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Paula McFetridge: Taking Seamus Heaney's last work, the Aeneid, to the outdoors

Actress and Kabosh theatre artistic director Paula McFetridge talks to Joanne Sweeney about taking Seamus Heaney's translation of Aeneid Book VI outdoors

This weekend, Paula McFetridge will be directing a three-venue outside production of Seamus Heaney’s Aeneid Book VI, the last book the Nobel Prize winner finished before his death in 2013.
Joanne Sweeney

"PEOPLE love walking up a mountain to listen to actors and rain doesn't seem to put people off – I just feel sorry for the actors," says Paula McFetridge, who has spent the last 11 years of her life bringing theatre to 'non-theatre' spaces.

Recently named as an associate of the Happy Days Enniskillen International Beckett Festival and FrielFest: The Brian Friel International Festival, the actress and artistic director of Kabosh Theatre Company is once more taking ground-breaking theatre to the community.

She joins Enniskillen-born actor and director Adrian Dunbar as a fellow associate, working with arts entrepreneurs Seán Doran and Liam Browne, who programme the festivals.

This weekend, McFetridge will be directing a three-venue outside production of Seamus Heaney’s Aeneid Book VI, the last book the Nobel Prize winner finished before his death in 2013.

It's a moving translation – which Heaney himself described as the result of his "lifelong desire to honour the memory of my Latin teacher at St Columb’s College, Father Michael McGlinchey" – of ancient poet Virgil's epic Latin verse in which Aeneas travels to the underworld in search of the spirit of his dead father.

The verse will be read in three sections on Saturday morning; firstly, at Grianán of Aileach, an ancient sun-fort atop a hill in Inishowen, Co Donegal; then at Lumen Christi College in Bishop Street, Derry (formerly St Columb’s College, where Heaney attended school); and, finally, in the basement of The Deanery, also on Bishop Street.

It will be a busy weekend for the director and her actors Peter Ballance, James Doran, Thomas Finnegan, Vincent Higgins, Gerard Jordan, Terence Keeley, Frank McCusker, Noel McGee, Seamus O’Hara and Lalor Roddy, as they will also be involved in two productions of Brian Friel's The Enemy Within – tomorrow night at St. Mary's Church, Knockmoyle in Omagh and then again on Saturday evening, at St Columba's Church, Long Tower in Derry.

The play is an imaginative account of the voluntary exile of Irish missionary monk Columba in which Friel concentrates on this private man – a charismatic, worldly personality, who struggled to combine the skills of scholar, bard and ruler with fearless commitment to his vocation.

McFetridge explains how having already gathered a group of fine actors around led to the decision to have Heaney's Aeneid read by multiple voices in a promenade version of the play for the first time.

"When I was asked to take the Aeneid to three different locations, I said that I was only interested if I could use the actors who were performing in The Enemy Within," she tells me.

"It’s a great privilege for me to be asked to be festival associate and very rare to get 10 great Ulster actors together to do The Enemy Within, so I thought it would be perfect for them to do the Aeneid as well."

The Aeneid will be part of a three-hour theatrical bus tour that promises to be something very special, whether you are a Heaney lover or interested in classical writing.

"It will be a real experience for an audience," promises McFetridge.

"The audience will go on a bus journey on the 110 bus, which is the bus that Heaney used to get to St Columb's School, where he boarded, and features in the Human Chain collection.

"It leaves from the Foyle bus station and heads to An Grianán fort. You couldn't help but be moved by standing up at the top to hear about Aeneas arriving in the boats with all his men to the underworld and you are left with a fiddler playing at the top of the fort before you are off to the next location."

The director says she has been blown aware by the beauty of Long Tower, describing it as one of the most "incredible chapels I have ever seen", and is charmed by the thought of the audience seeing the sick bay and library of Heaney's old school.

While McFetridge acknowledges that, for some theatre goers, the notion of ancient Latin verse may not seem accessible or relevant locally, she feels that the magic of Heaney's storytelling and the historical atmosphere of the sites go a long way in helping to create an emotional connection.

"What I would say to people is, please don’t be threatened by the language because once you put it in the hands of good actors who can tell a good story and when you put it in unusual spaces, there’s definitely going to be something there that will help you connect to it," assures McFetridge.

"When you feel slightly threatened by the language, Heaney always manages to find this way of always bringing it back to the heart of the story, and he also humanises it.

"As Aeneas is there to find his father, you always know that the story has to get to that point, and Heaney helps so you feel safe in his hands.

"But it undoubtedly helps when you take theatre to these different spaces as I think the atmosphere and the history of the site inevitably brings something to the story.

"So, if there’s some small parts that someone doesn’t understand, it doesn’t really matter. "

:: For further information and tickets about the two weekend performances of The Enemy Within and Seamus Heaney's Aeneid Book VI, visit www.artsoverborders.com

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