Cuchullain is inspired by Irish legend and “Cuckoo’s Nest”, its author explains
Rosemary Jenkinson’s brand new one-man, one-act play Cuchullain, currently in rep with Keegan Theatre’s musical Spring Awakening, reminds us of the mad Anglo-Irish down-and-outers whose lives she charted in her earlier comic tragedy Johnny Meister and the Stitch. This latter play was mounted by Solas Nua a couple seasons back and astonished local audiences with its intense, nonstop, helter-skelter drive toward doom and disaster.
Keegan’s production of Cuchullain marks the play’s world premiere, so we’ve taken the opportunity to chat with the key individuals upon whom the success of the play ultimately rests. That includes actor Josh Sticklin—who portrays Cuchullain’s key character Aaron, along with everybody else—director Abigail Isaac, and (via email) Rosemary Jenkinson herself. She currently resides in Belfast, Northern Ireland, the city where her play is set.
Cuchullain possesses Johnny Meister’s same manic energy, although it takes a step back from the precipice from time to time, allowing its prime character and narrator, Aaron, room to reflect on what he does. That’s a bit different from the more lightly-textured character of the teenager Speedy in last year’s Jenkinson/Keegan one-act hit, Basra Boy, also a world premiere.
Jenkinson named her new play after Ireland’s most famous mythic warrior-hero, Cuchullain. Reputed, like the Germanic Siegfried, to be without fear, Cuchullain ultimately met his end by drowning after engaging in a futile attempt to battle back the tides of the sea. Similarly, Jenkinson’s 19-year old anti-hero battles the relentless tides of the British welfare bureaucracy as well as his own brutal Belfast neighborhood.
“I really like the part of the Cuchullain legend,” Jenkinson writes, “when the druid [an ancient Irish pagan priest] gives him the choice: to have a long, uneventful but happy life, or a brief life full of glory. It’s a real blue pill/red pill moment,” she notes, alluding to Alice in Wonderland, “and I think that does encapsulate the choice of Aaron and youth in general – to fight gloriously against the odds. Aaron is jobless and has no prospects or education but he still enjoys a fun, hedonistic lifestyle of drugs and casual sex.”
“Cuchullain is the strongest initial influence on the play as I had a vision of creating a ‘street epic,’” notes Jenkinson, “and this informed my view of Aaron as a legendary hero who fights the Catholics across the river and steals their flags in the same way that Cuchullain was protector of Ulster. But of course Cuchullain is only a legend and is not flesh and blood and therefore Aaron has his own individual character.”
Irish legends aside, Jenkinson feels that Ken Kesey’s “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” (whether novel, play, or movie) was an equally strong influence on this play, which she defines as “a kind of comic tragedy with a strong anti-hero…” focusing on “the epic nature of Aaron’s struggle within society and the actual physical battles with drug-dealers that he has to undertake within his life.” It’s a “sympathetic but warts and all portrayal of society’s so-called scroungers.”
Actor Josh Sticklin, who portrayed Speedy and all his friends in Basra Boy, is a genuine fan of Jenkinson’s work. He has returned to the Keegan this year to try his hand at Aaron, a role he was eager to tackle as soon as he saw it. Cuchullain’s Aaron is “more introspective” than Speedy, he thinks. “He’s always in the moment, doing a soliloquy inside head but the audience hears it out loud,” he says.
Sticklin regards Cuchullain as a “dark comedy as we’d call it in American humor.” It’s the perfect approach to take for approaching the story of an impoverished Northern Irish 19-year old,” he says. Whether they’re speaking out loud or in their heads, they’re so witty, all the time that the dark comedy approach seems completely natural. Aaron and his friends are completely unfiltered. They’re always a bit crude, but always truthful.”
According to Sticklin, “Aaron’s big difficulty is that he desperately needs money to pay off a drugs bill or he’ll be beaten up. Therefore he tells the doctor he is mentally ill, in order to claim top-rate disability living allowance which will give him enough money to pay off the bill. The trouble is that in trying to pretend he is mad, the state drugs he is forced to take actually send him into madness.”
Jenkinson elaborates on this point, a key driving force in her play. Politically speaking, Cuchullain only barely conceals her criticism of current British Prime Minister David Cameron’s “shake-up to the welfare state whereby he’s cut down on disability claimants.
“The play definitely has a political undercurrent, writes Jenkinson, “as I think state drugs are as dangerous as street drugs and that the state is happy to dole millions of these drugs out to pacify the masses and stop them from causing any anti-government trouble.”
Josh Sticklin thinks that Aaron is “kind of a lost boy, a lost soul.” He’s long been out of school,” living in a city with “not a lot of opportunity, which leads him to some of his reckless abandon. He doesn’t want to take the usual route, a dull, low-level factory job which, if he can get one, will barely help him get by with life,” says Sticklin. “Meth, prescription drugs, non-prescription drugs, drinking, and smoking—they’re all the social currency that give him his identity as the local party-man and provider.”
In today’s America, we would be quick to label Aaron a “slacker.” But Sticklin regards his character as a lot more than that. “You can look down on Aaron,” he says, “but you can’t ignore the tortured spirit in him. He’s a person who was never given that art class that turned his life around, making him decide to be a painter or make comic books or start a rock band. The system is failing him, and education completely failed to show him how to use the talents that he has.
It may seem curious to some that a one-man play would need a director. But Abigail Isaac has an easy explanation for the apparent paradox. “I think that even in a one-man play, the director still provides the big picture. Working with Josh, I was the person who would be standing back and seeing whether the story was always clear. Also, as director, I could do a lot of coaching, looking to find moments that are going to advance the story and get in those little beats that keep the momentum going.”
Fortunately, notes Isaac, “Josh is really easy to work with. In fact, it was fantastic to be able to work with him again. He’s a very open actor, willing to try new things, and incredibly smart. An actor has to be to do this kind of play because he’s responsible for conjuring all the images in the play and it takes incredible focus to do that.”
For American audiences, Aaron’s character has the added interest of, well, not being an American. “Working on Irish and American cultural difference “is really fun,” says Isaac. “Audiences enjoy that, and breaking down cultural differences was a fun challenge for both Josh and me. There are issues of language idiosyncrasies, the atmosphere of Northern Ireland vs. here. But the language of characters, just like teenagers here, still comes across in Belfast-speak. It’s fun and colorful, immediate and very exciting,” she says.
Sticklin found that one of his larger challenges was that Belfast accent. “For me, it’s kind of an adopted language,” he says. “But it’s really poetic. Rosemary’s writing is just beautiful, slang terminology and all. But working with Abbie, we found that the dialect is so strong that we developed little cheats here and there and slowed things down a little so the audience wouldn’t miss too much.”
After the final curtain rings down on Cuchullain here, what’s next for playwright Rosemary Jenkinson? “I’m currently writing a film for the BBC,” she notes, “and I’ve the Irish premiere of Basra Boy coming up this August in Belfast.” After having its premiere in DC, “it’s wonderful to have it return to its home ground.”