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Inspirations at Tricycle Theatre

Rosie Lavan

Inspirations: Seamus Heaney and Simon Armitage
Tricycle Theatre, London
27 January, 2013

It was a full house at the Tricyle last Sunday night when Seamus Heaney and Simon Armitage took to the stage of the Kilburn theatre at a special fundraising event for English PEN. At £35 for an unreserved seat, the tickets weren’t cheap, as PEN president Gillian Slovo noted in her opening remarks. But they did sell out.

Despite the fact that the evening was organised in support of PEN, the international writers’ organisation which campaigns for freedom of expression, the political nature of their activities was not much discussed and the focus rested on the literary. Armitage and Heaney had each been invited to select poems and extracts of writing which held personal significance for them and which had in some way informed their poetic imaginations or set the tone for their poetic voices. Each poet introduced their selections one by one and they were joined on stage by the actors Charles Dance and Jenny Jules, who read the works that they had chosen. It was a well-judged format, enabling conversational introductions from the poets which were often amusing, insightful, or moving, and Armitage and Heaney did each read one of their own poems as well. Although their paths rarely cross, the poets complemented one another well and the poems and writings they chose were often in sympathy.

Dance has an inimitable stage presence: he is a consummate actor. He charged the atmosphere with the modulations of voice and accent he brought to each piece of writing he read. He put on traces of a Yorkshire accent for his reading of Ted Hughes’s ‘Bayonet Charge’ and ‘The Bull Moses’, and of an Irish accent for two particularly evocative passages chosen by Heaney, the opening of Patrick Kavanagh’s long poem ‘The Great Hunger’, as well as an extract from the first episode of Joyce’s Ulysses. And in perhaps the most unexpected of Heaney’s selections, he made a fine Falstaff, delivering the old lewd knight’s paean to the wondrous and varied effects of drink from Henry IV, Part 2. Together, Dance and Jules read Armitage’s chosen extract from Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot and the surreally atmospheric poem ‘A Sound Like Distant Thunder’ by James Tate, to great comic effect.

For those who are familiar with Heaney’s work, some of his selections were to be expected: Kavanagh, Robert Lowell, Ted Hughes, Nadezhda Mandelstam, and Czesław Miłosz are writers to whom he has regularly turned in his essays. His introductions were full of characteristically apt and beautiful remarks about the effects of literature. He prefaced the extract from ‘The Great Hunger’ by explaining that the first time he read Patrick Kavanagh—from whom he derived enormous confidence as an Irish writer from a northern, Catholic, rural background—it was like opening the back door of his childhood home. Interestingly, though, it was Armitage and not Heaney who selected a poem by Wordsworth: the great Romantic is, with Yeats, a major figure and poetic forebear for Heaney. Before Jules read Wordsworth’s ‘We are Seven’ Armitage quipped, at Wordsworth’s expense, that The Prelude is probably the only poem that takes longer to read than it did to write. Heaney has been long considered the greatest Irish poet since Yeats, yet he also chose no pieces of his formidable precursor’s work. He did, however, choose a translation by Lady Gregory, Yeats’s great patron, of the Gaelic poem ‘Donal Og’: Jules’ reading of this poem, which articulates desolation after love with arresting directness, stunned the audience into an almost shocked silence:

You have taken the east from me, you have taken the west from me;
you have taken what is before me and what is behind me;
you have taken the moon, you have taken the sun from me;
and my fear is great that you have taken God from me!

Even Dance was visibly struck by the effect of these words, spoken by his co-reader. That moment in the evening captured brilliantly what PEN has sought to do since it was founded in 1921: to harness the power of the spoken or written word in support of those writers whose words have been suppressed.

Rosie Lavan is reading for a DPhil in English at St Anne’ College, Oxford. She is a Senior Editor at the Oxonian Review.