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Ravaged and shorn, Dublin Theatre Festival valiantly brings the 2020 show to a close

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A nation at last: The Party to End All Parties celebrates the birth of the Republic in 1949

A nation at last: The Party to End All Parties celebrates the birth of the Republic in 1949

Actress Mary Murray. Photo: Mark Condren

Actress Mary Murray. Photo: Mark Condren

Look into the future: To Be a Machine stars Jack Gleeson

Look into the future: To Be a Machine stars Jack Gleeson

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A nation at last: The Party to End All Parties celebrates the birth of the Republic in 1949

And that was the Dublin Theatre Festival 2020, that was. And if theatre is usually an important part of your life, or even a barely acknowledged but pleasant adjunct, you don't know whether to laugh or cry.

There's a bit of it still going: Fishamble's re-staged version of Deirdre Kinahan's Embargo, streamed live last Sunday from the Pumphouse at Dublin Port, can still be watched on the Festival website until October 25.

After the gargantuan effort involved in getting it out there following the imposition of Level 3 restrictions for Dublin, it was tragic that technical difficulties ravaged the sound. (Some people managed to correct their intake, apparently, but despite following all suggestions, it remained almost inaudible on my PC.)

The story is an imagined episode in the largely forgotten action in the War of Independence, when rail and port workers refused to transport munitions or troops.

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Actress Mary Murray. Photo: Mark Condren

Actress Mary Murray. Photo: Mark Condren

Actress Mary Murray. Photo: Mark Condren

Kinahan's play, perhaps somewhat overwhelmed by the requirement to give the audience the background, is rather too static - something director Maisie Lee does little to alleviate.

The two male characters are more prototypes than actual people, with Matthew Malone as a gay train driver and World War I veteran, sickened into pacifism and prepared to suffer for it, against Callan Cummins as Jack, an IRA activist happy to glorify every act of republican terror, from tarring and feathering to torture and murder. Caught between their rhetoric is Jane (Mary Murray), fleeing from having been involved in a violent demonstration, and now intent on getting safely to Belfast.

Ironically, the poor sound served only to highlight Mary Murray's immense talent as, sweating, ravaged and distraught, her passion is overwhelming, with the eternal cry of womanhood: what about my kids?

Overall, despite its sometimes clichéd weaknesses, Kinahan's play is to be lauded for its determination to question received versions of our history.

It was our future rather than our history that concerned Mark O'Connell's adaptation of his own book To Be a Machine (version1.0) for DeadCentre, directed by Bush Moukarzel and Ben Kidd. Streamed live from the Project Arts Centre, with an 'audience' of pre-loaded images, O'Connell projected his examination of trans- humanism, the scientific and philosophical theory that technology may well allow consciousness to survive death.

As unnerving as it is intriguing, O'Connell projects himself onto actor Jack Gleeson to examine the theory digitally: the first step? Only by getting rid of our bodies can we become our true selves: and since the projected images of many of the audience 'members' show every sign of having been carefully prepped, staged and selfie-posed, maybe it's all nearer than we think. Clever, scary stuff, marvellously presented and performed, and benefitting from not having to be re-imagined when devastation hit the Festival.

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Look into the future: To Be a Machine stars Jack Gleeson

Look into the future: To Be a Machine stars Jack Gleeson

Look into the future: To Be a Machine stars Jack Gleeson

Video of the Day

ANU's ironically titled The Party to End All Parties gave us a live Dublin streetscape along the Liffey in the early evening, with voiceover from the celebrations in the same place on the evening in 1949 when Ireland officially became a Republic.

Plummy and sententious, it posed a huge question mark over what it is today to walk along the same streetscape. Nandi Bhebe, desperate for a job, any job, takes the thankless task of surveying passers-by for their views on the 'issues' of today. The result, unsurprisingly, is weary abuse.

Niamh McCann is a social worker, battered from trying to engage with a homeless man reduced to drinking the slops from bar tops until he finally signed himself into hospital. "Too lost and too lonely to live," she muses, all the while missing 76 work-related calls on her phone.

Robbie O'Connor's character is overcome in a different way, also horribly familiar: the anguish of mounting debt that overwhelms life, grown too much to survive.

The performances have an understated force under Louise Lowe's direction that is almost viciously pointed, as three 'ordinary' people from the fraught intricacies of living in 2020 fight their way through a society battling with numbing indifference and the new terror of Covid isolation.

It's a dramatic attitude which has always characterised ANU's work, and points a quietly accusing finger at the self-satisfaction and self-congratulation that characterised our closed, smug world of 1949. It takes more than talk to create a republic.

As what was left of the Dublin Theatre Festival, they were, to put it mildly, downbeat to the point of being depressing. But they also showed us that our artists refuse to lose touch with the society in which we live. And with the announcement of the increased Budget package of funding for the arts, the valiant professionals who refused to accept defeat since last March will hopefully be able to battle on.


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