Sunday 25 February 2018

Theatre: Fighting back in this most complex world

* Mainstream, Project, Dublin
* Test Dummy, Theatre Upstairs, Dublin
* The Best Place for Love, New Theatre, Dublin

Donal Toolan and Grainne Hallahan in 'Mainstream' at the Project
Donal Toolan and Grainne Hallahan in 'Mainstream' at the Project
The Best Place For Love is playing at the New Theatre

Emer O'Kelly

Mainstream is hugely ambitious. Rosaleen McDonagh's new play tackles the issue of sidelining, prejudice and moral disenfranchisement of various minorities through a "second" lens: the making of a television documentary by an ambitious, somewhat coldhearted young woman whose eye is on the result rather than the issues and people she's dealing with.

Long an activist in the two areas which affect her personally (McDonagh is a Traveller and has a physical disability) the author is wise enough to give even Eleanor, her young film-maker a secret vulnerability: a non-visible physical disability which has stunted her emotional growth as well as turning her into a puppet for her campaigning father.

But when she comes up against the combined forces of Mary-Anne, a settled Traveller with a progressive crippling condition, Mary-Anne's estranged lover Jack, a settled Traveller with a drink problem and a failed sports career, and Eoin, an embittered gay Traveller also confined to a wheelchair, she finds herself dealing with the dark forces of their combined past. And there are an awful lot of them.

That's the problem: even a director of Jim Culleton's finesse and passion can't bring clarity to McDonagh's maelstrom of complex issues in the time at his disposal; too many have been thrown into the mix, and dealt with (if at all) through the inadequate narrative recall of the characters in their interviews with Eleanor. Perhaps the most thorough investigation lies in a debate between the two women about gender politics, almost Shavian in its dialectic complexity.

But with all its faults, what Mainstream does is crawl into your soul: its anger stabs deep into the audience, and makes for a harrowing, deeply affecting 85 minutes.

Apparently it was hoped originally to cast the piece entirely with what Travellers call "crips" but this was abandoned; wisely, as it would be akin to only a Jew being qualified to play Christ, or an aristocratic Dane to play Hamlet. The result is a cynical, impassioned Mary-Anne from Neili Conroy, an intense Eoin from Donal Toolan, a belligerently frustrated Jack from John Connors, and a crumbling detachment from Grainne Hallahan as Eleanor (although she and Connors do have some vocal projection problems.)

Mainstream is sobering rather than entertaining, but is an admirable in-house co-production with Fishamble at Project in Dublin, artfully designed by Niamh Lunny with video projections by Neil O'Driscoll, lighting by Sarah Jane Shiels and sound by Denis Clohessy.

Caitriona Daly's new play Test Dummy might well be re-named The 21st Century Harlot's Progress. Our concept of what constitutes a harlot has, fortunately, changed since the 18th century; but we are still inclined to paint a woman who would once have been so described as a powerless victim of the always predatory male.

Daly's protagonist is not the test dummy of the title: men are…by the legion. It begins when at six and seven "it felt special" to open your legs experimentally. And it progressed to "becoming Barbie to do my best" in a thought process that says "you are just a test dummy. I am happy to oblige." But at which end of the transaction is the test dummy, when at 24, you'll "f*** anything if it makes (you) feel better?"

The play (at Theatre Upstairs at Lanigan's Bar, on Eden Quay in Dublin) explores the numbing of the senses through what used to be called promiscuity, paradoxically in a search for the long-gone dawning of pleasure, which happened at age 14 and is still angrily, nostalgically remembered.

But touch has become threatening, to be avoided at all costs, even from the little baby-sat charges of transition year school projects. The self is subsumed into "a hole to park your bench in."

The play is terrifying in its awareness and its refusal to cast woman as either victim or predator: in just 40 minutes it explores sexuality to paint quite beautifully, a portrait of 21st-century womanhood.

Caitriona Ennis gives a stormingly touching performance as the woman; and she's directed extraordinarily well by Louise Lowe in the almost uncomfortably close quarters.

Designed by Laura Honan, Test Dummy is a WeGetHighOnThis production.

Hubris and amorality will always trounce principle and decency. That's the theme of Paul Kennedy's new play The Best Place for Love (a Fire and Ice production at the New Theatre in Dublin) and a mighty depressing and unpleasant theme it is.

Mick and Anna are rubbing along together pretty well, especially (maybe only) in the bedroom.

He's an unsuccessful, hopefully undiscovered painter, she's a fast- food worker aspiring to be an actor.

Enter Frank, a Celtic Tiger leftover, boasting of deals, betraying his wife, collecting art compulsively. Except he knows nothing about art, and it emerges he knows as little about business.

Finally, we discover he knows damn all about love either.

When his world crashes, Frank is full of self-pity; but his victims don't have that luxury: they must pick up the pieces in their various ways. Especially his wife Audrey, almost unhinged with worry, but sticking with HER gut instinct: flawed and selfish, even useless he might be, but she loves her husband.

Kennedy has produced a fascinating piece of theatre, a bit rough around the edges, but compelling in its lucid explication of venality and its aftermath.

He directs it himself (rather statically, I'm afraid) but is terrifically served by Pat McGrath as the blustering Frank, and especially by Susan Bracken as the bereft, betrayed Audrey clinging to her dignity.

Steve Gunn, too, does a good job with the disappointed Mick, but while the writing is good enough to give us Anna as an enigmatic, angst-ridden woman of deep passions, Sarah Allen Clarke belies the portrait with an almost robotic performance.

It's designed by Daniel Doyle and lit by Conor Burnell with sound by Alan Coleman.

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