Siobhan McKenna, between her stints in New York as Saint Joan, returned Sunday to Sanders Theatre--the scene of her first triumph last August--to present "An Afternoon With the Irish Poets" under the auspices of the Poets' Theatre. The result was one of the largest throngs within memory. A few hundred of those who lacked foresight enough to obtain tickets far in advance were lucky and happy to get into Memorial Hall just to hear Miss McKenna's voice piped over a loud-speaker.
Many of us consider Miss McKenna the finest actress to be seen anywhere on the stage today. Archibald MacLeish, in his brief but beautifully phrased introductory remarks, welcomed her back to Sanders, "where her voice still rings from last summer," and presented her not only as a great actress but also as a scholar. She began by mentioning Sanders as the site of "my own favorite performances of my own favorite part," and then commenced her readings of Irish poetry, interlarded with informal commentary.
She noted the existence of a large corpus of Gaelic poetry in pre-Christian times, "long before the English could read or write." "But," she added, "of course when they did learn finally, they produced a Shakspere." She pointed out that the Irish have always had poetry in the marrow of their bones. And this is true, from the most learned scholar to the lowliest illiterate--a characteristic the Irish share with the Japanese.
Though requested to emphasize the later poems of Yeats, she felt there were many wonderful things in the early poems; so she devoted the first portion to a chronological sampling from Song of the Happy Shepherd through the "Crazy Jane" poems. Later came selections from James Stephens, Padraic Colum, Brian Merriman, Padraic Pearse, the prolific Anonymous, and others. With the able assistance of Colgate Salsbury '57 (on temporary loan from Elsinore), she also included the love scene from Yeats' early Faustian drama, The Countess Cathleen.
Born into the Irish poetic tradition, she showed an unerring and instinctive insight into her multi-faceted material--be it mystical, earthy, whimsical, comic or nature-loving. She established herself as a superb musician in shaping her phrases and contours of spoken melody, in conveying all the subtle rhythms and inflections, in adopting the right tempos, in choosing the appropriate staccato or legato--all with the care of a Mozart specialist. Her voice is a thing of beauty to start with, and perfectly suited to the old Gaelic tongue and the several modern Irish dialects she employed (no actress in Ireland can even begin without competence in at least eight dialects). Her communicative magnetism kept her listeners rapt until almost seven o'clock; and she doubtless would have loved to keep reading if the ghost of Hamlet's father had not been due on stage a half hour later.
New York is fortunate to have her for still another month, in the title roles of Saint Joan and Hamlet, before she returns to her country--a great actress, scholar and musician, and a great human being.
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