Corcadorca’s The Numbered: “These Elements Combine and Diffuse”

“What if we all knew at what age we were going to die – how would this change us as individuals and as a society?” This is the overarching question posed by ‘The Numbered’, a play written in the 1950s by Nobel-winning author and playwright Elias Canetti. Questioning social structures and our acceptance of same in stark terms, it’s a weighty and ambitious work. Enter Cork-based theatre trailblazers Corcadorca, the same theatrical stable that premiered modern Irish classic ‘Disco Pigs’ in 1995, and brought Shakespearean classic ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ to Fitzgerald’s Park for a now-legendary run in 2001.

Returning to Fitzgerald’s Park from tonight, this presentation of the play reunites the Irish Times Theatre Award-winning design team from 2017 festival hit ‘Far Away’, including sound artist Mel Mercier, and lighting specialists Aedin Cosgrove and Paul Keogan. Production assistant Kate Waldron discusses the themes that Canetti touched upon in his work, and how they informed the initial idea for another site-specific presentation. “The central premise is of a society in which everyone knows when they are going to die. In the play, this is presented as some sort of utopian ideal. But, as is often the case, all is not as it seems. Ultimately, Canetti is preoccupied with ideas of power and compliance. How easily we can accept a particular system and the assumption that this is for the best. A lot of work has been done with the original text, with considerable refining and distilling of the central ideas. While the texts we work with are often thematically rich and deal with some heavy ideas, the shows tend to be very experience-based, which I do think is less suited to a tidy narrative that gives definite resolution.”

It’s quite a heavy conceptual proposition for an outdoor, site-specific presentation as part of Midsummer Festival’s wider remit. Waldron outlines how the Corcadorca team sat down to make the idea work, and how they could make their own mark on Canetti’s original intention. “The creative team has been working together for many years, and there is a very strong understanding between them. Elements of sound and lighting, as well as the space and how it is used, are always vital to the understanding of a Corcadorca play. The text can often be more suggestive or evocative, and avoid giving clear or easy answers. Also, there’s always a strong element of novelty for audiences in being in an unusual location that they might not normally have access to. Of course, Fitzgerald’s Park will be familiar to most audience members, but being there at night, and with the curiosity of how the space has been transformed and even where the action might move to next. Personally, I find all these separate elements combine and diffuse, so that a Corcadorca show leaves me buzzing with ideas, both from the text but also from a striking image or use of sound and the space itself.”

The production sees Corcadorca return to Fitzgerald’s Park for the first time since 2006, when the company staged a production of The Tempest. Since then, the park has been comprehensively overhauled. Waldron looks at the differences that these changes, including the addition of a full bandstand, have made for the cast and dramaturges. “I don’t think the park in its former incarnation would have been chosen as a site for this production. The park’s transformation, completed back in 2014, including the addition of the bandstand, with its curved canopy is crucial to the decision to use it for the current production. The play moves between two worlds, one somewhat clinical and the other much more naturalistic, even bohemian. The play portrays a dystopian/utopian society, and many of the new structures and areas of the park definitely suggest an idea of cultivation, even of architecture imposed on naturalism, this supports ideas within the text.”

‘The Numbered’ runs as part of Cork Midsummer Festival this year, the latest chapter in an ongoing working relationship between the two organisations that has been of mutual benefit. Corcadorca’s site-specific shows have contributed to the festival’s stated goal of access to the arts across the city, while Midsummer’s status as a collaborative arts extravaganza has informed the troupe’s creative direction on these presentations. “Our relationship with the Midsummer Festival goes back to 2001, with our production of A Midsummer’s Night Dream, also our first time creating a show in Fitzgerald Park. Since then, the company has been a regular centrepiece of the festival, staging works in diverse locations across the city and county. The festival itself has grown so much over the years, and provides a fantastic platform for local and national artists. The buzz around the city for the period really heightens the excitement for our own show and helps to create general anticipation and enthusiasm for the arts across the city. Our offices are on the same floor as the Midsummer Festival, and having a team of such experienced arts workers to bounce ideas off is also a huge benefit.”

Much can and will inevitably be made, off the back of this run of shows, of the potential of Fitzgerald’s Park as a more regular or permanent venue for arts groups, both on the community and professional levels. While an active venue in the summer months, it’s a topic on which everyone in Corcadorca has an opinion. “I know Pat (Kiernan, Corcadorca director) is very enthusiastic about the bandstand in particular, and the possibility of it being used more often for performances. It is great to see all the activity in the park, even if it means Corcadorca has to share the space and in a way that isn’t always the case. It certainly adds to the logistics of the show, and all the stuff the audiences don’t see.”

Running over the course of the Midsummer Festival’s fortnight, the show, like any other, consumes a great deal of energy, enthusiasm and effort from cast and crew. For a presentation as deeply involved as something like ‘The Numbered’, one has to wonder where the reserves of the aforementioned start to run dry, especially when it’s a featured event for a major festival. Waldron concludes the conversation by discussing the process of show night. “To be honest, I think once the run starts, it’s all a lot more relaxed and everyone gets into the swing of things. Our shows definitely demand a lot of both cast and crew. Working outdoors is a novelty that actors enjoy, but it can be physically demanding. We’ve been very lucky with the weather over the rehearsal period, and generally we tend to get lucky for the run of our Summer show. However, this is Ireland, and we’ve had shows in heavy rain in the past. For our production of ‘Far Away’ out on Spike Island last year, we had two nights of extremely heavy rain. This is tough on audiences, but for actors, dressed in light costumes and performing, it’s particularly hard going. Judith Roddy, Pauline McLynn  and Manus Halligan did incredibly well to keep going on both those nights last year, and our audience certainly appreciated it! We got numerous emails from people expressing their gratitude and how impressed they were the efforts of actors and crew to keep the show running.”

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