The Critics: Jazz: The poet pipes the tune
Seamus Heaney and Liam O'Flynn Gate Theatre, Dublin
Sunday 21 March 1999
This was the scene last Sunday night, when the Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney and the uilleann piper Liam O'Flynn presented "An Evening of Poetry and Piping" at the Gate Theatre as part of Dublin's week-long St Patrick's Festival. The Georgian drawing-room, which was actually the stage-set for the current production of Tom Stoppard's Arcadia, was both faintly comical and strangely apposite. Its columns and cornices mimicked the mansions of the Anglo-Irish ascendancy whose long cultural domination O'Flynn's folk songs and much of Heaney's verse inevitably find themselves set against.
The combination of poet and piper is, on the face of it, an unlikely if beguiling partnership. But Heaney and O'Flynn's "show" has had an occasional life for some time now, and it comes to London next Sunday as part of the Barbican's "From The Heart" festival of Irish music and culture. In his genial introduction Heaney rather deprecated the yoking together of poetry and piping, but he also emphasised the common ground they share in the notion of "keeping time". He then read "The Given Note", from his second book, Door Into the Dark, which likens the sound of a traditional Irish fiddler to "spirit music", blowing in on the mid-Atlantic wind.
As a reader, Heaney is superb, with even the most complex verse-forms delivered in an easy, common-sense voice that is capable of communicating complex multiple meanings without seeming either obscure or obtuse. One of the greatest pleasures of the evening lay in being able to follow the progress of the lines without feeling that you were being left behind like a thickie at school. As a former teacher, Heaney retains an admirable concern for the thickie in all of us.
Heaney's readings spanned the whole of his career, from "Digging" - the first poem of his first book - to uncollected works still in manuscript. The rural ruminations of "Digging" - all spades and potatoes - made the figure of Liam O'Flynn, with the bellows of his pipes tucked under his elbow, look even more like a farmer plucking a chicken than he did already.
A founder member of the great Irish folk group Planxty in the 1970s, O'Flynn is one of Ireland's greatest traditional musicians, and the tunes he plays have been passed down through the ages. O'Flynn intersected the readings with a broad selection of airs, laments and reels that perfectly demonstrated the uniquely subtle qualities of the pipes. Played as a solo instrument, however, a little uilleann piping goes a long way, and the poems increasingly became a welcome diversion from the music. The ultimate compliment for the performance was that you left not only feeling that you could read poetry, but that you might even have a go at writing it as well. Uilleann piping, however, looks too forbiddingly specialist an activity.
Seamus Heaney and Liam O'Flynn: Barbican, EC2, (0171 638 8891), Sunday 28 March.
TV review Nick Hewer, the man whose eyebrows speak a thousand words, is set to leave The Apprentice
Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites
TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Nigel Farage: Me vs Russell Brand on Question Time – he's got the chest hair but where are his ideas?
- 2 Harry Potter fans can apply to the Hogwarts-inspired College of Wizardry
- 3 Jessica Chambers: 19-year-old woman 'doused with lighter fluid and burned alive' in the US
- 4 Russell Brand calls Nigel Farage 'poundshop Enoch Powell' in BBC Question Time debate
- 5 Orange Wednesdays are no more
Peter Lik: The self-proclaimed 'fine-art photographer' whose work sells for millions
The best underrated Christmas movies from Love, Actually to While You Were Sleeping
Grace Dent on TV: The Lost Honour of Christopher Jefferies was a beautifully shot, immensely considered drama
The Lost Honour of Christopher Jefferies, review: Jason Watkins is brilliant, but real victim Joanna Yeates is reduced to a footnote
Marilyn Manson denies involvement in shocking Lana Del Rey rape video
Disgruntled RBS worker writes hilarious open letter to Russell Brand after anti-capitalist publicity stunt leaves him hungry
Nigel Farage defends Kerry Smith 'ch***y' comment: 'If you are going for a Chinese, what do you say you’re going for?'
Nigel Farage's approval rating hits 'record low' as popularity suffers in wake of Ukip sex scandal
Pakistan school attack live: Taliban kill at least 132 children in 'horrifying' massacre
Sony hack: Angelina Jolie branded 'seriously out of her mind' in further embarrassing leaked email saga
Panic Saturday: 13 million Britons spend £1.2bn – while 13 million others across the country live in poverty unable to afford food