Entertainment Theatre & Arts

Thursday 19 September 2019

The Hunger, Abbey Theatre, Dublin: Sean-nós and opera blended into touching Famine memorial

Running until Saturday night

Rich juxtaposition: Sean-nós singer Iarla Ó Lionáird and soprano Katherine Manley
Rich juxtaposition: Sean-nós singer Iarla Ó Lionáird and soprano Katherine Manley

Katy Hayes

The Great Famine is still a sensitive wound in the complex history between the Irish and the British. It provided fuel for the War of Independence - but it also fueled some important drama, including Tom Murphy's play Famine and Lance Daly's film Black '47. Here, Tom Creed and the Abbey Theatre's opera co-production tackles the subject with a clear political articulacy.

Composer Donnacha Dennehy enters this world via the 18th-century American humanitarian Asenath Nicholson, who had "a single vanity - her singing voice". She visited Ireland during the Famine and recorded her experiences in published journals.

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Musically, Dennehy has taken a novel and brilliant approach. Traditional sean-nós singer Iarla Ó Lionáird, playing an everyman peasant, is juxtaposed with soprano Katherine Manley as Nicholson. The result is rich in tonal and emotional rewards. The folk style adds inflection and vulnerability to the soprano; the formal opera setting enhances the inherent grandeur in Ó Lionáird's style. Their interaction, that of well-meaning foreigner and suffering peasant, is profoundly moving at its climax.

Set designer Jim Findlay has created a sloping wedge of hillside that cuts the stage in two; piano and percussion to the rear, the rest of the Crash Ensemble orchestra to the fore. The enclosed wedge looks a bit like a crazy-golf course, but once you get over that, it provides an ideal platform for the two singers. The set is scattered with screens, which alternatively show landscapes and talking heads; contributors include Paul Krugman, Noam Chomsky and Maureen Murphy - the historian who has recently brought Nicholson into the spotlight.

There is a current vogue for a more documentary style in new Irish opera and this work nimbly flits between the informative and the dramatic. The talking heads provide historical context, but also draw the contemporary global moment into the picture, with other famines in other places. Lurking off-stage all the while is the spectre of Brexit, the sense that Britain pursues its own agenda while casually causing damage to its nearest neighbour.

Director Creed and conductor Alan Pierson steer the emotional journey carefully, as Manley descends the hill, observing Ó Lionáird struggling, burying a body, and savagely eating a scrap of bread she gives him. Discordant musical moments are banished by melodies. A lasting image is of how plump the dogs of Arranmore have grown. In any famine, there is always a sector that is getting fat.

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