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Review: Ancient Rain

Cabaret Festival

Paul Kelly and Camille O’Sullivan blend cabaret with Irish poetry in Ancient Rain, and the results are sombre, devastating and enthralling.

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There is an elegiac quality throughout this performance and a feeling of hiraeth as both storytellers keep the audience riveted with tales of death, war, mutiny and rebellion, and also of love, faith and hope.

Both Kelly and O’Sullivan are at the top of their game but it’s the poems that are the real stars.

A spade digging in Ireland’s bog opens proceedings and a delicate curtain of snow ends the show. In between is 100 years of Irish toil, struggle and hardship as seen through the eyes of some of the Emerald Isle’s greatest poets, including WB Yeats, Donagh MacDonagh, Paula Meehan and James Joyce.

All are set to a superb soundscape from four outstanding musicians – Feargal Murray (piano), Paul Byrne (percussion), Dan Kelly (guitar) and Sokol Koka (cello) – which is haunting, moody and punctuating, while leaving space for Kelly to weave his magic and O’Sullivan to appear like dynamite with a laser beam. All reach into the soul of the poetry and drag out the terrible beauty within.

This is anything but a pretentious piece, and is impressive for its willingness to address the controversies inherent in the poems. It provides a fascinating exploration of life,  and an achingly emotional testament to the human condition.

A highlight is the final piece in Act One, when O’Sullivan performs Paula Meehan’s The Statue of the Virgin at Granard Speaks. The music is confrontational and the Irish-French chanteuse delivers the song with the vehemence and precision of an artillery barrage. She is spellbinding in her theatrical embodiment of the statue of the blessed Virgin Mary.  As is Paul Kelly as he re-imagines WB Yeats’ An Irish Airman Foresees His Death.

From the first piece, Seamus Heaney’s Digging, to the ending of James Joyce’s The Dead, this production is almost flawless.  With its mixture of poetry, song, music and performance, Ancient Rain is an intriguing and absorbing work.

The final performance of Ancient Rain is tonight (Friday) at Her Majesty’s Theatre. See more Adelaide Cabaret Festival reviews and previews here.

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