Flann O’ Brien’s At Swim Two Birds, Traverse Theatre, Review

Rating (out of 5)
Show details
Blue Raincoat Theatre Company
Jocelyn Clarke (author/adapter), Niall Henry (director), Jamie Vartan (production designer), Michael Cummins (lighting design), Joe Hunt (sound design), Peter Davey (production manager)
John Carty, Kellie Hughes, Ciaran McCauley, Fiona McGeowan, Sandra O’Malley
Running time

Flann O’ Brien’s novel, At Swim Two Birds, was first published in 1939 and was reviewed in that year by the master of labyrinthine and self-referential writing, Jorge Luis Borges. Carol Toaffe, a senior tutor at University College Dublin, wrote an article on O’ Brien and the Irish Cultural Debate in which she quotes Borges as saying At Swim Two Birds was “ ...an exploration of ‘the many ways to conceive of the Irish novel.’ “ 

This is the point in the review when a brief synopsis of the story is called for and this is where the writer can come unstuck with At Swim Two Birds whose main protagonist, the student, says, “one beginning and one ending for a book was a thing I did not agree with.” 

I have recently watched again the Charles Gassot film starring Audrey Tatou A la Folie pas du tout, that plays with the idea of different perceptions, parallel lives and different  truths and endings so was maybe open to suspend disbelief at the mélange and mayhem that the incredibly talented Blue Raincoat Theatre Company presented. You have to forget the confusion, and just accept the chaos that is At Swim Two Birds, and indeed is life itself, and enjoy the fantastic spectacle.

There is a real Panoptican feel on the stage within a stage that looked like a child’s theatre set with a rusty old curtain, where the narrator, an anarchic Burlington Bertie, sets out his stall. 

The multi layers of potential stories, that include cowboys and Indians, Vaudeville,  a local poet, (‘a pint of plain is your only man’), the legendary Finn McCool, a fairy in a pocket, and a simultaneous game of chess and cards, come to life in highly comic, quintessentially Irish and Brechtian style. 

The women played the men’s characters with swagger and aplomb, at the same time pointing up the story’s innate artificiality. This was superbly entertaining and highly professional theatre.

The cast and crew of Blue Raincoat Theatre Company come with prestigious credentials, having trained in French mime and being steeped in absurdist and radical tradition. They were established in 1991 in Sligo and have 100 productions of adaptations to their name. 

In the after show discussion, director Niall Henry enlightened the audience by explaining the parallel with Flann O’ Brien’s layered language of the mixed language of movement used by this highly trained and professional company whose base discipline focuses on physical training and the  ability to do things in different styles.

Their next production will be Les Chaises by the absurdist writer, Eugène Ionesco. Let’s hope it comes to Edinburgh.

Show times

26- 28 May 7.30pm

Thursday £14 (£10 Concessions) Friday and Saturday £16 (£12 Concessions)