Walking into the Burton Taylor on Tuesday night felt a little like walking into a folk museum – one of those with the slightly eerie waxwork figures and the plastic loaf of bread on the table. The actors were in situ: sat by the fire, sat writing, sat knitting, all in the scenery of a 1790s peasant kitchen in Ireland. It was an enthralling start, making one feel immediately embedded in the intimate and localised story.

The newly formed theatre company, Phoenicia of Dido Productions, staged an interesting recreation of the short play written by W. B. Yeats and Lady Gregory. Interspersed with the action are short violin pieces, allusions to the preoccupation with Irish folk tradition, and readings of a letter written by Yeats. It was these features which set this performance of the play apart – they turned it into something more multi-modal and dynamic, encouraging the audience to perceive more fully its context and heritage.

Cathleen Ni Houlihan was first performed in 1902, and centres on the 1798 Rebellion. Such a background, in such a short piece, threatens to go unnoticed, but with the help of those extratextual words from Yeats, the political and historical resonances are brought more to the fore. Its role as a personal metaphor for the sacrifice made by young men to the Irish national cause becomes clearer.

Image taken by Niamh Jones

Peter Gillane, the father figure played by John Gaughan, was perhaps the most engaging of the characters – helped, no doubt, by his impressive and distinguishing beard. Credit also must be given to Liza Verzhbitskaya, the violinist, who single-handedly upheld the musical interludes which made songs out of script lines, and filled the room with haunting but moving melodies.

There were some slightly dubious costume changes, some places where a little more animation wouldn’t have gone amiss, but for a small cast in a small setting it was artfully done. The acting was sensitive to the potentially delicate topic, presenting it with suitable dignity and sobriety. 

Cathleen, the figure of an independent Ireland, is an elusive yet empowering character. Her words are symbolic of Irish history and nationalism, but that is not to say they don’t appear, at times, relatable. She states, for instance, that she was put to wandering because there were “too many strangers in the house” (well articulating that feeling I get at the end of a party), and how “with all the lovers that brought me their love, I never set out the bed for any”. It seems the words of Cathleen can act as the voice for many. 

The play is deeply political and deeply cultural, but perhaps my lasting memory of it will be the dress. I didn’t imagine my solution to the problem of a Halloween costume for this year would be found in the Burton Taylor, but when Cathleen (played by Chess Nightingale) swanned on stage in a green tulle ball gown, laced with ivy which wove up and around her head, I knew I had found my answer. 

Cathleen Ni Houlihan is short and provocative. It won’t take up much of your evening, so it is worth a visit to see what is a relatively underperformed play of Ireland’s great poet; if nothing else, at least you will have new inspiration for your Halloween costume.