A passionate, expressive and folk-imbued exploration of mental health, addiction and the aforementioned’s impacts on family life is on offer with Sinéad O’Brien’s semi-autobiographical piece Hero/Banloach. O’Brien lays forth the mythic tales of her homeland, Ireland, from King Brian to Fionn mac Cumhaill and the Salmon of Knowledge. Weaved in between these fables is the narrative of O’Brien’s home life, taking us through her parents’ divorce, struggles with addiction, living with mental health issues. retribution and reconciliation. O’Brien is an spellbinding storyteller – she blends mythos with self-awareness of the outlandish tales of yesteryear and unusual circumstances that have led her where she is today. However, Hero/Banloach needs a little tightening in its’ prose and narrative to come across as enthrallingly as its’ storyteller.
O’Brien appears on stage in luminescent white get-up, already evoking the later arrival of a mysterious woman dressed in white on horseback within the narrative. It isn’t long before she breaks any conception of a Fourth Wall – she makes it clear that this is piece is a welcome not only to her life but to Irish social life, with all the customs, traditions and characters that naturally follow. O’Brien is not afraid to poke fun at the plot-holes and mythical fancy of the stories of her island home, while still embodying a deep respect and passionate love for their impact on her society today. As someone who had heard the stories many times over before, I was deeply pleased to see how accessible and personable O’Brien makes them seem. Her home is our home, and she opens up a piece of her heart and soul for us all to bare witness to.
The delivery of the material surrounding her parents’ struggles with addiction and mental health is as sensitive as it is intrepid and honest. She never allows either of her parents to be outwardly defined by their illnesses, and it comes across as a genuine privilege to receive such an introspective invitation as to hear about their lives and how those events impacted O’Brien’s own. Stories of finding bio-luminescent plankton on the beach at Skerries were visceral and evocative, painting a real picture of her upbringing. Meanwhile, the sections which explore the darker sides of her family life are wrought with pain with which O’Brien’s charisma opens up a sentimental and touching dialogue about undergoing trauma and pain. It never feels too heavy, nor too light, and the balance of content is just right.
To provide some honest thoughts – O’Brien’s stories on their own are masterfully performed straight to the audience. Their interweaving, however, struggles to leave a lasting impact on the audience because of how disjointedly the tales run into one another. While the piece leaves a soothed atmosphere in the room, the jumps between the folk content and the family content don’t feel long enough or cohesive enough to gel everything together neatly. We don’t find a deeper meaning than what we’re presented as a result, and this is not necessarily a bad thing, but I didn’t leave much with a sense of what Hero/Banloach has to say about these quite hefty topics. The conclusion about heroes and what defines them is nice, but it doesn’t tie too closely in with the other themes of the play, and I’d love to have seen more interplay between those two concepts.
Enthralling and sensitively powerful – Hero/Banloach is storytelling unravelled.
Recommended Drink: Since O’Brien’s grandfather worked at Guinness, I can only recommend a good pint of the black stuff. Sláinte!
Performances of Hero/Banloach have now concluded at Prague Fringe. Keep up with the company on social media for future performances.