Things were looking blipful since I first landed in Waterford. The twin-prop plane from Birmingham had been barely a quarter full and was 45 minutes early, surely a first in the history of commercial aviation. This was welcome in theory but in practice it meant there were no taxis at the airport yet. It was that kind of airport, that kind of town – small and laid-back. When a cab did come along, it was by accident and I couldn’t get in it because he was heading home and home wasn’t in the part of town I was going. The only other taxi driver I knew was standing next to me and he didn’t have his cab with him because he’d just got off the plane himself. But it didn’t bother me to wait; I was dressed for arctic conditions in an evening actually several degrees milder than the English one I’d left a little while before, and my taxi-less taxi-driver friend (a Brummie in a corduroy jacket who’d relocated to Waterford for the ‘gaelic tiger’ economy) recommended me places to eat and things to see.
When I did finally catch a cab, my driver – a stocky, bearded guy whose ID card photo had been taken some decades previously – asked me what I was doing in town. I felt a bit guilty, or at least eccentric, saying I was there to see a play – it seemed a long way to come just for that, and I hadn’t been to the theatre for about the past five years in London. But he was impressed when I told him I was in Waterford to see Red Kettle’s Riddley Walker. ‘Oh, the Hoban!’ he said. I was impressed back. ‘That’s had some good reviews.’ I asked him if he’d seen it. ‘No, it sounds a bit dark and heavy,’ he said, ‘set in ancient times, or something?’ ‘Kind of, yeah.’ ‘I only know about the author because I’m married to a Hoban.’ ‘What, one of the Hobans?’ I said, pondering the synchronicity. ‘No,’ he laughed, ‘it’s a fairly common name around here. I heard about the play on the radio,’ he went on, ‘one of John Hurt’s sons is in it.’ Crikey, I thought, this Riddley must be more serious than I thought. I was just getting over this when he said, ‘In fact I think I heard that two of John Hurt’s sons are in it.’
I checked in to the very pleasant Rice Guesthouse on Barrack Street, went out for a curry, had a Guinness in a lovely pub where I found myself sponsoring a complete stranger five euros to do a parachute jump, read a bit of Riddley Walker, had a very cosy night and slept in late. The next morning, I had hours to kill before my roommate, Eli Bishop, or any other Krakenites were due to show up in town, so I had a good wander around. It was neither rainy nor cold to begin with but the sky was a solid grey all day. I hadn’t known what to expect of Waterford in terms of size; a leaflet I picked up from the guesthouse said it was a city, although it felt more like a large town. The leaflet also said that Waterford was the only city beseiged by Cromwell which he failed to capture, and was the place where the first frog in Ireland was released. I counted four or five churches within a mile of each other, and the town also boasted some Viking and medieval ruins, including a near-complete tower. A plaque on the wall of a bank said it had once been the site of another Viking building. Many shops were closed for refurbishment. Small market stalls selling cheese, bread and children’s toys had sprung up in part of the shopping centre. What looked an ancient butcher’s shop, with sawdust on the floor and a chaos of invoices stacked on a teetering table, had a special offer on pigs’ feet. There was a newsagent called Morrissey’s which I couldn’t help photographing for Dave, a Smiths fan. I checked my email in a rickety-looking internet café with a Calor gas fire hissing in the background and had a superb cup of coffee in a different café around the corner; I’d go back tomorrow for that coffee alone. It was good to sit in the warm and read more Riddley and look out onto the street. As with many such moments I probably did more looking into the street than reading.
Finding the Garter Lane Arts Centre to collect my tickets for the evening’s performance took a while. I found O’Connell street quick enough but walked the full length of it twice before finding them in a smart courtyard tucked behind some tattered offices. I picked up a couple of Riddley flyers with my tickets and stopped into a quiet room with an exhibition of local art on display, an absorbing mix of naturalistic city scenes and landscapes ranging from impressionistic to abstract.
It was now getting to the time when Eli was due to be arriving, and we’d arranged to meet at the guesthouse as it was the only place in the town we’d both know. On the way back I stopped at a shop called Susan’s Sweets for a couple of filled rolls which I was assured were unique to Waterford and smuggled them into the hotel past the signs saying PLEASE DO NOT CONSUME FOOD AND DRINK IN THE ROOMS. I whiled away the next couple of hours watching Diamonds are Forever until in the late afternoon there was a knock at the door. I didn’t recognise Eli at first; he seemed taller (if that was possible) than when I’d last (and first) met him at the Some-Poasyum, his hair had grown out and he was wearing glasses, which he explained was because he’d had a heavy night in Dublin and fallen asleep in his hostel bed wearing his contacts. Despite being hungover he was game for a conversation for an hour or so; we talked mostly about his work as a nurse and computer programmer in San Francisco; I tried not to grill him too much on Riddley trivia. We were sharing not for financial reasons; the guesthouse was already excellent value – they’d simply run out of rooms.
The next part of the plan was for our other Hoban fan-friends Ernie and Deena to arrive and then we’d all head out to the Big Top, about three miles out of town, where Riddley was due to do his walking. Ernie rang to say he was at the airport, having driven down from Donegal, and was waiting for Deena’s flight to come in from Luton. A short while later the guesthouse reception called me to pass on a message from Ernie that Deena’s flight had been delayed. I tried calling Ernie back but Deena got there first, saying she’d arrived and they were on their way. My phone rang a fourth time – I’ve never been so popular in a single afternoon – and it sounded like Ernie again. I wittered on about taxis and dining spots before realising it wasn’t Ernie at all but Ben Hennessy from Red Kettle, saying he was heading over to the Big Top right now and did we want a lift?
Eli and I waited in the foyer and a few minutes later Ben’s bear-like presence breezed in: six feet tall and stocky with it, a colourful patchwork jacket over a baggy purple jumper, grey curly hair tumbling randomly from a balding dome; a contented, ruddy face. The epitome of the gentle giant, he ushered us into the Redkettlemobile, a custom-painted Luton van. Ben’s 10-year-old son Ruben was in the front seat ensconced in a video game; he was in the play, I don’t think with a speaking part but as the self-named ‘Fisher’, one of the Eusa folk children. By now it had been raining steadily for two or three hours. Ben negotiated the wet roads at the same time as telling us about Red Kettle and the play and taking several phone calls, punctuating a gentle, low monotone with a husky laugh. Eventually the Big Top rose into view, a stripey 200-seater opposite the substantial Woodlands Hotel. Ben and Ruben went off to see how the cast was getting on while Eli and I had a decent pub meal in the unforgettably-named Brass Cock bar. A short while later Ben reappeared with Joan Dalton, Red Kettle producer, a tall blonde lady in a long black coat. Ben gave us programmes and the four of us talked for a bit. I said, ‘My cab driver yesterday told me two of John Hurt’s sons are in the show – is that right?’ Joan laughed and said, ‘Yes – well, they’re my children too.’ I must have looked confused as she elaborated, ‘I used to be married to John Hurt in a previous life.’ True enough, the programme confirmed that Sasha was playing Belnot Phist and Nick was one of the Eusa folk children. Ben explained that another audience draw was Pascal Scott (Goodparley), who was well-known in Ireland for a TV series called Killinaskully.
Ben and Joan finished their supper and went away, and another lady called Frieda came over to our table. She was from the board of directors but nowhere near as formal as that title might suggest, a schoolteacher by day, utterly charming and possessed of infectious enthusiasm and energy. She was obviously busy and a bit stressed out, which made it all the nicer that she took a few minutes to come and speak to us. ‘I’m brewing a migraine!’ she said at one point, rubbing her temple. I offered her paracetamol (never travel without them), expecting her to politely decline, as people do, but she snapped them up gladly. ‘I should have prescribed those,’ joked Eli, slipping into nurse mode for a second. She went away then and Deena and Ernie arrived with Guinnesses in hand. After a few photos we realised it was getting past the time that Ben had recommended we come outside to start queueing for the show – the seats were unallocated so we wanted to be sure we got good ones.
We came outside to find a crowd of people huddling out of the rain under the hotel awning. Although it was a miserable evening, you couldn’t help thinking how Riddleyesque it was. Joan told us they were just checking some things in the Big Top before they could open up, and went off again. Ernie had disappeared into the crowd, and Eli, Deena and I were chatting together when Ben, Joan and Frieda came over looking distraught. Frieda, a small lady, addressed the crowd in a voice that no schoolchild and fewer adults would mess with, even though what she was saying was just as much apology as it was instruction. She explained, to a collective groan, that the Big Top had let in rain and that the health and safety people had advised the cancellation of the show because they couldn’t guarantee that the lighting rig and other electrics were safe. It was an unbelievable blow for everyone concerned; Deena and I were mortified more for Eli than ourselves, and then after digesting the news we were all more upset for the cast and crew. Frieda made it very clear to us all how disappointed they all were and told us how we could apply for refunds. Making the announcement was a thankless task and an old boy nearby, looking like he could have walked out of a James Joyce story in formal coat and hat, said, ‘Give the lady a round of applause!’
Everybody was milling about then, not quite sure what to do with themselves, but by and large the mood was more philosophical than sombre. Smokers lit more cigarettes and people drifted inside for another round of drinks. Then something great happened: in dribs and drabs the cast started to emerge from the Big Top, in full costume and make-up, to mingle with the audience. They looked perfect, iron-age people from the future who’d been grubbing around in the muck. You’d turn round and there was Goodparley, you’d look over someone’s shoulder and there was Riddley himself. A friendly blonde ‘Eusa folk’ girl proudly pointed out to me Lissener and Belnot Phist by their character names; it hadn’t quite occurred to me until now how deeply they were all involved in the story. They were also very approachable, happy to pose for photos and talk about the production, not a whiff of luvviedom about any of them. Cormac McDonagh, who played Riddley, was especially friendly and it was great to get a photo of him with Eli.
Even better, Frieda made another announcement to the crowd that they were negotiating a performance space with the Woodlands Hotel so we could all see some of the show. In the meantime she, Ben and Joan snuck a few of us into the Big Top for a few moments. The entrance was a heavy canvas flap whose very material rhymed with the hunter-gatherers’ costumes and the wet, elemental atmosphere of the book itself. Walking in was breathtaking: right inside was a single, huge floodlight trained on a forest set like a full moon on a cloudless night. The floor was covered in dead leaves and twigs; this was deliberate, although you suspected the equally realistic moisture of the ‘forest floor’ probably wasn’t. If you didn’t know anything about Riddley Walker you might be forgiven for thinking you were walking into a production of The Blair Witch Project. The Big Top was split roughly in two with the seating in semi-circles to the right and the set to the left, but there didn’t feel like a divide between the two – it all felt like ‘jus one girt big thing’, as if the audience was in the forest rather than just watching a play. We were told not to touch anything and you could see that the circus tent ceiling and rigging were glistening wet. I think the producers were just being extra cautious though because there were nine or ten of us milling about and you inevitably touched things and nobody was electrocuted. The atmosphere was certainly electric, though: the Big Top was warm and even smelt like a forest, and there was a low hum and hiss of machinery which was probably just air conditioning or heating and thus was technologically incongruous, but was somehow not out of place, and added a mysterious element.
After a few minutes we were ushered back out into the rain and then into the sizeable lower ground floor of the Brass Cock bar. The cast began to assemble around a stripey fit-up and the audience pulled up chairs and sat on the floor. Once the actors got going, you could easily forget you were in a pub. The all-Irish cast performed in their own accents, which took a few moments to adjust to, but it worked better, I think, than if they’d tried to replicate the English ‘estuary’ accent of the book; the language was perfect, so the accent didn’t matter. Over about 45 minutes they performed four or five extracts from the play, including the opening scene, in which Riddley addresses the audience direct (to the consternation of Goodparley and others) and kills his boar; a scene featuring Lorna telling us about Aunty (the two characters were played by the same actress, a rather lovely Jenni Ledwell) – the line about Aunty having ‘iron tits and teef betwean her legs and an iron willy for the ladies’ got a big laugh (mostly fro
m the ladies); the scene where Riddley first meets Lissener (played with unexpected energy by a hauntingly-costumed Will Irvine) and makes the emotional discovery of the ‘shynin’ machinery; the scene in which Riddley meets Granser (Joseph Kelly), who then acts out the ‘Hart of the Wood’ story originally contained in the book’s first chapter, playing the ‘clevver little bloak’ to a repulsed Riddley like a play within a play; and finally the puppet show, performed superbly by Cormac McDonagh with ‘patter’ from Erny Orfing (Joseph Meagher). A couple of scenes featured percussive accompaniment from a quartet called Torann, the traditional Irish drums complementing perfectly Riddley’s raw, wild, anxious world. The whole thing was absolutely excellent, especially given how quickly the cast had adapted to the smaller space and how much material was contained in just these few scenes, and I don’t think there could have been many people in the audience now giving serious thought to the idea of claiming a refund.
The performance over, Ben gathered the cast together and called up a shocked Eli to the front to be presented with the Punch puppet that had been made especially for the show. The audience groaned in sympathy when Ben explained Eli had come all the way from San Francisco for tonight’s show, and one of the actors later even asked for Eli’s autograph.
Afterward the audience remained pretty much as they were for most of the evening, chatting and drinking. The cast went away and returned one by one in their civvies and signed posters for us. Around 1am we were invited to join them for an after-show party. Taxis picked us up and took us to a nightclub in the town centre, where we were treated to an ear-splitting mixture of live bands and a DJ set. It was hot inside and Ben and the others were impressed when I opened my shirt to reveal p.a. morbid’s ‘Arga Warga’ t-shirt design from the Some-Poasyum. Then at three o’clock in the morning, just as Russell Hoban himself was probably getting ready for bed, we found ourselves climbing the streets of Waterford to carry on the party in a small terraced house. It was cosy inside, a gas fire hissing in the lounge, and Nora Boland, one of the scenic artists, handed round bottles of Heineken. The place was packed and many people were smoking fiercely as if to make up for the fact that they hadn’t been able to for hours earlier in the bar and club. Someone put on a recent Tom Waits album which only made it more Hobanesque. A couple of loaves of sliced white bread were dotted around which seemed surreal until the smell of frying began to drift in from the kitchen, and plates of steaming hot sausages and bacon were circulated. Somehow it seemed immensely civilised and privileged to find yourself in this company at four in the morning eating a bacon sandwich and chatting to someone like Louise Bradley, who played one of the Eusa Folk and was a drama teacher in her other life; funnily enough she’d also visited Riddley’s Kent once in her only excursion to England, some years before becoming involved in this production.
By now it was nearing dawn; as the father of two small children and thus generally used to being asleep on the sofa by ten o’clock, I was getting pretty disorientated, and of course it was even weirder to look up and see Lorna Elswint leaning against the fireplace and Abel Goodparley asking for a light and Riddley Walker now wearing a black tee-shirt and laughing with Belnot Phist. Erny Orfing passed by in a striped poncho-like top looking for two missing Cuban cigars. ‘Don’t get them mixed up with the sausages,’ I told him. ‘They’re not sausages, they’re swossages!’ he boomed, and went off cackling.
Finally I could take no more and Deena and I reluctantly made our excuses, leaving Eli behind on the sofa with Straiter Empy, or it might have been Fister Crunchman. We wended our way back to the guesthouse through the damp, deserted Waterford streets, generally marvelling over the whole evening, to all intents and purposes forgetting that we’d not actually seen the whole show as it was intended. Unfortunately we didn’t get a chance to say a proper goodbye to Eli as the next I saw of him he crept into the room, crashed out for a couple of hours and then crept out again to catch an early train back to Dublin. I got up as late as I could in order not to miss breakfast, which was still far too early, chatted slurrily with Deena over a slice of toast, and crawled back into bed. I didn’t know the check-out time so I thought I’d just sleep until they chucked me out. Unfortunately this happened only about an hour later, but you couldn’t blame them. I settled the bill and staggered into town, now almost completely deserted, and had a toasted sandwich and big pot of tea in what may have been the most exhaustion-friendly café-bar I’ve ever sat in, all dark woods and quiet music and the low hum of conversation. It took me days to recover from the fatigue, but I hope I never get over the experience of this, the most fantastic wet weekend I’ve ever had.
POSTSCRIPT: A complete performance of the play on one of the previous nights was filmed, and DVDs are now available from the Thoughtcat site for only 15 euros inclusive of p&p; worldwide. For more information go to www.thoughtcat.com/riddleydvd.htm