Folk – Folk music as collaborative artistry. (Theatre Review)


Ensemble Theatre

3 May – 1 June. You can grab your tickets here.

Images: Phil Erbacher

Using a framework of modern-day Kitchen Sink Realism, Folk has the ability to take a simple tale and stack it by remaining true to those it seeks to represent. On the surface we have three misfits bonded by a love of folk music, but this love exceeds the clunky definitions of what folk music might be. For Tom Wells the spirit and power of folk music lies (like theatre) in its collaborative aspects. This stands directly against the mythology of ‘the lone musical genius’ and seeks to understand music and how it is played as a contribution to systemic and ecological perspectives that offer a contextual perspective for creativity. In the play Folk, this contextual perspective suggests music as a healing agent. This idea dispels the notion that a creative person necessarily stands in an adversarial relationship with their environment, or that they are ‘only about the music.’ Folk music finds its essence in community and the sociopolitical context of that communities’ history. It is, therefore a refusal of a ‘generic’ understanding of creativity. Music is unashamedly used in the play Folk as a device for memory, connection, forgetting, mourning, celebration, homage, and above all, cementing friendships and unification. Ironically its powers are wielded by the least accomplished but most appreciative individual in the room, Sister Winnie (Genevieve Lemon). However, as a Catholic Nun, Sister Winnie evokes the spiritual power of creativity as used by the church, not as a veneration of the talented, but as a connective tool via a universal honouring a deity.

For Tom Wells, folk music is the connective substance that does not simply bear the stamp of a creator (whether God or an idealized individual) but originates out of a way of experiencing the world, a way in which we have practiced being A Self. The folk music shared by the three individuals in the play provides a fixed viewpoint from which each can elevate above their environment in order to view life from a distance. While the ‘creative genius’ is one venerated as opposing cultural norms and seen as riling against the stifling forces of the conforming masses, Tom Wells presents three people expelled by their community who find refuge in music, and an entry point back to their community. It is the solitude that drives our individuals to seek community and inside that bond through the art they form together for their own pleasure they find their way back. Inside this lies the contagious hopefulness of the play.

Around the idea of creativity, an interesting battle ensues between Sister Winnie and Stephen (Gerard Carroll) over a public performance. Sister Winnie wants to see Stephen connect with the community, because she understands what the folk music offers. Stephen’s creativity involves communication and as such requires a social context to exist. For Sister Winnie, the creative impulse is motivated by a desire for integration, connection and communication with one’s community and others. Stephen fears judgement like the judgement he received from Kayleigh (Libby Asciak) but becomes sublimated beneath her desire to connect. Here, all three of our protagonists are artists located in a network of signs, piecing them together with few criteria, picking up bits and pieces. Notions of ‘self’ and ‘originality’ are discarded even though both are present. The image of hyper individualism at the core of creative genius is absent in folk music and it is absent in Folk. Folk is about people and the connective power of music, but the three folks of the play are creatives refusing isolation.

Music, it’s role in our life and the creative is just one aspect of this charming play that director Terence O’Connell brings to the surface. Great poignancy comes from Sister Winnie’s character as performed by Genevieve Lemon. Besides the joy at seeing a Catholic Nun depicted positively, the essential service Nun’s and Priests can provide the community is properly wrought here. Three people are saved, at least from terrible depression, and possibly from death, in the brief time we spend with Sister Winnie. Positively affecting people dealing with non-religious issues such as, coming out, pedophilia, homelessness, death and teen pregnancy, Folk reminds us of the irreplaceable service the thousands of good religious folks perform in the community, outside of attempts at conversion. Genevieve Lemon becomes the perfect Sister Winnie (“Nun’s are made for comedy” she says) through her outstanding charisma and magnetic personality. An enormously likeable persona, as a nun we are reminded through her performance of the powerhouse conduit such a person can present to the lost and hopeless. Deep, searing problems of connectivity and survival are turned into life’s phases through her strength and perpetual example of self-examination. Tom Wells creates a character we can easily relate to and Genevieve Lemon makes us long for Sister Winnie in our own lives.

Terence O’Connell and assistant director Erin Taylor, do a wonderful job with the fast paced and buoyant Folk. Despite a deep narrative sadness, Terence O’Connell fills us with a sense of hopefulness that people can learn how to like each other, and that music can cut through the personal nonsense we often bring to the room. Hugh O’Connor strikes a chord with the realism of the production with a true and traditional set and costume design that properly evokes time and place for the protagonists. Trent Suidgeest makes a charming contribution with lights and Amy Hume does a good job calling forth descent Yorkshire accents in the cast while Genevieve Lemon’s subtle Cork accent is a stand out. Performances from the other two cast members Libby Asciak and Gerard Carroll are mostly about the music, but each does a great job with their characters, retaining the connection to the community they are representing.

Folk is a warm-hearted, hospitable play that remains light while touching deep. Its commentary on music and the real of creativity is held lightly and properly immersed in the themes and tropes of Kitchen Sink Realism. For those who know the area it seeks to represent, it will be a marvelous moment of connection. For those just looking for a warm-hearted joyful night at the theatre, you will be glad you went.