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.
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