I read Under the Hawthorn Tree as a teenager and back then, it was one of my favourite novels. I’d forgotten all about it until I recently saw that it was being performed at The Mac by children’s theatre company Cahoots NI this autumn.
I was invited along to watch the play and although I don’t live in Belfast anymore, I couldn’t say no, as I had to see the story I’d loved so much.
Under the Hawthorn Tree tells the story of three siblings, Elly, Michael and Peggy, during the Great Irish Famine. The children’s baby sister has died and is buried under the hawthorn tree in the garden. Their hungry and desperate father goes to find work on the roads and when he doesn’t return, their mother leaves to search for him, telling her children she will be back soon. When she, too, doesn’t return they decide the only way to survive, and not end up separated in the workhouse, is to make the long journey across Ireland to find their great aunts whom their mother has told them stories about. (Particularly that they make delicious cakes!)
The play follows the young children as they battle sickness, hunger, weakness, danger, and the elements on the long and difficult journey. Despite the fact that the parts are played by adults, the children’s’ innocence shines through in their words, actions and movement.
The 1 hour play is by Charles Way and directed by Paul Bosco McEneaney, with an original score by Garth McConaghie. The band sits around the stage and the traditional music which accompanies the singing, a mix of hopeful song and lament, is really very moving.
Once again, Cahoots NI, excels at using limited staging, with most of the action taking place on a raised circular stage, with props emerging from trap doors.
The play, while following the story of the young children, also focuses on a very important part of Irish history, and the mass starvation, death and emigration it caused. One chaotic scene in particular sees actor Adam Dougal play the part of an English soldier who is frantically trying to control angry and starving Irish people who see food being shipped to England.
I found the story to be hopeful, funny, terribly sad and very moving all at the same time. Well done to all involved- it was as good as I remembered.
Under the Hawthorn Tree runs until the 7th October. Ticket prices are £10 per child and £12.50-£25 per adult.