Home: Part One, abbeytheatre.ie until July 17
The Abbey Theatre’s response to the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes report is timely. It includes a number of extracts from the 2,865 page report, chosen to give a broad picture of the voices of survivors. The publication last January was greeted with dismay by many who felt their testimony was misrepresented. A number of pieces here are an opportunity for survivors to express disappointment at the report’s conclusions.
Each testimony is read from the Abbey stage, mostly by actors, including Brenda Fricker and Fionnula Flanagan; some read by public personae including Olivia O’Leary and Catherine Connolly TD; a number of the survivors themselves also feature, including Melissa Nolan and Susan Lohan. The decision to have only women performers, when some of the testimony they read is from male survivors, is an odd one, and seems antithetical to the project’s inclusive spirit.
There are also a number of songs performed by Mary Coughlan, including her haunting Magdalen Laundry, with the echoing line “Oh Lord, won’t you let me wash away the stain”. The show runs to three hours — way too long for a live presentation, but OK for home viewing when you can pause and come up for air when you wish.
The testimonies are fascinating and well-chosen. The presentation starts with material concentrating on the trauma of the mothers and moves towards greater emphasis on the plight of the babies, these babies now grown to adulthood. The lead creative on the project, Noelle Brown, best known as an actor herself, made an artful show in 2013, Postscript (co-written with Michèle Forbes), about her experience of searching for her birth mother. Here, she facilitates a broad space for a multitude of survivors’ voices; the underlying sorrow and anger are palpable.
This Abbey presentation is in stark contrast to the “video dramatisation of individual stories” on the government website, which is saccharine and white-washy. Here we get details on the murky world of vaccine trials on institutionalised babies; the idea of adoption consent gets close scrutiny.
So plenty of meat here, but the impact is less than it should be. Documentary theatre needs a strong shaping hand, and the lack of a writer or director shows. The contributions, beautifully delivered in each case, are too numerous and too similar in presentation, and so they lose their individuality.
Home: Part One fulfils the objective of providing a platform for survivors’ voices, but its artlessness is disappointing. The muscle and magic of theatre, so suited to excavating this kind of national story, are missing.
UnRavelled, gbhi.org until March 31
Theatre is particularly well-suited as a narrative home for science and philosophy, its audience groomed to accept density of material and complexity of thought. This new play by the American writer Jake Broder carves an emotional entry into the subject of aphasia, a form of frontal lobe dementia. This production is hosted by the Global Brain Health Institute, a research partnership between Trinity College Dublin and the University of California, San Francisco.
The play is based on the true story of a Canadian visual artist Anne Chambers, her husband Robert and the early 20th-century composer Ravel, who inspired her work. Both Chambers and Ravel were struck with aphasia in their fifties, the disease affecting their creative output, and the play deals with their connection across a century of scientific, creative and medical advance. The story is framed with fascinating material about how abstract art plays with our neurological make-up to create the aesthetic response.
Lucy Davenport and Rob Nagle play the wife and husband with finesse, gracefully luring the audience into the tragic effect of this disease on their marriage. Director Nike Doukas whips the 90-minute show along on Zoom with skill. Broder’s script is cerebral in both form and subject matter, but it also has plenty of heart.