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Staging Ireland’s Darkest Scenes

25 Aug

It is now over one year since the Commission to Enquire into Child Abuse in Ireland, under the direction of Justice Sean Ryan, delivered its report to the Irish state. Culturally and artistically, there has been an obvious dearth of reaction and interaction with the findings of the enquiry into child abuse in state care.  However, earlier this year the Abbey Theatre commissioned The Darkest Corner, a series to present and disseminate the words, testimony and to bear witness to the findings of what has become known as the ‘Ryan Report’. This series has long since concluded and the fallout from the National Theatre tackling these issues must be examined. What exactly did it achieve and what did it mean for this series to be on our national stage?

Combining docu-theatre, readings and discussions, the Darkest Corner at the Abbey takes its name from a statement issued by then Taoiseach Brian Cowen in describing where the enquiry and subsequent report now left Ireland, morally and socially – a dark corner indeed.

The Darkest Corner is, as Artistic Director of the Abbey Theatre, Fiach McConghail described, “the duty and necessity of a national theatre. The months following the publication of the Ryan Report were filled with anger, frustration and a choking realisation that the Abbey simply must respond. Months of discussion between myself and Aideen Howard (Literary Director at the Abbey Theatre) and with artists such as Mannix Flynn, and journalist Mary Raftery strengthened the Abbey’s resolve to respond. It become not a matter of will the Abbey respond, but in what format and how?” McConghail states how one result of The Darkest Corner is the realisation that the Ryan Report is not the be all and end all. “The report is merely one aspect of a nation taking ownership for a shameful past. It is hard to avoid the fact that the Report is fundamentally flawed.”

An effective and vital component of the Darkest Corner was the inclusion of talks and lectures with the artists involved and this allowed a public forum to debate critical issues. Vibrant and emotional comments and feedback were inherent, particularly from Bruce Arnold, who discussed the Politics of Abuse. Arnold likened the industrial school system in Ireland to the Gulags of Russia and stated how after Independence in Ireland, post 1920’s, the U.K. and Ireland fatally diverged in its treatment of these schools. Arnold described reports such as the Kennedy report into the state of Irish residential schools in 1970 as a “whitewash and an amazing piece of chicanery by Church and State and blatantly denied all culpability for abuse of countless innocent children”

Mary Raftery, in devising No Escape, utilised a docu-theatre format in a chilling fashion in bearing witness and in presenting the Ryan Report itself. The Report may have contributed subsequent actions towards dismantling and removing of abusive senior clerics, it was unable however, to dent in any form the political establishment. The Darkest Corner acutely picks up on this through Bruce Arnold, through No Escape and also through Mannix Flynn.

It was interesting and representative of what The Darkest Corner could achieve that Flynn’s first appearance on the Abbey stage was as a speaker and not as a performer. Flynn spoke candidly and personally about Issues of Institutionalisation. He described how as a society Ireland has been institutionalised by blind obedience and fear of anything ‘other’, with all true emotion and sense of love condemned to the point that a child represents only pure sin. There is and was no questioning, only fear. Now, Flynn evangelised, is the time for recourse and redress. Cultural means is but one aspect of this address.

Flynn’s performance of James X focused on a further result of The Darkest Corner, that being class issues. This distinction emphasises that the Ryan report was met with a more concerted and middle class response that the Murphy report was. The Abbey itself could be seen as a venue traditionally associated with middle-class theatre goers. Paddy Doyle, author of The God Squad, makes the point that The Darkest Corner or any of its parts did not essentially need the Abbey to stage these works. He or any group would have read the Ryan Report on any street in Ireland, claimed Doyle.  Doyle who is confined to a wheelchair felt betrayed as the Peacock theatre at the Abbey is not wheelchair accessible, thus negating his presence from any performance of his own testimony.

Doyle, speaking as a person who has submitted private testimony to the Commission was outraged at his story and the testimony of so many others being portrayed on stage, regardless of the intended message of resolution. It raises the question, is Irish theatre able to take on these issues and is it fair to do so? Whatever the answer, the work must be profound, it must focus on healing and must be inclusive to all.

Cultural representation and reflection has obvious roles to play in assisting a people come to terms with absorbing and processing the immense trauma that abuse can inflict on a child. It is crucial that any cultural and artistic address is relevant, accurate and with the expressed wishes of those whose words matter most – the survivors of abuse. The journey for Ireland and its people to truly address this issue is arduously long and the Abbey, as Flynn said, is not a bad place to begin it. All are agreed that we have not even begun to process or comprehend what has happened to generations of Irish children. The Abbey may have failed with regard to disabled access but it did succeed in refusing to continue living in shadows and talking in whispers. A national theatre must beat at the same pulse of its people. It must be at the front line and it must get over the barricades in order to get there and must act as a conduit for change and reform.

For The Darkest Corner to be really judged, it is up to the audience, as citizens, to accept the testimony as truth, act towards justice and forcefully deconstruct the collective amnesia, all the while remembering Paddy Doyle’s words of: “Nothing about us, without us.

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