composer Tom Lane and Irish dancer Katherine O’Malley to realise a personal tragedy that’s deeply embedded in its environment, as the fabric of Limerick is dyed deep with Munchin’s curse.
The score for Wake is drawn from its surroundings. In the Limerick family home where the performance takes place, the bones of the house itself as well as the daily sounds of its inhabitants make up the soundscape. Radiators and staircase bannisters are made to sing. A cup scraping off a counter top and the rattle of an extractor fan are parts of an operatic puzzle that is only pieced together by traipsing through the downstairs rooms, taking up different acoustic vantage points.
The audience enters on a looped scene, a woman trapped in a cycle of making sandwiches and taking up stalled poses leaning against the kitchen counter. As spectators, we filter around this scene from a life without puncturing the membrane. The air is soupy with sadness. Sounds crackle over the radio, news reports about the storms that battered Limerick in February earlier in the year. These fragments gesture towards strife without foregrounding it.
In the central atrium of the house, and at the centre of the performance, the movements of the woman stuck in the sandwich-making loop (O’Malley) soften and become strange, changing from mundane action to an invocation. The dancer is an unearthly presence, the attention of all audience members pinned to her quivering and yet sure-footed solo that stitches funereal rites into performance. Long sweeps across the table top with a cloth move to the performer’s own legs and arms as she lays herself out as though a corpse being prepared for last rites.
Wake is both stark and gentle, a rough-cut gem of a piece that thrums with depth. The paraphernalia of a wake in a family home are there, but the comfort of protocols has been removed, setting the audience off-balance, uncertain. Stone’s skill as director, evidently alive to her environment, and O’Malley’s sensitivity as performer draw the spectators into the action at the close, so that we become part of a very personal farewell. As the dancer exits the house, flinging double patio doors wide behind her, to the tremulously sweet tones of Rory Grubb’s ceramophone (an outsize xylophone constructed from flower pots), we’re left bereft, emotionally emptied as the early evening air floods in.
Words: Rachel Donnelly