The Tailor and Ansty
A 'collection of smut' is a diamond in the rough, writes Brendan Deeds
Though the unforgiving autumn sky beat a cold rain against the skylights of the Linen Hall library, the crepuscular gloom was quickly banished by the warmth and vitality of PJ O’Connor’s adaptation of Eric Cross’s The Tailor and Ansty.
In 1942, Newry-born Cross published a collection of stories and memories featuring real-life couple Tim 'The Tailor' Buckley, and his wife Anastasia. On long winter evenings the couple held court in their Cork cottage, regaling visitors with entertaining tales laced with ribald humour. The tailor talked of anything from weddings to wakes and told tall tales of the secret lives of cats and cattle.
The tailor's stories had a rough-hewn humour and an earthy sexuality, which was out of step with the mores of the time. As a result, once the book was published, the Irish Senate debated the merits of its content. One Senator branded the book a ‘collection of smut’.
The tailor’s fireside yarns were bawdy, yes, but one could find more smut in an episode of The Archers. Regardless, the book was banned for over 20 years.
The brilliance of O’Connor’s play is that it not only brings Cross’s book to life but it also imagines the couple’s reactions to the outcry.
Ronan Wilmot delivers a colourful performance as the tailor, captivating the audience. His delivery of the many comic tales is perfect and he truly inhabits the role of the sassy storyteller. The stories are charming and cheeky.
Tim’s days as a tailor may be behind him, but he has replaced crafting cloth with crafting wonderful stories. Though often bawdy, they are never crude, and provide a steady stream of laughter throughout the play.
The tone changes in the third act when we learn that three priests visited and made the Tailor go down on his knees and burn his copy of the book. This could have been a powerful scene, had it been included. To merely hear of it doesn’t quite have the dramatic impact this travesty deserves.
It is in this third act that Ansty comes into her own. In the preceeding acts she played the foil to much of the tailor‘s jokes, but Nuala Hayes brings pathos to her role.
Wide-eyed in shock, teary-eyed in despair, she tells the tailor that the neighbours will shun the pair because of the book. Ansty never recovered from the community’s rejection but the tragedy of this is explored with greater poignancy in Sean O’Faoiláin’s affecting The Silence of the Valley.
Hayes also directs the production and whilst the second half lags in parts, the pace and tone should keep most viewers thoroughly entertained. This production is a wonderful introduction to what was nearly a lost classic of folkloric literature.
Thanks to Cross, O’Connor and The New Theatre in Dublin, the tailor and Ansty can once again invite wind tussled travellers to join them by the fireside for some laughter. As the tailor says, Glac bóg an saol agus glacfaidh an saol bóg thú (‘Take life fine and easy and life will be fine and easy on you’). This play is a charming little gem.