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Love defiant in a time of repression


Justine Cooper and Emma O'Kane in 'Invitation to a Journey'.

Justine Cooper and Emma O'Kane in 'Invitation to a Journey'.

Justine Cooper and Emma O'Kane in 'Invitation to a Journey'.

Is it better to submit, and survive to live a half-life? Or to break for fearful freedom, living with an intense awareness in the short period before destruction? Because a bid for freedom will be punished and defeated. It's the way of all authoritarian societies, whether they masquerade as democracies or are openly totalitarian of the left or right.

The prolific Enda Walsh's new play Arlington [a love story] poses the question in a powerfully political work that turns his trademark devices of pop music, even sweeties, into a metaphor for our increasingly homogenised and controlled society.

Isla has always lived alone in a tower waiting room, aware that she is not truly alone, but merely representative of "what happens". Ultimately her number will be called and she will face her fate. Periodically, she is interrogated by an unseen controller; she has a new one, a rather nerdy young man who brings a naïve uncertainty to the task of recording the correctness or otherwise of Isla's answers to his questions. The stories she tells him will decide her fate.

Others have broken under the waiting and taken matters into their own hands, as does another girl who performs a manic 20-minute dance of despair and frustration before throwing herself from the window.

But Isla escapes with the aid of the young interrogator and he has taken her… somewhere. It may have been a place of safety; Arlington? (with all the mental associations of that word with the dead of pointless wars).

Now he has been thrown into the tower room to be punished for his crime, battered and beaten, hapless and hopeless, but newly defiant. And as Isla suddenly appears before him and their love offers the peace of freedom, we are left to wonder if indeed they are together in this or any place; did he take her away only to end it in an act of mercy… or was it all a survival fantasy for two souls lost in an alien world?

It's as thought-provoking, bewildering a play as Walsh has yet written, and that's quite a statement, given his reputation for awkward complexity. It's given what can only be called a towering production by Landmark and the Galway Arts Festival at Leisureland in Galway.

Once again, Walsh directs his own work and gets intensely moving, layered performances from Charlie Murphy as Isla and Hugh O'Conor as the young interrogator, separately and together intensely moving. Oona Doherty dances the suicidal young woman to Emma Martin's impressively precise choreography. Jamie Vartan's set is an unsettling parody of bureaucratic waiting spaces, and Adam Silverman's lighting and Teho Teardo's music score make up the creative backing for a seriously impressive and intelligent piece of theatre.

* * * * *

Invitation to a Journey doesn't exactly tell one a lot about the artist Eileen Gray. Interest in her and her work has intensified in recent years, with the majority of people interested in early 20th-century European architecture and design becoming more aware of her enormous contribution to both, at least vaguely.

But perhaps Gray herself would have approved of the extraordinarily stylish, restrained, and elegant production that the piece is, a co-production between the Galway Arts Festival and Fishamble, Crash Ensemble, and CoisCeim Dance Theatre, and playing at the Black Box during the Festival.

Because the key to it is precision, beauty, quiet intensity and above all, elegance. Gray was a trail-blazer, a privileged well-bred rural Irish woman who defied convention, and after studying at the Slade in London, went to Paris to immerse herself in the complexities of lacquering, then went on to create a masterpiece of early modern architectural design with her own 'holiday home' in the south of France. She was brazenly open about her lesbianism (in the 1920s) and suffered for it when she was abandoned by the exotic dancer who exploited her passion and her finances. She was also mercilessly betrayed by the acclaimed architect Le Corbusier. But no personal pain seems to have mattered to Gray in her search for elegant perfection.

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And it is that which emerges from Invitation to a Journey, in which her life and work are only lightly touched upon, but Gavin Kostick's script, Deirdre Gribbin's exquisite score performed by the Crash Ensemble, and David Bolger's impassioned, slightly retro choreography come together to create an image as inspiring as it is oddly tranquil.

Ingrid Craigie plays Gray with Kate Stanley Brennan as her exploitative lover, but perfect as they are, there are no stars in this piece, with Maree Kearns's design, Sinead McKenna's lighting, Kate Ellis's musical direction and Kevin Gleeson's sound making the musicians and dancers (not forgetting Ronan Leahy in all the male roles) an invocation of the kind of grace and restraint that seem to have become something to despise in our time. Maybe this piece, reflecting Ireland's new-found interest in Eileen Gray will extend her influence in the country of her birth until it is as great here as it has always been in civilised metropolitan European society.

It's co-directed by Jim Culleton and David Bolger.

The Druid Company production of Beckett's Waiting for Godot (at the Mick Lally Theatre) and later touring, will be reviewed next week.

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