Prize novel has room to flourish on stage
Room, Abbey Theatre
Emma Donoghue's adapted tale of a mother and son fleeing captivity is a triumph
If Emma Donoghue has done nothing else, she has given an impressive lesson in understanding that art forms are different from each other. Room was an eerie, engaging novel. Now Donoghue has taken her novel and made it into a superbly effective and beautifully crafted play for the Abbey Theatre. That's an achievement in itself (and, of course, in between there was the movie).
So far, the new directors of the Abbey have been concentrating more or less on offering a re-run digest of previously successful Irish productions from outside the National Theatre's production walls.
The policy has proved popular with audiences, and now they are theming the future as "What happens next is this…"
"This" is Donoghue's play, which is little short of breathtaking in performance, concept, production values, and sheer theatricality.
Nonetheless, it does indicate a danger that newcomers Neil Murray and Graham McLaren need to be aware of if they are to ensure the support of the theatrical community here.
The forward-looking members of the arts community, and those others who are truly interested in artistic welfare in Ireland, have no desire for a narrow-based national agenda which prefers inward-looking self-absorbed navel-gazing, rather than the cross-fertilisation of the international arts world.
But we do need to nurture our own artists; Room is advertised as a co-production with Stratford East, the National Theatre of Scotland and Covent Garden Productions, but it is effectively a Stratford East production, and had its premiere there (as well as a run in Dundee) before coming to the Abbey.
In other words, the only dividend for Ireland's national theatre is in giving audiences a terrific production and hopefully ensuring the economic bounce for the theatre of full houses. But that does not pay a dividend to Irish artists.
A national theatre fails in its duty if it sees itself mainly as a receiving house for outside productions. And Murray and McLaren, who have no directorial experience in running a building-based theatre, need to be at least as aware of this as they seem, for instance, to be aware of the feminist movement breathing down their necks.
That said, Room is wonderful, extraordinarily envisaged by director Cora Bissett and designer Lily Arnold, as Little Jack's lessons are projected on to the square box-set of the room in which he has never left until Ma, already her rapist's prisoner for two years before his birth, devises a plan for his escape at the age of five.
Jack's re-introduction into the world, and his longing for the safety of "room", are subtly developed through the provision of "Big Jack": an adult alter-ego who delivers the interior ruminations of the little boy as he struggles to accept and to find acceptance (he is rejected by Ma's father, who sees him as the manifestation of his daughter's violation at the hands of her abductor).
Essentially, Room is about hope, seen in glorious performances from Witney White as Ma, Taye Kassim Junaid-Evans as Little Jack (alternating with Darmanji Eboji and Harrison Wilding) and Fela Lufadeju as Big Jack.
The video design is by Andrzej Goulding, with lighting by David Plater. The terrific music and lyrics are by Bissett and Kathryn Joseph, with a sound score by Alexandra Faye Braithwaite.
'The play is little short of breathtaking in its performance...'
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