The Abbey Theatre had its strangest ever opening night last Tuesday. A viewership of 4,000 assembled on YouTube to watch the premiere of Dear Ireland (Part 1) - a theatrical rapid response to the shock of the Covid-19 pandemic shutting down all our theatres. The whole event comprises 50 short monologue plays, premiered in four parts over four nights, created by 50 writers and self-taped by 50 performers.
The pieces all tackle the virus and its problems, some head on, others more obliquely. Though they are all essentially making YouTube art, these are artists trained in theatre, and the work has a pleasing, underlying theatrical identity. The theatre animal is there, lurking and hidden, but still vigorous.
Actor Marion O'Dwyer gives chippy life to a divorce lawyer in Iseult Golden's An Impossible Woman; she is a mother trying to reconnect with her estranged daughter during lockdown. It's the type of part in which comedienne O'Dwyer is rarely cast, but she is terrific in this straight role.
The riveting intensity of Patrick O'Kane's performance style gets a fine outing in Owen McCafferty's seaside-set Home, which deals with Covid-19 bereavement.
Tuesday night's offerings ends with Gina Moxley's pointed A Start; this confronts the issue of pandemic-related unemployment in the arts, drawing parallels between her current writing task and the building of roads as public relief works during the Famine. Timmy Creed's quirky performance reflects the angular and original instincts of Moxley's mind. This is filmed in west Kerry, Creed's place of isolation, an area plentiful with famine roads leading nowhere; a blackly comic metaphor for pointless effort.
A highlight of Wednesday night's line-up (Part 2) is Italian Andrea Molina's Beckettian percussion poem I Want the Things about the value and limitations of metaphor and symbol in the currently challenged theatre. Performed by musician and percussion artist David Moss, this virtuoso display adds a delightful element of inarticulacy to a sophisticated soundscape conjured from found percussive objects including a ping-pong ball, a light switch and a beer can. Writer Aoife Martyn's pleasingly unsentimental nurse in Night 4 is given meaningful life in a terse, crisis-ridden performance by Norma Sheahan; this vignette captures an old man determined to tell a joke, who finds a reluctant audience in a harried, distressed nurse. Sheahan's performance is outstanding, played against a background of stockpiled loo-roll. In Gorse, Michael West's university lecturer is conscious that he is colluding in his own extinction as he prepares his lecture for delivery online, his life in crisis. Actor Mark Doherty captures the chaotic mind of this troubled man, buffeted by professional worries, distressed at his wife's absence, struggling with a yearning to visit his mother.
Longing for mothers and fathers features often in these playlets. It is the seam of vulnerability and distress that runs through them. That is one of the major differences between Covid-19 and other more familiar illnesses; it has come for the old, not the young. We are hardwired to protect children, not parents - that strange social dissonance finds expression here.
The plays taken together capture a sense of overwhelming bewilderment. Many fine ideas could do with a dramaturgical tidy-up. The scanty production values make some of it feel "on the hoof" - though others are very well-presented. The most effective plays are those creating a strong character with meaningful emotional appeal. Less successful in this format are the more cerebral and meditative offerings. Like medieval strolling players, the Abbey has grabbed opportunity where it may; being denied a proper stage, they have effectively commandeered a slender ledge in cyberspace.