In 1995, I was five years old, hanging out in my local haunt – Watermans Art Centre – and rocking a pair of blue-and-white spotty leggings; a few hours away, up in Bristol, Travelling Light were creating their acclaimed show, Into The West. A couple of decades later, and the theatre company has remounted the play to celebrate its 20th anniversary. I am now 26 years old, hanging out in Watermans Art Centre – now a sizeable commute away – still rocking a pair of blue-and-white spotty leggings, and watching Into The West. Like my trusty trousers, Travelling Light’s production has stood the test of time.
Into The West is a hugely visual production. This is perhaps unsurprising given its cinematic origin – written by Greg Banks, the play was adapted from Jim Sheridan’s 1992 screenplay – but pretty surprising given its sparse stage, with only an old car seat and some scaffolding. The show follows two Traveller children, their widowed father, and a magical horse, Tir na n’Og, named after the mythical land of eternal youth found under the sea. When the children ask their father what this land looks like, he tells them: “Close your eyes. Do you see a beautiful place? That’s what it looks like.” This encapsulates the spirit of the whole show, which brings their story and the Irish landscape vividly to life with very little: language, sound, and the audience’s imagination. The three performers (Adam J Carpenter, Nina Logue and Craig Edwards) conjure all of the characters (including the horse), and musician Bing Lyle’s constant score (largely accordion with bits of acoustic guitar) immediately plunges us into a world of folklore and wilderness. Audiences are transported from a stormy seashore, into a Dublin tower block, and across the countryside, leaving faces feeling windswept and ears sure that they can hear the thud of hooves.
The production bobs up and down like a galloping horse, from the depths of heartbreak to moments of hilarity. Though the tragedies keep piling up – siblings Ally and Finn have lost their mother, have an alcoholic and neglectful father, don’t go to school and can barely read or write, and on and on – a light touch is applied just when it all seems to be getting too much. When Ally, Finn and their Pa each speak longingly and lovingly to the dead mother, for instance, I was wary of the slide into sentimentalism, until Finn got to his real plea: “Help me learn how to read so I’m allowed to watch TV again.”
The children display a level of independence that at first seems enviable to a room of young people watching with their parents. Ally and Finn skip school, watch telly instead of doing their homework, know how to make their own money (wheezily singing until passersby take pity on a poorly child), and wear whatever they want (Ally’s outfit is a mishmash of be-sparkled denim and rad plaid). This is nothing, it seems, compared to the independence that they could have had, but bereft without his wife, Pa chose to leave the Traveller world behind. It is in part the promise of this lost lifestyle that propels the siblings to escape with Tir na n’Og into the wild. Ideas and ideals about freedom are constantly interrogated – in the end, isn’t it better to have someone to wonder where you are? To tell you when dinner’s ready? – and like all the biggest adventures, the greatest journey is the one back home.
Though over twenty years have passed since Into The West was first created, its exploration of prejudice is sadly just as relevant today. Interest in the Traveller community has been reignited through trashy TV like My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding, an unflattering portrayal which has done very little to quell misinformed views. In Travelling Light’s production, the family is repeatedly subject to ethnic slurs, like tinker and knacker. Young audiences don’t need to know the roots of those words or the history of discrimination specific to this community to understand the bigotry and injustice at work, and the lessons of equality and tolerance on offer can obviously be applied in a much broader context. That the show requires so much individual imagination also prompts acts of empathy, and as the audience are drawn into Ally and Finn’s world, it’s easy to feel a kinship and sympathy for them and their treatment.
In 1999, a review of the show described it as “hypnotic”, and that remains the most appropriate term to use. At the end of an absorbing 75 minutes, it seems noticeably harder than usual for the actors to pull themselves out of the story and onto the stage – performers and audience are left moved and mesmerised.
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