SUNDAY, JUNE 18, 2023

When We Were Wild
Cahoots 2023Cahoots 2023
Production Photo: Melissa Gordon

As I take my seat in the upstairs auditorium of Belfast's MAC Theatre for When We Were Wild, directed by Paul Bosco McEneaney from a script by Charles Way, I am already both entranced and made wistful by the sound of birds chirping and the sight of brambles all over the floor of the staging area. It's immediately alluring, inspiring recollections of seemingly simpler summers during my childhood years in the United States. Summers where you felt that the natural world near your doorstep was part of you, where a camping trip sounded like a dreamy adventure and not a potentially nightmarish mess where you might find yourself bitten by an animal or covered in muck. The bumps, the bruises, the pain, the filth – these are the memories that one tends to edit out of the nostalgia which acts as an antidote to the dreariness of adulthood. How often do we consider the uncomfortable realities that our dreams required to come alive?

Those realities are the front, centre, heart and soul of When We Were Wild, a poignant tale of two very old farming brothers, played by Ruairi Conaghan and John Paul Connolly, and their attempt to recapture that youthful magic. For Conaghan's Jim and Connolly's Pete, time has equated to a social and physical distance from each other. Both are trapped in societal and behavioural bubbles that they are visibly struggling, or even lacking the will, to burst. Hence it is understandable that the idea of a return to childhood, whether or not the woodland they once cherished is now no landscape for old men, might just reunify them. But will it really? And how?

This is truly unprecedented character-building territory, even for a repeatedly innovative, inventive and magical company like McEneaney's Cahoots NI. What we see in Jim and Pete's excursion in the wild is a reminder that such conditions literally bring out the wild side in a person – in reawakening the desire to be liberated, there are elements of frustration and argumentation which cannot help but clash with more grounded sensibilities. Such compelling moodiness, all of which is enhanced immeasurably by Kyron Bourke's live music and Helen Foan's wondrous animal puppetry, brought to life by Foan and Iris Schmid.

When we see a fox, a dog, an owl, a duck and several ducklings pop up all over the stage, strings are attached and impressionists are visible, yet this only enhances the brilliance of the effect. Creatures that feel real and inspire awe in the moment provide much to consider afterwards – by paying attention to, for want of better words, the women behind the curtain, we gain an extra appreciation of what filled the creations with life to begin with. It does appear to be Cahoots' own way of painting a concise and detailed picture of something that really matters – we need no longer fear confronting the truths of life and art, if we ever did, and at the same time we are so connected with Jim's story and Pete's story that we hope they can confront similar truths too. It's like Cahoots have gone back to the past to point Jim, Pete and the audience forward to a brighter future – and we are all so much better for it.

Simon Fallaha

When We Were Wild runs at The MAC, Belfast, until Sunday June 18. For more information, and a behind-the-scenes video, click here.