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Something Borrowed, Something Blue. . .New Voices at the Abbey Theatre

Aideen Howard, Bryan Delaney and the New Playwrights programme group

If the stage of the Abbey Theatre is seen as the heart of the National theatre, then its Literary Department is very much the pulse. Tucked away on the upper floors of the Abbey Street theatre, the Literary Department is very much a haven for new writers, for new stories and for new voices. Aideen Howard, Literary Director, talks to Barry Houlihan and Writing.ie about the work of the Literary Department, about supporting new plays and new playwrights and about finding that new voice in Irish theatre.

For the rest of this interview from writing.ie please click here

 
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Posted by on September 9, 2011 in Abbey Theatre, Theatre

 

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Translations: New Adventures in Language

Following the successful original 1980 production and subsequent tour of Translations by Field Day Theatre Company, Tom Paulin stated afterwards in 1983:

“The history of language is a story of possession and dispossession, territorial struggle and the establishment or imposition of a culture.”

Few plays and fewer playwrights have stirred the question of’ Irishness’ and nationhood as much as Translations by Brian Friel. Since it was staged all of thirty years ago, the first production of the fledgling Field Day Theatre Company, it has become synonymous with the Irish obsession with language, connection to home and to the landscape in which that home is situated.

Denis Conway and Aaran Monaghan. Image courtesy of Abbey Theatre

Translations was written in the shadow and direct backdrop of the Northern Ireland Troubles. Friel, himself a Derry-born Catholic, experienced life on the front-line of this turbulent and bloody time. The political nature of Translations has perhaps taken on a life of its own outside of its intended level of intervention. Friel has often set on record that Translations is not a political play but is only about language. While Friel may have chosen to defuse the situation and down play the political and Nationalist fervour the play has come to be associated with, this is not so readily achievable.

It was unthinkable for many in 1980 to foresee an Ireland that would have later see a Downing Street Declaration, a Good Friday Agreement, a power-sharing executive. Now, thirty years since Translations was premiered by Field Day Theatre Company in the imposing Guild Hall in Derry, for so many it is unthinkable how very real the fear, violence and sectarianism was in the North. Today’sIreland is one more attuned to peace but still tragically not immune to violence. The murder of RIC Constable Ronan Kerr and British army soldiers at Mesereence Barracks have provoked an outpouring and committed resolve for peace in the face of those deluded few who insist on failed violent means.

Translations tackled the question of language like no other play in Irish theatre. Friel recognised that while land and connection to home, wherever that may be, can actually be superseded by a truer from of identity: how we express and communicate. While the threat of violence, eviction and also references to the Great Famine hung over the village of Ballybeg, the idea of knowing one’s identity and place through words rather than physical landscape is the true essence and beauty of this play. As Manus taunts his father Hugh following the ‘standardisation’ of the local place-names, he says: “Will you be able to find your way?”

Friel’s contribution to the identity question surrounding ‘Irishness’ on both sides of the border has been explored in depth in Translations but also in his other ‘language’ plays – Making History and Faith Healer. Friel’s use of the colloquial and local dialogue and speech creates entirely real worlds where his characters are reflections of the society and place that has shaped them. Many similarities along this point can be also be seen in the work of playwright Billy Roche, who has become as synonymous with finding a connection to the thoughts and language of the people of his native Wexford as Friel found with people in the North of Ireland.

If by Fintan O’Toole’s definition of a ‘Powerplay’ – a work being political, challenging and reflective of society and identity, then perhaps Translations is the ‘Powerplay’. It is also crucial to consider, is it just a powerplay of it’s own time? And can it still carry such an impact on today’s audiences as it did in 1980’s Derry? Translations does still have much to offer contemporary Ireland. Earlier this year, the visit by Queen Elizabeth II allowed for a mass re-evaluation of the colonial relationship between Ireland and Great Britain. Our own ability to recognise this visit as one head of state visiting a global equal as opposed to a colonial satellite was key to the mature and considered welcome Queen Elizabeth received. Recent revisions of works such as the Playboy of the Western World in a version by Roddy Doyle and Bisi Adigan put that classic story on a modern footing in contemporary Dublin and explored how immigration was shaping Ireland and the actions, thoughts and words of its people. Also works by The Company, including Who is Fergus Kilpatrick and As You Are Now So Once Were We, go to new levels in exploring questions of connection to place, city, country and the individual. The Company took this challenge to completely new territory, moving outside of the traditional literary text and engaged technologies, forms and ideas that turn the questions of place and language on its axis.

Translations will rightly be a classic of it’s time and also any time. Its original staging in the Guild Hall in Derry will be remembered as being one the most powerful symbols of how theatre can reflect and present society as well as crossing boundaries that traditional communication cannot. It is a fantastic opportunity to see the powerplay once again on the national stage. It also affords us the opportunity to consider the next generation of powerplays and guess at where they will come from and what they will focus on. As Hugh says in the closing scenes of Translations; “We must never cease renewing those images; because when we do, we fossilise.”

Translations is on the Abbey Theatre Stage until Saturday 13th August. www.abbeytheatre.ie

 

 

 
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Posted by on August 9, 2011 in Abbey Theatre, Culture, Theatre

 

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The Fall-Out of Memories – Mercier’s ‘The Passing’ and ‘The East Pier’

“People around here just want to get on with their lives”, offers Steven, played by Andrew Connolly early in Paul Mercier’s new play The Passing, presented in reparatory on the Abbey theatre stage with his other new work The East Pier.  These two new ‘memory plays’ reflect on our contemporary Ireland, the unease and anxiety prevalent in its people and also ponders our connectedness to each other, or lack thereof.

Put simply, these are works for our time. However, they are not strictly of our time. The Passing and The East Pier share themes and ideas that are a continuation and extension of the themes Mercier has explored from the mid-1980s with his play Wasters, where he examined the disinterested youth of a generation of young Irish that were experiencing mass emigration. Here, Mercier presents a suburban middle-class, those who were cloistered in commuter-belt housing estates but today find themselves lost and very much alone socially, politically and economically.

To say these works are ‘recession plays’ or to label them as a direct comment on banking crises would do them a severe injustice. The dreaded words of recession, banks or bonds are never mentioned. That is not what Mercier is getting at here. He says himself “The Passing and The East Pier may be set in contemporary Dublin, amid the wreckage of a bust economy and a visionless future, but “events like the banking crisis, or whatever, happen every day. We’re either flush with [money] or we’re not. These events have been happening since I first began writing in the 1980s. The times then were challenging too. . . Yes. Ordinary life continues regardless of the economic circumstances.” (Mercier in conversation with Sara Keating, IT) Mercier is exploring the fallout of these crises and where they have been felt hardest and that is in the homes of Irish families.

The Passing is set in one such family house that has ceased to be a home.

The Passing. Image courtesy of Abbey Theatre

The Passing. Image courtesy of Abbey Theatre

Catherine enters the home of her childhood and in the process sets off the alarm, she is like an intruder in her own home. We learn that this house has been vacant for some time and is about to be placed on the market. A series of meeting with her siblings ensue, each by chance, none arranged and none of the meetings are that of siblings on good terms. Anthony Lambe’s set is a through-section of the house, from ground floor to roof chimney and allows the audience a vantage point into the private lives of families, usually kept within the walls of their home. Liam, played by Peter Hanley, is the son who stayed at home and who watched his parents grow old and eventually die. He is the executor, a powerful position to hold in a society where the holder of property has previously been the winner.

This is also a key point which Mercier teases at: a house loses any sense of being a home when it is treated solely as ‘a property’. Negative equity should mean less to those who bought a home to live in, be at home in and not to sell or hold simply as a commodity.

Catherine is brilliantly played by Catherine Walsh, one of the best performances you will see this year.  The ‘passing’ implied in the play’s title is played on many levels: the death of father and previous head of this household, the breakdown of the family as members move away and the ‘passing’ of the house itself into the hands of strangers, which Catherine frantically and desperately tries to prevent.

Mercier really hits some excellent notes in this play. In one of the final scenes, where Catherine talks with the neighbour Steven, they discuss how ‘year after year homes give birth to extensions’, they battle with hedges, trees, fences, boxing each other in and moving neighbours further away from each other, retreating back into their ‘improved’ houses.

We never quite learn exactly why this house has such a powerful connection to Catherine given that she ‘abandoned’ it some long years back. This, aligned with the fact that we never fully know enough about the original reasons for Catherine leaving her home or for the lack of communication between her and her siblings do leave gaps in the story. It is still an intriguing piece and forces a revaluation of the current state of Irish community, family and social standings and sets about a point of reconciliation for a new Irish society.

The East Pier is the second new play by Mercier staged at the Abbey. The audience are brought to the lobby of a pier-side hotel in Dublin’s south coast. The decor of Anthony Lamb’s hotel is aged but clean, worn and now tacky and out-dated. It perfectly accentuates the passing of time from when the hotel was a hub of life and social meetings instead of present day when not even staff are present. These sea-side hotels were once booked-solid for summer getaways but this of course was before the norm of exotic foreign holidays.

Kevin, a plainly suited business-man enters, slightly nervous and waiting for someone. Jean, soon follows. She is also suited in the garb of the successful business woman. It quickly becomes evident these two have a connection and a story that goes far beyond a chance business meeting.

Idle chit-chat is exchanged, job titles, services, husbands, wives, children, the usual ‘elevator talk’ to pass a moment.

Don Wycherly. Image courtesy of Abbey Theatre

Soon, Jean and Kevin are talking about past encounters that one or either remembers while the other can’t recollect. Mercier masterfully controls this outpouring of experience and memory. His direction keeps the dialogue flowing as one delves into their memories of school, youth, summers, debs, embraces, walks and ideas of elopement. While the other might not always remember the exact details, the place or people present, the key is Kevin or Jean have never forgotten each other. Blanks in memories give way to floods of emotions and remembered embraces. Were these deliberately forgotten however?  The fractured lives of this couple and their changed directions mean things seldom follow the path they envisage.

Don Wycherly has been one of the consistently brilliant actors anywhere in Ireland over the last number of years and this is to be no exception. He carries his devotion to his children, to his business and his clients with an innate vulnerability. Andrea Irvine also excels as she portrays Jean who is visibly hurt by Kevin in a former life. There is genuine connection between the two, albeit in the face of years spent apart and spent wondering.

Paul Mercier has done something extremely interesting here. By working with memory and recollection he has ironically created two pieces that deal with the present. He presents Ireland as it stands today, broken, lacking guidance, stung and struggling in the fallout from its memories of happier times.

See www.abbeytheatre.ie for further details.

 
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Posted by on April 14, 2011 in Abbey Theatre, Culture, Theatre

 

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Moving toward a new ‘Theatre of Crisis’.

For the past few months world news has been dominated by sweeping revolution across the Arab world. It has been incredible to witness the youth of Egypt, Tunisia, Bahrain and most recently Lybia take to the streets in protest and in a unified voice declaring change is both wanted and needed. With these events in mind, it is interesting to note how and where theatre and the arts are responding to these seminal moments of political and social upheaval.

Throughout the Middle East and North Africa despotic regimes have been challenged and toppled by what has popularly become known as ‘Facebook Revolutions’. The disenfranchised and un-institutionalised youth took the stop forward to initiate change. Ideas and debates spread and were disseminated through social networks, beyond regional and national boundaries and it would be a natural reaction that revolution would be born. The key ingredient was information.  Now, in the instant wake of these events, it is the reactive agency of theatre that can assess and respond to these seismic social upheavals.

The power of theatre as a tool to astutely capture and represent social shifts is in its immediacy. It can capture the rawness, the tragic and the hope. The role of theatre as a conduit for independent thought and resulting change is not lost on the current crises the world has faced.

Seven Jewish Children by Caryl Churchill

Seven Jewish Children

Playwrights such as Caryl Churchill penned and saw produced her work Seven Jewish Children in the immediate wake of the 2008-2009 Israel military strike on Gaza. It was first performed at London’s Royal Court Theatre on 6th February 2009. This play was also staged at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin at a free performance in March 2009. The Abbey would again return to the barricades when it staged a season of works to reflect on the national crises of institutional abuse of Irish children. The Darkest Corner was a brave and also disturbing account of the torture these forgotten children endured. An interesting note is the play reflecting on the complex Gaza/Israel issue was staged almost immediately and in time with the conflict. The Darkest Corner would follow a full year after the publication of the report of “the Commission to Enquire into Child Abuse in Ireland”.

No Escape at the Peacock Theatre

No Escape, image courtesy of The Abbey Theatre

The question of timing such plays is tricky. Stage the work too soon and it can lose its focus and become overtly emotionally or politically aligned with a certain cause or side. Stage the work too late and the real immediacy and impact of a work will also be distorted. On the recent RTE documentary series From Stage to Street, Prof. Chris Morash made the point regarding the original staging of the Plough and the Stars at the Abbey Theatre in February 1926: The Plough and the Stars was written and staged ten years after the 1916 Rising and still provoked near riots. It is the equivalent, Morash said, of a play being staged today depicting the firemen of New York in the aftermath of 9/11 acting in a drunken stupor and cavorting with prostitutes in brothels. This incredibly astute observation opens up debate on when indeed are we as a society and audience ready to engage with the fall out of such global events.

This also raises another question. What form, should this ‘Theatre of Protest’ take? Mary Raftery’s No Escape, produced as part of The Darkest Corner series, took the form of ‘verbatim’ or documentary theatre. This form is possibly the purest in content as it is the words, and solely the words, of a particular group or viewpoint, retold verbatim. It is a hugely powerful form of theatre and engages an audience with the primary source rather than news stories or political spin.

Staging works as world events are unfolding does allow a unique viewpoint. Theatres become agents of debate and information but perhaps this is inevitably to the detriment of artistic and dramatic thought and creativity. The normal processes of creativity involve the gestation of an idea, reaction to thought, a play is written, a theatre is found to stage it, an audience witnesses it and reaction begins. Creating a play in reaction to a particular crisis and watching it gel with its cast, see its form change and keep up with world events is a radical departure from the traditional.

Closer to home, can we pinpoint a specific new play or work staged professionally or otherwise in Ireland that adequately tackles the demise of Irish society in the crash of our economic sovereignty? There are few.  Fewer works look at the involvement of the Irish in international conflict situations, such as, international peace keeping missions for which they have been highly commended for decades. Works such as Colin Teevan’s How Many Miles to Basra and others that comprised the Bearing Witness series at the Abbey Theatre commemorating the 60th anniversary of the Declaration of Human Rights in December 2008 are excellent and notable exceptions to the lack of debate, pushing the Abbey Theatre once more to the front of reaction to international conflict.

Love and  money at Project Arts Centre

Love and Money

Looking back on March 2008, The Project Arts Centre staged Dennis Kelly’s Love and Money which was a stylish and slick production that examined the high-capitalist, materialist classes emerging in London. At the very precipice of Irish and global financial crisis, the Project Arts Centre was critiquing and commenting on the very greed and fiscal incompetency that set forth to shatter our national sovereignty.

Internationally, works such as Black Watch by the Scottish National Theatre, produced at the 2008 Ulster Bank Dublin Theatre Festival and Tony Kushner’s Homebody read at the Abbey Theatre in March 2003 highlighted the impact and power these reactive works infused on their audiences. Conflict and immediate reaction to conflict has been relevant to the Irish stage and has been more than important and essential to understanding the global consequences of these actions.

Now, in North Africa and the Middle East, revolution has taken the form of Web 2.0.We have witnessed protests on stage. Is it now time for the crisis to be put on stage? This means engaging directly with the event and making a response relevant and which creates debate and understanding. If the highest role of theatre is citizenship then a new ‘Theatre of Crisis’ may be needed to match the experience of its audience. Theatre makers must keep up with the pace of this revolution. The thought, energy and emotions are palpable as the world looks on. If we keep looking without engaging, the real threat is that it can pass us by. The stakes are that high.

 

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As You Are Now So Once Were We

Do you feel like you know Dublin? Really know it? Do you walk the same route along the same streets every day? Is your morning routine so rigid that it almost feels like you are repeating it, on loop, day in day out? Get up at the same time, go to the bathroom, eat breakfast at the same table with the same people and then go out the same door, together.

The Company

Are you in a routine so much that it feels like you are less in a real world and more in a rehearsal? This award winning work (Best Production, Absolut Fringe 2010) by the Company takes this ideas of ‘a day in the life’ and also taking inspiration from James Joyce’s Ulysses tracks the journey of each of the four characters from waking in the morning to their journey through Dublin City to the Peacock theatre where they must stage their new work, whatever that may be.

The Company members Rob, Tanya, Nyree and Brian play heightened characterised versions of themselves. The Peacock stage has seldom looked so open as Dublin City and its buildings and ‘box towers’ are represented by sweetly choreographed large cardboard boxes. The opening sequence where the ‘set-up’ of the stage is played out before you like a manic session of lego building.

The audience are taken on a virtual walking tour of Dublin, where streets, sights, smells and places are all name-checked. The concept of associating certain foods and smells with certain places in the city is reminiscent of scenes from Joyce’s book. The idea of ‘rehearsal’ is examined throughout the work as pieces are replayed, altered and replayed again. The story of Paddy Dignam is one such case. If time can be slowed, stalled and replayed, the question of intervention crops up, where all of us are in a social media-led, isolated bubble which leaves less time for actual human contact as simple as a hug as we concentrate more on virtual ‘poking’. The irony is not lost that as crowds pulse through the city streets as we are hell bent on getting from A to B without knowing what is actually around us.

As You Are Now So Once Were We. Image courtesy of the Abbey Theatre

The work is extremely humorous, the in-jokes and deliberate over-reacting, I thought, gave a particular aspect which I believe can easily be lost in a work of this form and that is a connection with the audience and a commitment to entertain and engage. I imagine it to be the only work at the national theatre to refer to its Artistic Director Fiach McConghail as ‘The F-Bomb!”

The influence and direction by Jose Miguel Jimenez, who was seated in the audience, plays no small part in the production as he strives to keep the whole concept of time – the moment and our place in that moment – fluid and on track. With As You Are Now… Jimenez has justified the much hype about his ideas and abilities. He, along with the Company, really have set Irish theatre ablaze with a new, exciting and unique brand of work.

What grated me somewhat were not the themes of the play, or its perhaps piggybacking-use and reference to Ulysses but actually what I heard and read from numerous others who saw this work. Yes, the Company are brash, yes, they are riding a huge wave of success and have big ideas and are experimenting with new forms that are not everyone’s ‘thing’ or within their comfort zone of theatre with a straight narrative. The Company are good, and they know it. But is this really a bad thing? It still means they are good! And when they are good, they are very good.

As You Once Were Now So Once Were We runs on the Peacock stage at the Abbey until 5 February.

Meet the members of the Company in conversation with theatre critic Peter Crawley at the Abbey, post-show, Wednesday 2 February.

 
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Posted by on January 29, 2011 in Abbey Theatre

 

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Round up of the week’s news and events, 15 Oct 2010

Yet another busy week and here is a round-up of some goings on at home and abroad that came across the desk of Staged Reaction in the past week.

  • Two major exhibitions and archive events are taking place in Limerick. Photographs taken by Franz Sebastian Haselbeck, which went on display at the Museum Hunt include pictures of Home Rule meetings, farmers’ demonstrations and meetings of volunteers leading up to the War of Independence.
    In another ceremony in Limerick yesterday, the diaries and photographs of Cecil Mercier, a former manager at Ranks Mills for over 40 years were presented to the Limerick City Archives. Limerick City Archivist, Jacqui Hayes, said it was an important addition to the city archives because Ranks Mills had such an impact on the economic and social development of Limerick.  Read more: http://tinyurl.com/3xme87j

 

  • Corn Exchange Theatre Company are receiving sell out performances for their production of Freefall. Nothing new there you might rightly say. Well, these performances are in Mexico! Corn Exchange are taking part in the celebration of 200 years since Mexico’s independence and have set up residence in the city of Guanajuato. Reports so far from Corn Exchange say they are the first Irish company to perform in Mexico for forty years. Here is a video promo for Freefall. http://tinyurl.com/2wc4qm7 http://www.cornexchange.ie/index.php

 

  • This Saturday 16th October at 4pm the artist Gerard Mannix Flynn will give a talk about his work and practice at Dialogue Art Space, 43A Vyner Street, London E2 9DQ. Flynn’s talk will focus on the politics and culture of the ‘performance of inclusion’, a cause which he has championed through his art, his theatre and his work as a councillor. Always engaging and always powerful, Flynn commands his audience’s attention. http://tinyurl.com/35f5qwj

 

  • The Abbey Theatre will tour to New York early next year when Frank McGuinness’s John Gabriel Borkman will be staged at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. 12 Jan – 6 Feb 2011. McGuinness’s version of the cautionary tale by Henrik Ibsen is proving a huge success as part of the Dublin Theatre Festival and is proving a huge point of interest for eager audiences at the Brooklyn Academy. http://tinyurl.com/2wyfvny

 

  • Next week is Research Week at NUI Galway. Numerous events are taking place to mark this new event to promote new digital research resources and research and archive collection held by the NUIG James Hardiman Library and Archives. ARAN and RIAN are programmes that allow access to research at NUI Galway and a single portal for national research containing resources from the seven Irish universities and DIT. A series of talks and seminars are planned to help you maximise your research across all disciplines.

             http://www.library.nuigalway.ie/support/supportforresearchers/researchweek/

  • Irish Museum of modern Art (IMMA) will launch a new exhibition marking the contribution and works of Irish modernist artists and explore the development of modernity in Ireland through the visual arts in the period 1900 to 1975. Professor Luke Gibbons will hold a lecture to mark this event next Tuesday 19th October at IMMA, Peripheral Visions: Rethinking Irish Modernism, which explores the transformations of visual culture in relation to Irish modernism and the Revival. http://www.modernart.ie/en/page_212281.htm

 

  • A letter to The Irish Times this week highlighted the plight of the former residents of the Bethany Houses who suffered in these homes and suffered in their lives outside the homes. Exempt, like the Magdalene’s, from the 2002 Redress Board, a new resurgent call for all complete archives and records of these institutions and people be made available to scrutiny and research.

             http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/letters/2010/1014/1224281062031.html

  • Finally, a national broadcaster has recently used a song as a backing track on a programme advertisement. The 1970 track, The Revolution will not be Televised by Gill Scott Heron is an aptly timed use of a powerful call to a people to stand up and be heard. An anthem certainly for our time and certainly worth a listen.
 

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Staging Ireland’s Darkest Scenes

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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“No Escape” – Documentary Theatre at the Peacock

No Escape, Peacock Theatre

What was on stage last night at the opening performance of No Escape was not drama. There was not a cast in the traditional sense, there was no true playwright.  It was truth and it was documentary. Award-winning journalist Mary Raftery was commissioned by the Abbey Theatre to write and produce a work in response to Justice Sean Ryan’s chilling report into child abuse in Ireland’s residential schools. Raftery, instead of ‘writing’ a piece in response gave the audience something different; she gave them the Ryan Report itself.  From the outset it is a unique and unsettling event at the National Theatre. The front of house welcome urges the nervous audience to “enjoy the show”, as unlikely as that is.

The first voice you hear is of Lorcan Cranitch, dressed in a neat and dark suit, he resembles a host of a prime time current affairs program, or perhaps an undertaker. In either guise, he has chilling news to deliver. The set is a maze of glass walls and mesh frames. Behind each those who were interviewed by the Commission to Enquire into Child Abuse in Ireland deliver accounts of their experiences of abuse and of outright fear at the hands of theses State and Church run schools. The dimly lit, obscurely visible and somewhat muted accounts resemble a feeling of being in the confession box. The mesh and lack of light protecting the anonymity of those speaking.

Cranitch delivers a roll-call of abuse, a litany of crimes perpetrated against innocent children. Weapons of every conceivable element were used to inflict pain, chastisement and fear into those who were already stripped of innocence or anything resembling a childhood. “If you cried you got worse, so I learned not to cry” recounts a trembling Michelle Forbes. Yard brushes, wooden spoons, horse tackle, garden tools, leather straps, chair legs, crucifixes, not to mention the foot, fist or worse as methods of delivering pain on a daily basis.

Elenor Methven is astounding and all too visceral in her portrayal as she visibly hurts in telling of beatings received and years lost as a child. Jane Brennan, Eamon Hunt, Jonathon White and Donal O’Kelly take on multiple roles from children to priests, nuns, Brothers, inspectors and keep a steady flow and rhythm to Raftery’s documentary account. Yet, one is always acutely aware that these are actors merely relaying words of the true victims. While the acting is never truly in question in this work, it is possibly beyond the repertoire of any actor to faithfully portray the stifling fear and horrific memories that haunt all survivors of abuse to this day. The words of the Ryan Report take centre stage here. “You couldn’t tell anyone, but who would believe you anyway”.

Archive boxes of case files are routinely dropped on stage with the files within exhumed and recounted by Cranitch. A back drop of archive boxes piled to the ceiling provide a sickening irony given that it is the very lack of documented evidence and cover up of cases of abuse that facilitated this climate of fear and culture of abuse.

It was an interesting point as the documentary, as it is not a play, drew to a close. Acts of kindness received by children in these institutions were recounted. However this ‘kindness’ was also tinged with a dark cloud. “That Brother would not shout or beat us as the others did, I’l always remember him for that.” The last action of this piece was an empty stage where Cranitch appeared and dropped the 2,700 page, 6 volume, Ryan Report onto the front and centre of the stage. The deafening thud and nervous silence that followed was a fitting end to this truly unique night at the National Theatre.

Mary Raftery, Author of "no Escape".

 

As part of “The Drakest Corner” series at the Abbey Theatre, you can meet the makers of “No Escape” at a talk at the Abbey on Thursday 15th April. Tickets 3 Euro. Contact Abbey box office. www.abbeytheatre.ie

Meet the makers of "No Escape" at the Abbey Theatre

 

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Theatre at the Barricades

 “A national theatre’s place is the stage, not the barricades”, argues Mick Heaney in his article (Sunday Times, Culture, 14 Mar 2010) The barricades of which Heaney speaks are those which are currently heaving under the weight of angered and frustrated people who have felt the smothering hand of recession in Ireland the most.  The Irish air-waves and television screens are buzzing with outcry and disbelief directed at the constant surfacing of scandals to hit our banks, corporate boardrooms, clergy and churches. While many feel a saturation point has long been surpassed in relation to round-the-clock coverage to recession themed programming and chilling tales of abuse of power and innocence, a public without an expressed voice and opinion has little chance of beginning to rectify what has brought about these unprecedented times.

Since Fiach MacConaghail took over from Ben Barnes as Artistic Director of the Abbey Theatre, he immediately sought to right what he and many others saw as the misdirection the Abbey had previously taken. Debts were rising and audiences flagging. MacConaghail believed that the national theatre should be pulsing at the same rate of the heart of the people. It is the people who make a country what it is. They are who live, study, work, rear families and, yes, also vote within a country. While there is scarcely an individual in Ireland who has not felt the pangs of economic readjustment, it is WE who elected and re-elected a government who rode the highest crest of an economic tidal wave but with seldom a thought to this wave turning into a thunderous tsunami and have it crash on our shores. Public opinion towards government during the Boom years was of indifference and of the laziest type of Laissez-Faire. Now, the national theatre has tried to reinvigorate public debate and opinion and the state of the nation and on our political, social and economic state.

The program of productions at the Abbey and indeed in Irish theatre for the last number of months have been dominated by political responsive works. Even earlier, in April 2009, Love and Money written by Dennis Kelly and produced at the Project Arts Centre foretold an eerily cautionary tale of consumerism based on a high credit-subsidised level that can and will lead to ruin of self, sanity and relationships. The work produced by Hatch theatre company received strong reviews, notably for the roles played by Kate Brennan and Barry Ward and acted as a warning light for what would arrive in the near future in our news headlines but also in our theatres.

Love and Money, image courtesy of Project Arts Centre

The stages of Irish theatres would soon be awash with political works and, counter to the argument made by Mick Heaney, most were extremely strong pieces of drama, extremely well written, produced and acted. Dublin-born playwright Conall Quinn has this year been awarded the Stewart Parker Trust Award, a prestigious recognition of new writing and writers. His play, The Death of Harry Leon performed in the fantastic Smock Alley theatre in January 2009 was a counter factual drama that portrayed an Ireland that had aligned itself with German Fascism in the 1930’s and 1940’s and also alluded to Irish political and military elements active at the time. Quinn asks tough questions about national identity, racial prejudice and distorted ideology that are as much present today as they are in the past. Fintan O’Toole described this work as “terrifically courageous. It does what political theatre should do, taking real risks in order to provoke new thoughts.” The Parker trust recognises Quinn as a writer of brave, thought rendering and powerful drama, which also happens to be political in its tone and resonance.

Conall Quinn at Smock Alley Theatre. Image Courtesy of Irish Times

Therein lies a critical distinction. The elements that make up a well written, well produced and well acted drama should not be diminished or treated as “other” simply because they are political in essence. Thought provoking work on the social, ethical, financial and legislative failures of our government and citizens should not be dismissed in favour of those which steer clear of civic significance. For too long a lack of public debate and discussion on the failures within Irish moral society and business have facilitated a culture of abuse on astounding levels. If theatre and the arts do not take up the mantle of removing the cloak cast upon many aspects of Irish society then there is a very real risk that actions can continue underneath it unabated. Business as usual.

On January 30th 1961, a new play The Evidence I Shall Give was premiered at the Abbey Theatre. Written by a district court Judge, Richard Johnson, the play dealt with, quiet openly, the abuse and fear that prevailed in Irish institutional schools and Magdalene Laundries. Frustrated by the restraint in the Irish Judicial system in dealing with cases of abuse on young people within these state sanctioned homes and the indifference that was also evident among Irish families and parishes, Johnson honed his craft as a writer and used the powerful ally of the stage to create a public awareness and view of self accountability in the face of these systemic and moral failings.

The play had an initial run of 42 performances, quite a substantial run for any work on the Abbey stage by a debutant playwright. More startling was that the play received another 42 performances from 10 July 1961, a further 6 shows on 6 July 1961 and yet another run of 21, 9 and 6 performances on 1 August, 18 September and 9 October 1961 respectively. This run totals 126 performances. This equates to The Evidence I Shall Give being on the Abbey Stage for roughly one third of the calendar year. This was at a time when the Second Vatican Council was still meeting in re-evaluating its Catholic doctrine and role of its Bishops. Johnson’s belief in the power of theatre and ability to create and provoke sincere debate and thought was not lost on this play, but perhaps lost to some degree by an audience who left the performance behind in the theatre and did not question within themselves the themes of abuse raised by the play.

 Following on from this play, which is being revived currently by a reading at the Abbey as part of its Darkest Corner series, Tom Murphy’s play the Sanctuary Lamp, premiered in 1975 caused ructions and was met by outcry in an Ireland that was still heavily subscribed to a burdening fear of the Mitre. The Project Arts Centre at this time also acted as an outcrop and forum for public discourse and discussion in an otherwise indifferent Irish society to tackling social failures that were hitherto unspeakable.

I can understand Mick Heany’s worry at the Abbey or any theatre becoming merely a soapbox and an outlay to vent frustrations at a weak and floundering government. This does not benefit theatre and should not be its goal. However, for any theatre, be it the national theatre or otherwise, it must first come to terms and recognise the true character of the nation and people it is based in and those whom it represents. This means a thorough and comprehensive overhaul of the states many failures and to once again produce an audience that cares about its theatre, an audience that is strongly willed enough to take stock of their individual failures and create a public forum through powerful drama that can leave an audience thinking and reassessing its beliefs as no other medium can do.

Fiach McConghail, Director of the Abbey Theatre. Image courtesy of University of Limerick

www.abbeytheatre.ie

 

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Culture of Abuse in Irish Society

2009 is a year that will face scrutiny, study but will seldom be lamented. Following its New Years chimes and cheers it brought with it the greatest economic and social upheaval seen worldwide in generations. The collapse of banking systems, credit systems, building and construction were all felt on a global scale and with particular frenzy in Ireland, which hitherto had been the smug centre-fold of a booming society in pictorial.

Along with the collapse of its banks, building sites and high living Ceann Comhairles Ireland suffered a relapse of failure of a different kind – the collapse of its moral and ethical responsibility to its children and those which were most vulnerable in its society. The damming and blisteringly horrific reports of the Commission to Enquire into Child Abuse in Ireland and the Dublin Diocesan Report brought to the surface the rotten core of Ireland’s institutional schools and the suffering inflicted within. ‘A Culture of Abuse’ has become a phrase synonymous with public reaction to the evidence presented by the investigation committee. This culture has extra resonance when superimposed on the abuse of power, expenses and trust that radiated from Leinster House during the Boom years like a fog on a November night.

From the early twentieth century to its closing years those who suffered at the hands of the authorities of Ireland’s institutional schools were preyed upon by clergy that were protected within a society of containment and secrecy. Bruises were blindly ignored, deaf ears were turned to cries and complaints and shame and fear were used as weapons against the children who were “tempting and causing sin against them”. The Catholic Church was itself Arch Primate in Ireland in the early and mid twentieth century. Just behind and to its right hand was a state government who allowed this culture of abuse to permeate and breed. The abuse against children grew worse, more blatant and the secrecy grew likewise.

Those who entered Ireland’s industrial schools did so ‘voluntarily’, by family intervention and by intervention of Gardai and the courts. While a state and church allowed such abuse to continue by not investigating complaints and moving the guilty abusers to new stations, there still remained a self-imposed and maintained smoke screen by an Irish people who were drilled to bow to the mitre. It has been reported how communities and family members were aware to some extent of abuses carried out at Ireland’s Institutional schools and Laundries.

Now, in the immediate aftershock of publication of the Commission to Enquire into Child Abuse in Ireland report and the Dublin Diocesan Report and also the Ferns Diocesan report the evidence is startling but evidence it is. When one stares blankly and in disbelief at the front page of newspaper report or television documentary and asks “Why”, perhaps it would be better to ask “How”. The inmates of Ireland’s Institutional schools and Laundries had families, friends, neighbours and public representatives who did not act bravely enough, strongly enough or with any deliberate speed in response to this abuse. The initial response to these reports has been a blank expression that includes genuine anger, frustration and also disbelief that this happened ‘on their watch’. Well, it did. Reaction in the 1950’s, 1960’s, 1970’s, 1980’s or 1990’s did arrive in some shape and form into the mainstream consciousness, but this reaction was not always heard, viewed or adhered to in time or at all.

The artistic response to abuse in Ireland came when a people and nation were not fully able to comprehend what was ongoing and in their midst. Even still today, reaction to abuse does not always readily afford a tangible realisation of responsibility by public representatives, clergy, bishops or whoever did not intervene. Distance of time does not verify a distance of responsibility or lessen the heinousness of the act.  The memory of those abused in the home or in Institutional care has been explored through a myriad of cultural means. Through theatre, novels, short stories, visual arts, installations and television documentaries, abuse in Ireland was presented to the people to be claimed by their own responsibility, their lack of action but also thus allowing for future action.

Irish theatre is recognisable for being acutely aware of its social responsibility as a cultural and social barometer. It is a particularly visceral performer in informing the public and creating debate and response. On 30th January 1961, The Abbey Theatre produced a world premiere of The Evidence I Shall Give, a play written by Richard Johnson, a district court judge in Kerry, whose son, Richard Jnr, would later succeed to the position of President of the High Court in Ireland. The Evidence I Shall Give is a court room drama telling the story of a young girl who is committed to an Institutional residence as she is considered beyond family care. The play features a heavy-handed Mother Superior who tries to dominate the courtroom proceedings as she does the events within her convent. The constant battle between legal, moral and spiritual responsibility towards the young girl and the indifferent treatment by the Judge to the place of the case is frustratingly all too real in the wake of the recent Commission reports. The triviality with which the girl’s well being is dealt by the State, via the Judge, and by the Church, via the Mother Superior, is damming of the lack of forthright tackling of abuse and the legislation that defended a community to remand unruly children in ‘the protection’ of  Institutional schools.

This play secured an initial performance run of 42 performances; a considerable amount considering this was the first professionally produced play by Johnson at any theatre in Dublin. The play returned to the Abbey stage, interestingly by public demand, in July, August, September and October of 1961 with the total number of productions reaching 126 throughout the year. Basically, this means the play was on stage at the Abbey for a third of the calendar year. More interestingly, it would take nearly fifty years to the month, April 2010, for this play to be revived by the Abbey, a theatre which is not exactly opposed to reproducing works from its past repertoire.  The fact that this play was produced at the Abbey at all is worth consideration. It is, after all, the State theatre of Ireland. The fact that it chose to tackle the evidence of abuse in Ireland long before there was any evidence in the public domain did show a courageous step at a time when the Abbey was under the direction of Ernest Blythe.  The play highlighted the flaws of legislation that did not recognise the abuse permeating within Irish society that did not protect its children and forced those legislators such as Johnson who were aware but frustrated at these inadequacies to turn to cultural means to make the public aware of the evidence and what it could show.

It would be another ten years before another major work investigating abuse in Ireland would be produced on stage.  In August 1971, Journal of a Hole was produced at the Project Arts Centre in Dublin by the SLOT players. This group (St. Lawrence O’Toole’s – the parish of the group’s members) would include the emerging greats in Irish theatre and film such as Jim and Peter Sheridan and Neil Jordan. This play is centred on the abuse suffered by those children resident in Artane Industrial School in Dublin. The play name is a pun on the book Journal of a Soul, the autobiography of Pope John XXIII, who was pope from 1958-63, (covering the period in which Richard Johnson wrote and produced his play The Evidence I Shall Give) This play was a new production on a professional stage within a radical centre and departure within the Irish arts scene. The Project Arts Centre, founded in 1966 and originally only as a three-week project, would nurture and develop young Irish artists, allowing them an outlet and audience for their work they would seldom else get. In conversation with the plays director Peter Sheridan he describes the public reaction to Journal:

“We had a plant in the audience, a fella dressed as a brother who objected to the play at the finale. This as you can imagine caused a great discussion to evolve. Kane archer, the Irish Times critic made reference to the audience member, unaware that he was a plant”.

 The plot of the play would centre on the experience of a member of SLOT players at Artane School and the grim experiences he recounted. Sheridan would describe them vividly:

“I remember two scenes every well. One where he (Robert) crosses the white line the in the playground – it was divided in two between the junior boys and the senior boys – and it was strictly forbidden to cross the line. Robert chases after a ball and the brother catches him. He digs him on the nose and it starts to bleed. He sends him off to wash it at the yard tap. He comes back to show the brother. There is still a drop of blood on his face. He gets another dig for his trouble. That level of physical cruelty was endemic in Artane but it was also prevalent in national schools, too. Serious physical abuse was a daily thing and there was an extraordinary tolerance of this among the Irish population.

The real deal of Artane was being taken away from your parents. So it operated effectively as a prison for children. Robert was sent there for mitching. Others were sent for stealing or breaking the law. It housed a population of orphans too.

The other unforgettable scene was the punishment for bed wetting. The offenders were made to stand by their beds if they persisted in wetting. They were roused during the night. If wet, they were hauled from their beds and kept standing all night. Chronic offenders were then made to wear a nappy and they had to come in to class in the nappy. This must have been humiliating in the extreme”.

This play was an indication by a new generation of artists and theatre professionals that they were not following on in the shadow of their past generation by bowing to the smokescreen and culture of secrecy that had lain forcibly around abuse in Irish society. Further works by Sheridan such as No Entry premiered at the Project Arts Centre on 16 March 1976 and again tackled the prevailing violence perpetrated against young people in Ireland. The fact that the Project Arts Centre was staging these works is striking as just over ten years previously the state theatre, the Abbey theatre was staging works investigating institutional and clerical abuse. These ten years had also shown that these works had changed from being a an expose piece, i.e. highlighting for the first time a cultural depiction of abuse, to what would become in the early and mid 1970s a reactionary piece in taking to a new level what had previously briefly broken through the culture of containment.

A group of young, energetic and socially aware artists active in 1970’s and 1980’s were at times in conflict and contrast with the theme and tone of work produced and also at odds with the audience that attended their works. Mannix Flynn was an inmate at Artane Industrial School in Dublin. He later became an actor and artist and was part of the Project Arts Centre troupe and was a cast member of the Journal of a Hole production. Flynn would become an important artist whose work focused on his memory and experience of abuse and time spent in Artane Industrial School. His works include theatre, visual art, installations and writing and produce a body of work that is instinctive of the necessary cultural response to the gamut of containment and coercion in Irish society.

 In conversation with Flynn he speaks passionately, personally and openly about his work, his art and why he refuses to produce art simply ‘for art’s sake’ or to suit the style and ‘safe’ art often produced for commercial reasons. The challenge of his work, he says, is ‘how you reflect on something that is not cultural to begin with, by cultural means’?  He speaks of class divides and being recognised as not just an artist but as ‘the artist that was abused’. Flynn chooses to produce the work he does not in order to shock or grate. If this is a response from an audience member then that, he says, ‘is down to the individual comfort levels and own security’. In Artane, comfort levels did not exist. Extallations such as Remains Unknown and installations such as Padded Cell provoke a public discourse that has been remarkably silent regarding a cultural response to abuse.

Flynn also discusses how the reports published by the Commission to Enquire into Child Abuse and Dublin Diocesan reports colloquially came to be called The Ryan Report and Murphy Report respectively. “This diminishes the impact of the reports considerably. The media have distorted the report titles leaving them with an attached personality of which it was not intended to have.” They are reports to investigate Abuse. Now they are simply ‘Ryan’ and ‘Murphy’, again hiding the word abuse from the mouths and eyes of Irish people. We are afraid to think and speak this word, acknowledging the role played by those in facilitating fear and containment in society.

Along with the artists and staff of Far Cry Productions Flynn has produced an extremely strong piece of performance entitled James X. This one man performance depicts the story of James O’Neill who now in his forties stands before the High Court to testify to the ill-treatment by agents of church and state. The interplay between the written accounts, archive documents and personal oral testimony from James presents not just the ordeal that children suffered within residential schools but also an indication of the failures and collective cruelties of the Irish church, state, people and government. James is presented with a file that tracks his entire life but this represents him as a number and not a child with rights and needs irrespective of class and entitlement. The file is representive of how the State views James, as a figure within a repressive system and not as soul that was mistreated and forgotten.

The Abbey Theatre has come forward with a Spring program entitled The Darkest Corner dealing specifically with abuse. Thomas Kilroy’s commissioned play Christ Deliver Us, a play inspired by German dramatist Frank Wedekind’s 1891 piece, Spring Awakening tackles the Irish society that in the 1950’s was often judged to be patrimonial and introvert in its familial duties.

Mary Raftery, the journalist who shattered so much of the silence and broke down so much of the secrecy regarding abuse with her documentary research including States of Fear and Suffer the Little Children, has produced a new piece called  No Escape. This program also includes the aforementioned works The Evidence I Shall Give and James X by Mannix Flynn.

David Scott, director and teacher, has produced a work with his own theatre group Company D, entitled Skinners which also presents a middle aged former inmate of an industrial school who stands before the Redress Board and recounts his experience. The play written by Michael Kennedy and Directed by Scott is cleverly produced using flash back sequences to truly deafening and bruising scenes of violence suffered by a young Michael Cleere. The devise of having the barrister and judge of the redress board take on the robes of Brothers and priests and with it a vengeful and insecure fury during the flashback scenes is extremely effective in signifying the ongoing frustration felt by those going before the courts and battling legislation.

In early 2010, commercial collapse and banking crises still lie entrenched on our media headlines. The Commissions to Enquire into Child Abuse in Ireland, The Dublin Diocesan Report, the Ferns Report, the Redress Board and the fact of a lack of official response regarding the equally horrific experience of Ireland’s Magdalenes, continues to highlight the dumb mouth with which abuse in Ireland is dealt with. However, there appears to be a glimmer of hope. There seems now a concentrated and relevent response and reaction to this abuse. Ireland’s artists, actors, writers and journalists are battling a formidable foe in the form of a culture of abuse that has ingrained itself in the Irish psyche. ‘Don’t rock the boat’ and ‘for the good of the State and people’ are ideas which have so obviously failed the children of Ireland.

Cultural and artistic means are a forceful way of informing, educating and provoking a discourse on change of action to prevent ever such a lack of care from happening again. If we are to take anything from the evidence presented from the Commission to Enquire into Child Abuse in Ireland and the Dublin Diocesan Report then it is to take responsibility for what has happened and remove the culture of abuse that was evident in parishes, courts, homes and schools throughout Ireland.

In the foreword to James X (1993) Mannix Flynn describes James, “standing firmly in the present, he re-enacts the past and, in the process, he learns to care about and love himself. This, he says, is his reclaiming mission. Its objective is ‘to thine own self be true’. The truth will set you free. “

 
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Posted by on February 11, 2010 in Culture, Theatre, Uncategorized

 

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