Wednesday 21 August 2019

Least Like the Other: Kennedy 'operamentary' tells the moving story of JFK's sister

Least Like the Other

Black Box Theatre, Galway  Until tonight

Wonderful voice: Naomi Louisa O’Connell as Rosemary Kennedy. Photo by Pat Redmond
Wonderful voice: Naomi Louisa O’Connell as Rosemary Kennedy. Photo by Pat Redmond

Katy Hayes

Irish National Opera presents this world premiere, an opera-documentary (an operamentary?) about the lobotomy performed on Rosemary Kennedy, the eldest girl of the gifted Irish-American political family. The show tells the story of Rosemary's difficult birth and her upbringing with her dynamic and competitive siblings.

Much of the early part is told with extracts from the autobiography of her mother, Rose Kennedy, a woman with typical-of-the-time notions about submissiveness in girls. Large archive photographs of the growing family are projected on to the walls. There is much documentary material about hideous proto-fascist medical theories about the "feeble-minded" and the emergence of the lobotomy as a treatment for mental illness. Rosemary's operation was performed in 1941.

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Created by composer Brian Irvine along with director Netia Jones, the stage is dominated by the wonderful voice of mezzo-soprano Naomi Louisa O'Connell as Rosemary. Dancer/actor Stephanie Dufresne and actor Ronan Leahy make up the rest of the cast, effectively peopling the stage with a variety of nurses, doctors and siblings. Aoife Spillane-Hinks is the assistant director, but also voices the mother and others from a table to the right of the stage, providing a visual balance to the INO Orchestra situated at the left. Jones directs and also designs set and video; visually the show is stunning, the action contained in a large clinical box at centre, plenty of greys and blacks harmonising with the documentary footage, then occasionally a splash of vivid colour, as in Rosemary's red dress.

Irvine's score has immense variety: dramatic brass dominates, creating musical reflections of psychic dissonance and signalling violence and violation. In contrast, occasionally a melodious piano leads. Conductor Fergus Sheil steers the dramatic pitch of the evening to perfection.

With some reservations about the fondness of Irish contemporary opera for the mutilated female - it would be nice to get a rest from women dying by suicide, getting murdered by their husbands, or having their brains cut open - this is a striking and memorable show. A simple repeat of a sweet archive image of the very pretty Rosemary being presented as a débutante in London effectively draws you in to the core tragedy here. Though the story is harrowing, reflected in the occasionally barbaric edge to the score, the final haunting musical sequence sweetens the tone and sends the audience home with the sense of having witnessed a profound and consoling requiem.


Dead Dog in a Suitcase: English moral comedy ends in chaos

Bailey Allen Hall, Galway Until tonight

Katy Hayes

Cornish theatre company Kneehigh return to Galway with this brilliant version of John Gay's 18th-century The Beggar's Opera. A seaside English comedy tone prevails, with Punch and Judy shows, bawdy girls, bent police and corrupt businessmen. At the centre is the classic low-life scoundrel Macheath, whose amorality is as obvious as his basic good heart.

Having been paid to assassinate the only decent politician in town, Mayor Goodman, Macheath spends the rest of the show trying to run away with his new, virtuous girlfriend, but unable to escape his past misdeeds. The show is a struggle for the moral conscience of this Everyman.

For all Kneehigh's super-light theatrical touch, this is as political as Bertolt Brecht's 1928 version. The style is exuberant: live musicians, jaunty movement and dance on a scaffold set, superb use of puppetry, including a hilarious series of puppet babies.

Dominic Marsh as Macheath leads the show with both bravura and heart. A verbally inventive script by Carl Grose and eclectic music by Charles Hazlewood are drawn together by Mike Shepherd's powerful direction.

The anarchic meltdown ending feels like a warning about chaos: brilliantly theatrical, but politically ominous, too.

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