Owen O’Neill is a much better poet than he is a comic. I recently and
unfavourably reviewed him in
Though the poems can (and, some might argue, ought) to be understood without addition, O’Neill’s anecdotal snippets provide welcome background, giving the audience a fuller understanding of the poems’ referents.
On this particular day, audience engagement seems something of a problem for O’Neill, who struggles to get more than individual responses from those attending (perhaps it’s that, at 3.45pm, few have acquired any Dutch courage). Once he plunges into a poem, however, he is mesmerised, disappearing into a world conjured by a combination of linguistic artistry and gesture.
It’s the poems’ performative quality that qualifies Red Noise as spoken word. Though O’Neill disdains the common supposition that ‘the Irish are great storytellers’, he fulfils the stereotype with aplomb. This is helped by the fact that his poems, if not following a linear narrative, revolve around the central theme of a childhood spent in County Tyrone. Though the poems can (and, some might argue, ought) to be understood without addition, O’Neill’s anecdotal snippets provide welcome background, giving the audience a fuller understanding of the poems’ referents.
Yet since the show’s strength derives from its close interweaving of poetry with contextualising narrative, those poems that attempt narration themselves (one spanning almost ten minutes) seem laborious. Rather, it is those that sketch memory, for example his depiction of the Crucifix on a primary school “painting day”, that are most vivid.
Like Seamus Heaney, the late Irish bard to whom O’Neill dedicates a poem (as he emphasises, ‘before he died’), O’Neill draws out the bigger picture through small detail. Each fragment of memory he pieces together can be stood back from to form a larger image: that of pain. Lightning strikes, bamboo whiplashing, playground beatings, pangs of confessional guilt. All amount to a childhood the pain of which was less a irremediable trauma than a baptism of fire, one whose reality leaves a lump in the throat.