James Riordan’s Cleite – Feather presents a moment in the life of a Claddagh fisherwoman as she waits for her husband to return from the sea. The piece takes place in Katie’s Claddagh Cottage, a museum that has recreated the cottages from the 1800s. The small audience stands outside the cottage, waiting for the red door to open and the play to begin as the sun fades and the wind blows the wild flowers that crowd the cottage. We are begrudgingly beckoned in by the stone-faced fisherwoman, played with magnificent subtlety by Philippa Hambly.
As melancholy as this slow and simple piece is, Hambly’s small, stiff absurdist movement brings a strange humour to the character. The 18 audience members are huddled close together like a silent family in the dark, smoky home of this tired and lonely woman, as she fills her time with work and music, catching small moments to gaze out of the window and indulge her thoughts. The low light and crackling fire of the cave-like cottage is offset by the cool evening light that spills in as she opens the door, anticipating her husband’s return.
This stunning exhibition of loneliness is scored with the sean nós singing of Caitlín Ní Chualáin, controlled by the fisherwoman as she turns the knob on a wireless radio, one of many old objects used in this play, not as revered artefacts of a bygone era, but in their simple uses. Old glasses and functional boots are not presented as fascinating pieces of history, but merely as part of this woman’s existence. This performance gives this mini-museum a form for their content.
Hambly’s mask and layers of traditional dress give us very little of a human form to recognise. However, her quietly mezmerising performance enriches this scowling, silent face and hidden body as she labours to the sound of birds outside, the rhythm of her scrubbing brush, and the haunting sean nós songs that fill the room with sadness and longing throughout. The hidden and caricatured physicality of this woman is filled with emotion and silliness.
This play, if not carried out as carefully and earnestly as it was by Riordan, could have taken some wrong turns, however each element of this piece came together with seemless elegance. The setting, the Claddagh Cottage, was not gimmicky or kitsch, but truly the only option for this intense and understated story to be displayed. The performance of the fisherwoman’s work and daily tasks through movement was not a history lesson, but a delicate exploration of empathy for a kind of womanhood that is gone, but still resonates. The simplicity of this short piece was never boring, but hypnotic. Through the careful blending of a sweet humour and a deeply affecting loneliness, Cleite crafts a beautiful portrait of old Galway in the heart of the Claddagh.
Cleite – Feather runs until Saturday May 12th as part of Galway Theatre Festival 2018.