Following government health directives, the Abbey Theatre - along with all the other theatres - closed its doors on March 12. The decision to cobble together this mass assembly of theatrical energies for Dear Ireland, a presentation of 50 theatrical monologues on YouTube, was a risk for directors Graham McLaren and Neil Murray.
This was a stab in the dark that could have fallen flat, but it has been a hugely valuable and enjoyable exercise. The project fulfils three functions: it operates as an opportunity for theatre artists to create a group commentary on the Covid-19 situation; it gives starved theatre audiences a chance to see work done by some familiar talents; and it presents the members of the industry with a point of focus at a time when there is little else going on.
Part 3 continues the with the pick-and-mix of direct and oblique comment on the social fallout from the virus. Jimmy Murphy's The Meadow finds its emotional core in drawing a connection between a self-isolating woman played by Clare Dunne and her forebears who lived through the Famine - one of a number of pieces that echo the Famine experience. Both performance and writing are distinguished by clarity and intelligence.
Chinese writer Zhu Yi creates a clever piece of surrealism, I Know You, with a more global focus; Julia Gu plays a Chinese immigrant in New York wearing a green dress for a St Patrick's Day party. Gu performs two versions of her divided self. A split screen is employed to mirror on YouTube the psychic fracturing that might so easily be achieved in a live space, a doubling that is inherently theatrical in form.
Writer Pom Boyd's neat eco-play After This Thing pits a developer's voice against the environment, the bad guy given charming life by a playful Brendan Gleeson.
A young mum living in homeless accommodation struggles with the absence of her nana's support during the lockdown in writer TKB's Tara's Hill. It is presented as a vlog, with Ericka Roe spirited and utterly winning in the part. This is one, among several, where the role of the grandparent in family life is celebrated or explored.
Part 4 is the longest segment, containing 14 plays and running at almost three hours. Joseph O'Connor writes a lyrical and touching paean to the sweetness of young marriage in Grace; this ordinary wife is played with delicacy and texture by Kathy Rose O'Brien. Kit de Waal's neatly curled narrative The Three Irishmen introduces issues of racism to a Cork setting. Performed with heart by a gruff Peter Gowen, his world is disrupted when his prized daughter gives birth to a black baby. Rosaleen McDonagh's plaintive and poignant Dear Ireland You Will Hardly Notice My Absence is about a Traveller woman who ends up homeless in the hotel that refused her wedding reception. McDonagh's piece demonstrates how the undervalued dramatic value of sincerity can pack quite a punch; its impact is driven by a performance of great depth by Sorcha Fox.
David Ireland's piece The Good Thief continues his theatrical archaeological dig into the Ulster Protestant psyche, with its religiosity and mischievous engagement with identity-belligerence. A highlight of the series, played with deadpan acuity by Abigail McGibbon, it is hugely entertaining, compelling and clever.
Nobody is ever going to argue that writers and actors are essential workers in the live moment of a pandemic. But in the life of a nation, especially the Irish nation, theatre artists have been truly essential in telling the national story. This intriguing grab bag of narratives keeps the theatrical germ alive, while live theatre remains in an induced darkness.
'Dear Ireland' Parts 1-4 are available to watch on the Abbey Theatre YouTube channel