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Art that tears you apart, as 50 writers and 50 actors bare their souls for the Abbey

The Dear Ireland initiative on YouTube is life-altering theatre, writes Emer O'Kelly

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Marty Rea

Marty Rea

Marion O'Dwyer

Marion O'Dwyer

Owen Roe

Owen Roe

Clare O'Malley

Clare O'Malley

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Marty Rea

It sounded like a brave attempt to do something, anything, to allow the artistic community to make their voices heard in a society which never does more than pay lip service to them. (And that has never been more evident than it is at present, with a hardship allocation of only one million euro for the entire world of the arts during the Covid crisis.)

It didn't seem likely that the Abbey's Dear Ireland initiative would become an extraordinary, overwhelmingly important work of art. But it has.

Fifty writers were asked to make ten-minute contributions, and nominate an actor to perform them, all done in isolation. Due to deadlines, I was able to see only three of the four selections of monologues, but all 50 pieces will be available on the Abbey's YouTube channel for the next six months. And if you care about Ireland, particularly if you feel frightened and wounded by the hell of the virus, please, please watch it. It will alter you forever, even if you have always doubted the importance of art in our lives.

Not all of the pieces are "brilliant", which was the comment most often employed from the unseen audience, but all are brave, and all are heartfelt and full of insight. But some are indeed small, brilliant pieces of theatre.

Part of the magic of the best of the pieces lies in the matching of ideal actors to the mindset and content of the writing, with the physically portentous Stanley Townsend lightening to perfection Edna O'Brien's piece, titled literally Dear Ireland, a letter which becomes an impassioned lecture on the power of Yeats's attitudes and poetry to bring solace. (Although many of us could do without those attitudes.)

Patrick O'Kane's vision of Owen McCafferty's Home, a piece spare of text, takes us to O'Kane pacing an empty beach in angry misery, reciting a shopping list of luxury groceries, only to collapse in the foetal position; until awakened by his phone alarm to stand against the immensity of the sea, and applaud those currently working on the saving of lives. It raises the hair on the back of your neck.

Equally savage is Nancy Harris's An Unreliable ex-Lover Suddenly Writes a Letter, as the lover, Marty Rea, sits edgily in his London flat, explaining the need for "space" which made him run away: he's not trying to trash her now, he says, and not saying he's not fucked up. There is self-obsessed and self-pitying anguish in the reaction to loss that can never be repaired.

In Night 4, Norma Sheahan cocks a downbeat, funny snook in Aoife Martyn's piece as a weary nurse in isolation, and grateful for the peace of it as she recalls the hopeless, helpless pandemonium she has left behind her. No angelic hero, she.

Mark Doherty is a hapless lecturer attempting to "teach remotely" in Michael West's Gorse as he recalls the countryside through his Covid-stricken mother's eyes, contemplating "colluding with our own extinction," as his once-composed heart breaks.

Dermot Bolger slightly breaks the rules in A Handful of Jacks, as he uses locations for Dawn Bradfield to walk through her marriage in voiceover: a computer letter to a husband dead from the virus. She is also anguished, but acknowledging devastatingly, that "there is no vaccine against grief". It is a small triumph.

In Ursula Rani Sarma's West, we are told by Owen McDonnell that "death is no longer an abstract", in contrast to Pom Boyd's After This Thing, in which Brendan Gleeson as a dishevelled property developer tries to convince himself "nothing has changed"… a voice crying in a wilderness of fear that everything has changed.

And a different panic engulfs the marvellously comedy-driven A New Yorker Now by Meadhbh McHugh, with Clare O'Malley as a woman from Mullingar now trapped by the virus in a tiny New York apartment.

Sarah Hanly's Shower also features a health-care worker (Denise Gough), exhausted and crouching in the shower stall, which has sprung a leak, as she tries to persuade a plumber to break lockdown and help her. And another kind of terrible isolation traps an elderly "feminist icon" academic estranged from her daughter and guilty that the relationship was ruined by "the toxic soup" of her own marriage. That's from Iseult Golden and played by Marion O'Dwyer.

And finally (although I would like to be able to deal with many more) there was Colm Keegan's Something Worth Saying with Owen Roe, as a man persuaded by his adored, bolshie daughter to make a time capsule recording for her unborn son. Exquisite and devastating.

Sunday Indo Living