Review: Destiny Doomed (Observatory Theatre)

Clarise Ooi as Deirdre and Laura Fois as Blathnaid, photographed by Geoff Lawrence: Creative Futures Photography

Content warning: Destiny Doomed contains simulated violence, mature themes, sexual references, mild coarse language, and strobe lighting.

Written and directed by Anina-Marie van Wyk, Destiny Doomed is a contemporary reimagining of the Irish folktale Deirdre of the Sorrows, centring the voices and experiences of the legend’s women and reimagining the possibilities of Deirdre’s fate.

Destiny Doomed is based on the legend of Deirdre, as told in the 2000 novelised translation and retelling by American author Randy Lee Eickhoff. Deirdre’s tale is one of the better known stories of The Ulster Cycle, one of four ‘cycles’ of Irish mythology and legend, a collection of medieval Irish heroic legends focused on the mythical Ulster king Conchobar mac Nessa and his court at Emain Macha. The script of Destiny Doomed included a sprinkling of Gaelic words, and a number of characters were removed or conflated to streamline the storytelling into a tightly packed seventy-minute musical.

Clarise Ooi as Deirdre, photographed by Geoff Lawrence: Creative Futures Photography

Before Deirdre (played by Clarise Ooi) was born, a druid prophesised that her beauty would be so great that she would tear the kingdom apart. The king Conchobar (Kieran J Evans), wanting her to himself, sent her away until she came of age, when he intended to marry her. Deirdre was raised deep in the woods by ‘resident feminist witch’ Blathnaid (Laura Fois) but fell in love with Naoise (Elliot Daniel Gough), the first man she saw, who was grappling with his own ideas of destiny as they related to his father’s legacy. Naoise loved Deirdre in return, but when he realised who she was they made a plan to escape from her prophesised fate. They sought shelter with Naoise’s friend Maigne (Jesse Blachut) but were betrayed and fled further, across the sea to Scotland, where they were eventually welcomed by the warrior woman Scáthach (Laura Fois) to her Fortress of Shadows as Conchobar devised a plan to lure them back. A homesick Naoise was convinced by the king’s false promises and returned to Conchobar’s court with Deirdre to face their destiny.

Elliot Daniel Gough as Naoise, photographed by Geoff Lawrence: Creative Futures Photography

The original tale sees Deirdre resume control in the way that is often the only one afforded to tragic heroines in folklore – by dashing her head on a rock and dying on her own terms. In Destiny Doomed, Deirdre is permitted more options, aided by her mentor Blathnaid, and forges her own path against the suffering that prophecy had promised her.

Laura Fois as Blathnaid, photographed by Geoff Lawrence: Creative Futures Photography

Destiny Doomed included fifteen original folk-pop songs, with book, music, and lyrics by Anina-Marie van Wyk. The lyrics were clear and easy to follow as they revealed emotions and motives and progressing the storytelling. Digging through my archives (and memories), I realised that I had seen van Wyk’s work (and Clarise Ooi’s) before, in the musical Mettle, Moxie & Melody which was presented at Anywhere Festival in 2019. It was my highlight of the festival that year (I can still easily recall a number of the songs) and in that performance, as for Destiny Doomed, I was impressed by the cohesion of the score, the memorable melodies, and the way the lyrical and musical motifs recurred throughout. van Wyk also presented an earlier iteration of Destiny Doomed, including twelve original songs and a smaller cast, for Anywhere Festival 2021 in Campfire Cabaret: The Legend of Deirdre.

Clarise Ooi as Deirdre and Kieran J Evans as Conchobar, photographed by Geoff Lawrence: Creative Futures Photography

I really enjoyed the outdoor staging and informal seating, for which the audience was encouraged to bring their own camp chairs and/or picnic rugs. An outdoor performance comes with a number of additional challenges – weather, uneven footing, acoustics – but all of these were managed smoothly by the Observatory Theatre team and the creatives. An unobtrusive tent to the rear of the performance space served as the backstage area, and a wet weather plan was in place and communicated to audiences ahead of the performance.  

The cast of Destiny Doomed, photographed by Geoff Lawrence: Creative Futures Photography

Destiny Doomed made good use of the space, with movement direction by Sara Jane Aistrope and fight coaching by Jason McKell. Physical theatre was used to contribute to the setting through movement, such as the swaying of a ship, as well as using bodies and a few furniture pieces to indicate changing scenery.

Sound and lighting design by Lachlan Driscoll contributed to the setting and mood of each scene. Simple handheld lighting, including electric candles and small LED lights incorporated into Blathnaid’s costume, also added to the atmosphere of the performance. Strobe lighting was used sparingly to create crackling lighting, and the audio was strong even in the open-air venue.

Laura Fois as Scáthach, Elliot Daniel Gough as Naoise, and Clarise Ooi as Deirdre, photographed by Geoff Lawrence: Creative Futures Photography

The cast of five all delivered committed physical and vocal performances, including some beautiful harmonies. Clarise Ooi brought a bright optimism and steely determination to the role of Deirdre, complemented by Elliot Daniel Gough’s earnest Naoise. Laura Fois was an assured Blathnaid and a suspicious, intimidating Scáthach. Kieran J Evans played a swaggering and brash Conchobar, while Jesse Blachut’s Maigne was more subtle and cunning. Although Evans’ character was the source of much of the overt misogyny and violence in the work, he was also the primary comedic relief, which caused some cognitive dissonance. While Destiny Doomed tried to unspool some big issues around misogyny and feminism it also acknowledged, with some tongue-in-cheek lyrics, the limitations of doing so in a musical format with simplified characters.

Jesse Blachut as Maigne and Kieran J Evans as Conchobar, photographed by Geoff Lawrence: Creative Futures Photography

With a unique outdoor performance venue, a committed cast, and a catchy original score, Destiny Doomed saw a tragic heroine wrenching back control of her destiny, reborn from Deirdre of the Sorrows into Deirdre Dragonheart.

Destiny Doomed will play at Musgrave Park, South Brisbane, from 29 September – 8 October 2022.

For ticketing and further information, visit the Observatory Theatre website

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