Walls and Windows
Abbey Theatre, Dublin, on-demand until Sept 11
Travellers are frequently depicted in Irish plays, but we don’t often get the view from within. Rosaleen McDonagh’s Walls and Windows is a fine engaging piece, its authenticity palpable, its drama robust.
The play opens with 18-year-old Charlene protesting about her forthcoming wedding day. She has to sit exams on the wedding morning and she is refusing to try on the dress. It emerges she loves a settled person more than the young man she is intended for, and the settled person is a girl. Cue outrage from her mother Nancy and general disturbance. She is supported by her brother’s gentle wife, Julia.
Thus starts McDonagh’s new play for the Abbey Theatre. It feels like it’s going to be a sturdy domestic drama, with wayward teens, traditional parents and a busy extended family. Soon we move to the future, and sister-in-law Julia is alone and living in homeless accommodation in a hotel, surrounded by cans of beer. The rest of the play explains Julia’s journey from family life on the overcrowded site, to this lonely hotel room, with her children being minded by her mother-in-law. The play, which starts as a chirpy kitchen-sink drama, morphs into a tragedy of immense proportions.
John Connors is excellent as husband John. Hilda Fay plays the matriarchal energy of mother-in-law Nancy perfectly. Sarah Morris (taking over the live run from Sorcha Fox who is in the on-demand version) performs script-in-hand, but nevertheless brings a raw vulnerability to Julia.
Director Jason Byrne steers the performances well, and there is good emotional through lines. Less assured is the staging, where the opening scene is played too far upstage, with some of the lines getting lost in the cavernous Abbey space. Designer Joanna Parker’s set is too busy, too difficult to dismantle, and given all the moving about, the video on the back wall becomes more distraction than enhancement.
McDonagh fearlessly steers the play straight into the heart of complex and tragic matters, though emotional punch is occasionally sacrificed for sociological comment. The result is a fascinating corrective to a century of Irish plays which viewed Traveller culture from the outside.
The Laughing Boy
The New Theatre, Dublin, until Sept 11
Brendan Behan’s The Hostage was produced in Athens in 1962. One of its songs, The Laughing Boy, became an anthem for the Greek political left, as they fought against the fascists in the 1960s. Playwright Jack Harte was in Greece when the military dictatorship collapsed in 1974, unaware the popular song he was dancing to on the streets was the Behan original set to Greek music.
Inspired by this, Harte’s new play is about a student, Alexandra, who travels to Ireland to try to persuade Behan to come to Greece and help rally the left. She meets two versions of the famous Irish author: Behan the Celebrity and Behan the Writer. Donagh Deeney as the celebrity version is a pub charmer and has an uncanny resemblance to Behan. Owen O’Gorman’s writer Behan creates a much darker and moodier version of the writer, depicting the bitter reality of his alcoholism. Michelle Lucey captures the unbreakable idealism of the young Greek patriot.
Not enough is made of the dynamic between the two different Brendans, an excellent idea which is under-explored. The play is also over-reliant on anecdote. However, it shines an interesting light on this international connection between Irish art and Greek politics, underlining once again how far and wide the reach of Irish writers in the world is.