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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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Hustings for the Arts

 

National Campaign for the Arts

 

 

The arts community is mobilising. Once again the driving force is the National Campaign for the Arts group who are getting to grips with the masses, getting to grips with those seeking our votes in the General Election. The venues have decided, the candidates are bracing themselves and all that is needed is the support and commitment of as many arts workers and professionals as possible!!

Hustings are taking place in Dublin, Galway, Cork and Limerick on Next Monday morning, February 14th. The times and venues are as follows:

Limerick, Belltable Arts Centre, Limerick City: 10.45am

Dublin, Project Arts Centre, Templebar: 10.45am

Cork, Crawford Art Gallery, Cork City: 10:45am

Galway, Radisson Blu Hotel, Galway City, 10.45am

In Dublin the arts spokespersons from all five political parties will attend a meeting to outline their respective arts policies and answer your questions. In the other city venues prospective T.D.’s  from their respective constituencies will attend.

The National Campaign for the Arts website has further details on these events and also on their other projects and find out how to further support this group who are supporting arts workers and arts jobs nationwide.  Visit the website here: www.ncfa.ie

If you cannot make the hustings then when canvassers come to your front door, and they will come! The NCFA lists the following questions to challenge them with:

  • Does your party have a policy for the arts?
  • What do you believe are important values for a healthy and flourishing society?
  • What values would you bring to Government that would make a difference?
  • Does your party recognize the vital and valuable contribution the arts and creative industries could make to our national economic and social recovery?
  • Will your party invest in the arts?

The lead-up to February 25th polling day will be a vital period for ensuring the voice of the Arts community is heard and recognised. Be informed and be heard!

 

 

 

 

 
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Posted by on February 10, 2011 in Culture

 

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The Story of Vincent River

Eleanor Methven and Kerr Logan

Vincent River has a story to tell. His life has a story and his death has a story. His brutal murder at the hands and weapons of a hate mob pass the story of Vincent into the hands of his mother Anita and his secret lover, Davey. Prime Cut productions at the Cube in Project Arts Centre present a scene where one’s true self and one’s self recognition is forever held to ransom by the judging eyes and ears of neighbours, of family and of fear.

Vincent is absent throughout the play but lives on through the stories of his life that are teased out via a cocktail of alcohol and drugs from the grieving Anita and Davey. We view the story as it unfolds in the dank and grimy East-end London flat recently inhabited by Anita (Eleanor Methven) the mother of Vincent River. The flat, with its exposed rafters and wooden-frame walls invoke a vision of a through-section cut into the domestic life and memories of Vincent, Anita and Davey (Kerr Logan). This access into the private domestic sphere allow the audience the feeling of being the society and neighbours constantly watching and gossiping on the hidden love affairs of Vincent.

Methven is incredibly natural in her portrayal of the heartbroken and withered mother, worn down by a life of menial factory work, no husband and the threats to her son owing to his ‘precarious’ lifestyle. In fact this lack of a male role model for Vincent is pondered by Anita for her son enjoying male relationships. “He would have felt safe maybe”. The naturalness of Methven is at times at odds with Logan’s character, Davey. His accent wanders from Hackney to Merseyside at inopportune moments and is distracting but his delivery of an anxious, confused and utterly lost teenager is compelling.

Sarah Jane Shiel’s astute lighting, especially on the exterior street provides the only indication of passing time as the street lights glow in the passing night, allied with Philip Stewart’s tingling soundtrack creates a tense and enclosed environment.

Sophie Motley’s direction is well driven and structured with perhaps just the middle section lacking the emotive power of the opening and concluding sections, which incidentally contain the most imagery of the last moments of Vincent’s life, ensuring it is the absent titular character that has the most powerful story to tell. The graphic portrayal of the murder of Vincent, in a toilet cubicle of a disused railway station emphasises the isolation and extreme lenghts these men were going to in order to hide their relationship. The homophobic mob, identified only by their malice; “the one who cut, the one who kicked, the one who punched”, end Vincent’s story before it truly began.

If author Philip Ridley and director Sophie Motley sought to solely examine hate crimes, one wonders is there perhaps more that could be teased out of this work, perhaps learning more about Vincent than just his death and awkward childhood. Prime Cut productions have made an at times gripping and engrossing production that tells Vincent’s story when as so often the case, the victims of street violence are silenced forever.

Vincent River is at Project Arts Centre until 21 August 2010. www.projectartscentre.ie

Touring to: The Alley Theatre, Strabane, 26 August 2010. www.alley-theatre.com

The Market Place Theatre, Armagh, 27 August 2010. www.marketplacearmagh.com

The Playhouse Theatre, Derry, 28 August 2010. www.derryplayhouse.co.uk

 
 

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Nothing Natural About Butler’s Astounding “The Early Bird”

"The Early Bird"

It is the stuff of nightmares for any family and for any parent. Stress and a breakdown in communication lead to a breakdown in marriage and in the family order. What order may remain in this life via the routine of child rearing is disquietly and suddenly fractured and distorted as the fabric of the family union, the child, is torn from its parents.

The play focuses on familial relationships: husband and wife, mother and daughter, father and daughter and also father and son. This examination of relationships, responsibility, trust and suspicion is undertaken amidst a super-heightened emotional state and at absolute crisis point. The couple’s only child has, without warning, disappeared and in the resulting void, Cusack’s and Palmer’s characters emit illicit suspicion and little compassion. Alex Palmer’s Jack is cruel and tainted with bitterness about not bonding with his daughter as he would have with a son.  His belittling of his wife, played by his real wife, Catherine Cusack, is beyond reprehensible and spiteful in the utmost, as he callously describes her as “useless” and “cut” in a derogatory sense regarding her post-caesarean body.

The loss suffered by the parents, of their angel, is a consequence of the loss of stability in their own relationship. The breakdown of familial communication and love, demonstrated by the flashbacks to loving embraces on a sun-kissed Spanish beach, has had a knock-on effect on their daughter as she enduring crippling nightmares, foreboding the tragic fate to come. The confinement of the set is matched by the confinement of the nightmare which the parents endure at the loss of their child. Time loses its hold, sentences hang and remain unfinished and moods alter rapidly and more often than not, violently and threateningly.

Catherine Cusack and Alex Palmer

Leo Butler’s text is immensely taut, frighteningly stark in its delivery, frantic but with balance in its pacing. The story retrospectively recounts the movements of the child on the morning she disappears but even no certainty can be attributed to those ill-remembered moments and adds only to aggravated distribution of blame.

 A ubiquitous menace and ominous sense of frustration and grief pervades throughout the performance which often treads on the mark of unsettling. The real strength of Butler’s text lies in its reality and documentary quality but also relying on more pure theatrical elements of fictional presentation. Here, Donnacadh O’Briain, director, must be given credit as he exudes every last element of space, time, anxiety and fear from the restricted space and set and also the spot-on delivery of Palmer and Cusack.

Catherine Cusack, in the role of the distraught mother, delivers a performance of such striking ability and passion, with a final monologue astutely balanced in its delivery and yet tinged with gaping rawness, it will stand as one of the great performances of this or indeed any year.

The sound and score, designed and orchestrated by Philip Stewart, delivers an ambience and soundtrack that can at once force one to shiver, squirm in fear and anticipation and remain totally in tune with the cast and dialogue. The words and actions of the permanently absent child presented through the mouths and actions of the parents are simply chilling.

The set, designed by takis (sic) consisting of a large Perspex box, imprisons its two inhabitants for the duration of the play. The design has Beckett-like elements that restrict the movement but not the graphic expression of the grieving and warring couple. The voyeuristic element of viewing the work through this box presents and challenges many elements of contemporary theatrical formats. It adds a dimension between the cast and audience that must be cognitively deconstructed by all parties in order to experience the heightened emotions of the parents.

The play has many contemporary references with news stories of late with similar theme of loss of a child. While these references will be near impossible to avoid, the relevance of the work as a social commentary reflecting on a lack of trust in society and neighbours and breakdown of relationships and marriages owing to work and personal pressures mark the specific relevance of this intriguing and astounding piece of dramatic theatre. The Early Bird is as powerful a production that reflects in uncharacteristic ways many of the most universal of family issues and creates a forceful deconstruction of family relationships.

Continues at Project Arts Centre until 26 June 2010

http://www.projectartscentre.ie/programme/whats-on/922-the-early-bird

 

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Examining the Project Arts Centre Archive

The Irish history blog, Pue’s Occurences, has published an article detailing the history and archive of the Project Arts Centre. The article discusses the processes of archiving a performance and artistic archive and its value to Irish cultural history. 

http://puesoccurrences.wordpress.com/2010/05/12/building-an-archive-the-project-arts-centre/

The Project Arts Centre is one of Ireland’s most important and contemporary arts venues in Ireland and has been so since its insception in 1966 and continues to promote and develope new and emerging Irish artists, playwrights, actors and dancers. The archive is a vital addition to the documented heritage of Irish culture and is  housed in the Manuscripts Department of the National Library of Ireland.

Full details on the archive are available via the article on Pue’s Occurances and via the National Library of Ireland.

 

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Who is Fergus Kilpatrick?

Who is Fergus Kilpatrick? Image courtesy of thecompanyireland.com

Following its award winning debut (Spirit of the Fringe award) at the Dublin Fringe festival in 2009, Who is Fergus Kilpatrick has returned to Dublin and set up residency in the Project Arts Centre. The faceless and rather elusive title character, in a work devised and produced by The Company, will leave you still questioning in fact who really is Fergus Kilpatrick, But it will also leave you questioning the reality of performance, the reality of theatre and even the validity of documented history. 

While being described by The Company as ‘non-theatre’ and  the piece having been created with the deliberate intention of avoiding theatre, you can already see the challenges and questions that this work throws out to an audience coming to see a ‘play’ in a theatre. The piece opens with a documentary being screened on the life of Fergus Kilpatrick, a rebel in early 19th century Kerry. The audience quickly realises the documentary is in fact a work of fiction and addresses questions of who we are, where our lineage has brought us and how our oral tradition of memories and storytelling has often left gaps and inaccuracies in the historical narrative of the story of our country and also of our families. 

Image courtesy of thecompanyireland.com

This work tightly embraces the aid of digital technology and painstaking video and sound editing and blatantly flaunts the presence of pre-recorded scenes and interviews with the cast as a tool for telling the story of how the Fergus documentary came to be. The audience is often left struggling to determine if it is the cast on stage speaking or in fact a video screening. It becomes apparent that the real direction of this work is to challenge what exactly is ‘live’ in theatre. 

Clever devices are implied, such as pre-recorded and humorous interviews with cast members describing their characters and the preparation in finding themselves in each character. The deliberately over-the-top and ham acted scenes, mimicking the rehearsals of this work are described as being devised by asking each cast member to act out one another’s character, thus resulting in a “heightened version of each cast member’s personality and traits.” 

Creator of this work and its director Jose Miguel Jimenez said “it challenges the continual presence of history and challenges the truth in history and in performance and challenges a prescribed present by removing the connection between history and truth by emphasising the role of who writes history. Everyone has a different view of history and different version of a story. Where is the definite truth in all this?” 

Scene from "Who is Fergus Kilpatrick". Image courtesy of Dublin Fringe Fest, Flickr.

The story of Who is Fergus Kilpatrick has strong base in a short story by Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges, entitled The Theme of the Traitor and the Hero published in 1944. Though this work by the Company is not a direct adaptation of the story by Borges, the story acted as a facilitator for the work Who is Fergus Kilpatrick. The framework of truth and believed conceptions of what we know to be reality are dismantled on stage before us. Again heavily influenced by the writing of philosopher Jacques Derrida and Jean Baudrilliard, one can also see the presence of French surrealist Antonin Artaud who wrote The Theatre and Its Double in the 1930s. Artaud argued that the act of performance and the presence of theatrical energy lies in the theatre space and with the audience as much as it does on stage.  The ‘double’ of theatre and its mirror image that Artaud mentions is the residual memory that remains in any production space and also with the audience members long after a performance and it is that history which forms a legacy and memory that can be altered or lost in each retelling of the story. 

Jimenez states that the views of Derrida, Baudrilliard et al on “the interaction between the real and illusory in contemporary societies created in us a new interest in theatre: we thought that the relationship between these two concepts relates to the very nature of theatre. We see theatre as the right medium to articulate the arguments between real and illusory since, without doubt, this is the base of any theatrical event.” 

This documentary of misinformation and questioning of history again asks us who we all are and questions our history and certainly leaves one particular questioning hanging over the audience, Who, exactly, is Fergus Kilpatrick? 

 Who is Fergus Kilpatrick runs at the Project Arts Centre until 24 Apr 2010. 

For details visit: http://www.projectartscentre.ie/programme/whats-on/908-who-is-fergus-kilpatrick

 

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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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The Last Daughter of Sodome

“Do you remember Sodome, a city of ruined excess. . . . .Sodome, all you have heard of it is true”.

The resonating voice of the woman in this work performed and translated by Olwen Fouere speaks of a tale of mystic, of memory, of death and resurrection. The Space Upstairs at the Project Arts Centre was transformed by the imaginative brilliance of John Comiskey into a mirrored, metallic and saline prision, in which the Woman awakens and from which she strives to escape.

This work is a translation by Fouere of a French text written by Laurent Gaude and which was published in France in 2009. Fouere was born in the West of Ireland to Breton parents. She has grown up with a duality of language and culture that allows for Gaude’s text and haunting narrative to be transposed so elegantly onto the Project stage. The space becomes an environment rather than a set in which the Woman reawakens as the rain falls and she comes back to life following years suspended buried in salt at the hands of her would be executioners. She is the last daughter of Sodome.

As she escapes her tomb, the contorted body of Fouere holds the gaze of the audience with every controlled movement in an intense and disciplined performance. Her legs, her fingers, her ankles, her toes, the salty stone on which she walks all bear the crippling stiffness of the excess, the shock, the conflict and the ruin that led to the downfall of her beloved Sodome.

The story by Gaude tells of the siege, contagion and slow but deliberate devolution of a city. It is a tale foreboding of innate amorality. A city that has hitherto thrived on excess, hedonistic sexuality and trust is shatteringly brought to a halt by a patient and silent assassin. “I was killing you as I greeted you”. This chilling admission reflects on the conflict and wars that plague our contemporary world, as contagion of distrust, fear, ignorance and intolerance threatens to rule in our world, every bit as forcefully as it did in the mythical Sodome. This is key to the excellent direction by Lynne Parker in a co-production by Rough Magic and Fouere’s own companythe Emergency Room. She creates an atmosphere of where memory is the link to past and future. The present is cyclical. Fouere opens the play by talking in the present, declaring she has always been here but we, as audience and as people in a nation and world have been blind to her presence. 

Olwen Fouere in "Sodome, My Love"

The excess of the past, once again threaten to ruin our world. The multimedia backdrops are a montage, a cerebral premonition of what could come and what has come to our society that is dominated by blinding, loud media, over sexualised images and a smothering pursuit of commercialism. The transformation of the Woman in the later cantos of the play reflects the cyclical nature of this. It has brought about the downfall of Sodome. It CAN happen again.

The nature in which Fouere delivers the narrative demands a sensory awareness and response from the audience. The voice of the woman, the water that falls on her skin, the fire that burns Gomorrah, the smoke of the ruins of Sodome, it is an extremely sensory delivery. If one was to shut their eyes, the performance could almost be inhaled from the stage.  

While the later cantos lack the intrigue, imagery and resonance of the opening sections, it is an extremely powerful production. Fouere astounds as does Comiskey’s staging and environment. The resolution is somewhat disjointed, the transformation from mythical past to current and present does not hit its intended mark. The building and rolling tension frustratingly does not spill over into climax as it so often threatens to do. Perhaps this is the only thing that is lost in translation.

Sodome, My Love. At Space Upstairs, Project Arts Centre until 27 March 2010.

http://www.projectartscentre.ie/programme/whats-on/876-sodome-my-love

http://www.roughmagic.ie/Home

 

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Blackbird Sings Loudest at the Project

“The Army is no place for politics!” cries a battle-hardened and yet war-weary Private McLaren in David Duggan’s play about the last few years and months in the life of the war poet Francis Ledwidge. Born in county Meath, Ledwidge, often known as the ‘Poet of the Blackbirds’, was killed during World War I at the Battle of Passhendaele in July 1917, serving on the front as a member of the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers. Still the Blackbird Sings was commissioned by and previously premiered at the Playhouse Theatre in Derry.

At its opening night at the Project Arts Centre,  Duggan’s portrayal of the Meath born and Nationalist Ledwidge presents a visceral and powerful insight into the confrontations and conflicts of the soul and heart experience by Irish men in the service of the British army at a time when Irish Nationalism by non-constitutional means had reached fever pitch.

The play is set at Ebrington barracks in Derry in 1916. Ledwidge, who had succeeded to the rank of Lance Corporal had returned to Ireland following several stints on the war front in Eastern Europe, including Serbia, Turkey and France. Now home, Ledwidge along with his regiment members are coming to terms with the heavy losses sustained at the Somme and also on the home front following the Easter Rising.

Noted as a staunch Nationalist, Ledwidge struggles with a bitter conflict of cause and conscience as his fellow poets have died for the cause of Irish freedom on the streets of Dublin at Easter 1916. He speaks of McDonagh, Plunkett and Pearse as friends and poets and dreamers. Indeed, the title of ‘poet’ seems more important to Ledwidge than does the title of ‘soldier’. When he is questioned about his loyalty to the English crown, its army and cause on the European battlefields, Ledwidge states that causes of freedom are fought on many fronts and not always in Europe, but here at home too.

 Ledwidge’s support of the ‘insurrectionists’ of the Easter 1916 leads to growing suspicion of Ledwidge himself from his company and regiment. Colm Gormley is excellent as Private Caddon as he squabbles and comes to blows with Mark Fitzgerald’s Ledwidge over politics and the commemoration of those Ulstermen that died at the Somme as greater patriots than those who died in Dublin at Easter. The tension between Unionist and Nationalist is palpable and explodes on more than one occasion within the confined and claustrophobic barracks designed by Sarah Bacon. 

This theme of the ‘right’ cause for Irishmen and Irish Nationalists is teased out and explored by Duggan and avoids becoming too polemic in its treatment of the case. In conversation with Irish Times, Duggan recounts: “Irish nationalists joined the British army during the first World War because a carrot was dangled in front of them in the form of the promise of Home Rule,” he says. “They wanted to prove themselves capable of looking after their own country in the face of German aggression. They joined fellow countrymen of a unionist persuasion in a tense resolve, aimed at achieving unity and justice in Europe and a future for Ireland. But at the same time as Home Rule was being offered, a pledge was made to the Ulster regiments that Ireland would always remain within the United Kingdom. For a deep thinker and a committed nationalist like Ledwidge, these mixed messages proved extremely problematic and he grappled with the difficulty of squaring the circles.”

The words of the poet Ledwidge are an escape from the constant threat of death by bomb, bullet or court martial and from the soul destroying wait to be called to the Front. Private Gamble, well characterised by Conan Sweeney typifies the soldier driven to the brink of madness from shell shock and hears the command whistle and guns even in his sleep. As Ledwidge forges a close relationship with the servant girl, Rosie, their romance is short lived and Ledwidge and his company again face the war front.

Still, the Blackbird Sings.Image courtesy of the Project Arts Centre

Ledwidge laments the death of the 1916 martyrs as much as Private Caddon laments the death of so many Ulstermen men at the Somme. The irony in Caddon’s desire to have died there too reflects the Blood Sacrifice espoused especially by Peasre before the 1916 Rising. Mark Fitzgerald more than capably handles the difficult role of portraying the struggles within Ledwidge as he fights for realisation of his true self, be that soldier, Nationalist or poet. Ledwidge’s feeling towards the dead of 1916 and indeed the dead of war in general is truly evident in his Lament for Thomas MacDonagh:

He shall not hear the bittern cry
in the wild sky, where he is lain,
Nor voices of the sweeter birds
Above the wailing of the rain
 
Nor shall he know when the loud March blows
Thro’ slanting snows her fanfare shrill,
Blowing to flame the golden cup
Of many an upset daffodil.

The presence of sand seeping from hand to ground at random times during the play is a clever device in portraying the imagery of death and ashes returning to the earth as it also counts down an irreversible death clock for so many Irishmen in the British Army, including Ledwidge. The poetic imagery of the blackbird with its yellow beak, the strength of the river and beauty of the Irish landscape are expressed effortlessly by Fitzgerald while Packy Lee delivers a strong performance that is as humorous as it is heartfelt.

With North-South relations currently dominating Irish news headlines for once again tragic reasons, coupled with the extended recent talks at Hillborough regarding policing and justice in the North, Duggan’s play is right on queue in making a willing audience rethink the ethics of conflict and the assertion of when and whether it can be discerned that a war is justified. Can freedom be truly won through war? Does a uniform define an Irishman and make his cause worthwhile? Duggan wrestles with these questions at a vital time for the future of peace in Ireland and justifies the Project Arts Centre as one of the most relevant and important of Irish stages.

At the Project Arts Centre until 6 March and tours to Ballybofey, Co Donegal; Belfast; and Ebrington Barracks, Derry.

http://www.projectartscentre.ie/programme/whats-on/875-still-the-blackbird-sings

Visit the Fancis Ledwidge Museum in the cottage birthplace of the poet in County Meath. http://www.francisledwidge.com/

Rehearsals for 'Still, the Blackbird Sings'. Image courtesy of totallydublin.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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