Empathy on Stage: The Collector and Anonymous in Dublin

First Written for Howlround.com

The past few years Dublin has seen a flourishing of small scale theatre productions that are tackling the big issues of the day. Social concerns such as homelessness, unemployment, masculinity, and violence are played out on stages above pubs, behind shops, and in old churches. If you want to see potentially challenging, difficult, socially conscious stories that reflect the lives of ordinary people who have been left behind by mainstream politics then head to the closest improvised, unconventional theatre space. By engaging with these issues playwrights are returning empathy and awareness to a society that is increasingly hostile to anything that fits outside of traditional norms.

Daniel Wade’s debut play The Collector opened to rave reviews and a full house at Dublin’s The New Theatre this January. It is striking for several reasons. The first being that it was first introduced to the public as a staged reading at the same theatre, and came to full production thanks to an online Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign.

Graeme Coughlan and Will Murphy in The Collector.

The Collector opened in a dark, spare pool hall. The stage hummed with a darkness that belied the social issues burbling underneath. The stage was small—the actors stood within an arm’s length of the audience. The lights were set low and a large pool table set centre stage with a small desk and seat served as the set dressing.

Our protagonist Oren, is young and angry. Played in barnstorming fashion by Graeme Coughlan, Oren always knows how to find trouble. His bartender Uncle Des is more resigned to the way his life has turned out. Several years ago his son killed himself and in doing so killed a part of Des too. He lost his identity as a father and family man. Now Des works under the counter to supplement his benefits. The bar is a dangerous place frequented by gangland figures; staying open all night to serve the waifs and strays of the city. It is not the ideal place for anyone to find themselves but Des has few other options. Employment opportunities for his age group and skill set are thin on the ground and few workplaces are willing to give people time to recover from such a blow.

Suicide among young men, masculinity, and poverty are issues that are explored through this character driven narrative.

Oren’s life is thrown into chaos when he finds the body of his younger brother, Frank, who has also committed suicide. Frank was forlorn after a relationship with a visiting American male professor ended when he returned to America. To make matters worse, it seemed that everyone knew of Frank’s homosexuality except for Oren. To pay for Frank’s funeral, Oren borrows money and ends up in debt to a violent money collector.

Underlying all of this are different versions of masculinity. Oren’s violence and anger look helpless in this modern world and his new environment. He was unable to accept his brother for who he was and later finds himself unable to deal with his grief. Turning inwards he becomes increasingly aggressive, almost as if he wishes to destroy everything around him. Like everyone else he knows Oren has spent his life trying to get by, to make ends meet. Ultimately this is something he fails at. Unemployed, in debt and alone, his actions catch up with him one fateful night.

We in Ireland have been living in difficult financial times. With the economic crash of 2008 Ireland’s financial Celtic Tiger imploded and with it went the dreams and expectations that many had grown used to. Wade’s play resonates, as does the question it asks: What is it that makes a man a man? The traditional role of breadwinner is harder to fulfill in an economy fueled by low wages, casual contracts, continual reductions in welfare, and a greater number of potential workers than jobs. With the advantage firmly in the hands of employers it is harder for workers to assert their rights.

Although the two suicides are of characters that the audience never met they are the driving factor and catalyst for the events unfolding onstage. Suicide has barely been touched upon elsewhere on the Irish stage. This is very surprising when one considers the alarmingly high rate of suicide in Ireland’s men. According to the National Suicide Research Association in 2015 the number of female suicides per 100,000 people numbered three whereas the number of male suicides per 100,000 numbered sixteen. This is similar across Europe and North America. In the United States the average annual suicide rate is thirteen per 100,000 with men being three and a half times more likely to die in this manner than women. Characters like Des and Oren represent the many who are some of the most effected by the rollback of the state and reduction in funding for community and social services.

Ireland’s current bleak economic reality also serves as the backdrop for another recent small scale production produced by Purple Hare Theatre Company, that examines an important social issue. Taking place above a city centre pub at the improvised theatre space The International Bar, Mark Richardson’s Anonymous is about homelessness. It is about how men with jobs and families end up living on the streets. How they survive and how friendship and art can provide hope in even the darkest corners. One of the main characters, Sean, is a poet. This is something he largely keeps secret, writing his thoughts in his notebooks, the only items he has left that are his. Under Nathalie Clement’s able direction, we see how writing helps Sean to feel human and fill his endless days. It might also be his only way out of poverty.

Anonymous’ Sean and Dolan. Courtesy of Purple Hare Theatre Company.

The two central characters Sean and Dolan are both men who once lived in relative comfort until bereavement and unemployment tore their lives apart. No one wanted things to turn out the way that they did. Anonymous highlights how everyone is just a step or two away from losing everything. The staging echoes the narrative. Sean, played by Zeff Lawless, makes his home on the floor; alone, next to bags of garbage. When Lawless speaks though, the audience hears someone ostracised from society who they can also relate to. Richardson manages to bring empathy back into the conversation around homelessness.

Walking out of the play, I noticed people huddled in sleeping bags in shop doorways, and it was a startling reminder that homelessness is all around us. The play works to humanize people we might otherwise walk past, feet quickening, eyes averted. By introducing the audience to individuals who just happen to sleep on the streets the audience respond to their humanity and real human fears and hopes.

At the moment theatre productions such as The Collector and Anonymous are tackling important issues that affect the audiences’ everyday lives. As older, more traditional ideas of masculinity, of how to live and work are being challenged on all fronts, the theatre is serving as one stage where these issues can be worked through.

All That We Found Here

First Written for The Reviews Hub

All That We Found Here – The New Theatre, Dublin

All That We Found Here opens in the living room of a mansion house. Everything in this room has been chosen for its style, for the image it projects to others, and for its price tag. Against the back wall are bookshelves full of hardback classic philosophy texts, an open fireplace, and a family portrait of a man seemingly standing proud, purveyor of all he sees. As the cast enters the sounds of dance music begins and the men, wearing pig masks dance energetically with the one female figure spinning into a frenzy in the centre of the stage.

This is how we met Sophia. She is the estranged daughter of an exiled property tycoon who has recently returned to the family home. Each weekend is spent partying with the young and wealthy of Dublin. Finding herself with a home and finance but without the presence or love of her parents, she questions the way in which we live. Is it better for one to strive for and claim whatever you want and leave others behind, or whether people should work together for the common good? It is a question that reverberates throughout the play but Humphreys’ script does not provide any easy answers. When a group of workmen arrive the action takes an unexpected turn and these theories of self-interest versus community are put to the test in a shocking and powerful way.

As each scene progresses the audience are left guessing what will happen next. All That We Found Here features stylised character interactions that use lighting and sound to reinforce the feeling of the moment. Under Sarah Bradley’s very capable direction each tonal shift is smooth and believable. Surprisingly this is Donagh Humphreys first full-length play. It is an exceptionally strong start to a career as a playwright. Each character is believable and the crisis points of the play manage to stay on the side of natural rather than overwrought. There is plenty of humour throughout before the play begins to cross the line into drama and tragedy. All That We Found Here is sure to continue packing out Dublin’s New Theatre.

Runs until 15 April 2017 | Image: Contributed

Collected Stories

First Written for The Reviews Hub

Collected Stories – Smock Alley Theatre, Dublin

Writer: Donald Margulies

Director: Aoife Spillane – Hinks

Collected Stories began its short run at Dublin’s Smock Alley Theatre this evening and closed to a standing ovation and multiple curtain calls. This two-handed play, written by Pulitzer prize-winning playwright Donald Margulies, was delivered excellently by actors Brid Ni Neachtain and Maeve Fitzgerald. Tonight’s success is not surprising when one considers the rave reviews this production received for its earlier performances at Dublin’s Viking Theatre and Civic Theatre.

The play begins in the home of celebrated short story writer and college lecturer Ruth Steiner. She has invited one of her pupils, Lisa Morrison, to join her for a tutorial in which they will analyse and work on Lisa’s short story Eating Between Meals. Fitzgerald’s Lisa is an over-excited, nervous young woman who is overwhelmed at the chance to meet her idol. She is keen to sit at Ruth’s feet to listen and learn. This is something that she perhaps does a little too well as becomes clear in the play’s closing scenes. Their relationship continues after this original meeting as Lisa takes on the role of Ruth’s assistant. In time she becomes an accomplished writer and the role of tutor and student goes on an interesting journey over the six years of their friendship. Under Spillane – Hinks careful direction Collected Stories shows the development and growth of Lisa and the loneliness, jealousy, and love that Ruth holds for her, with finesse.

Ni Neachtain does not put a foot wrong as the brittle and witty Ruth. There is a particularly interesting scene where Lisa receives her first professional review. It is a glowing piece in The New York Times. Margulies writing skewers the fear, hope, and frustration of the writer excellently and truthfully in this one scene. Lisa quickly moves from nerves to elation, to despair at the thought of having to recreate and develop upon this small success. Collected Stories investigates the life of a writer and the power and ownership of language; of stories. As each audience member walks away they carry with them a new story that change in tone and meaning over time.

Special attention has gone into the set design created by Hanna Bowe, which uses colour and dimmed lighting to evoke the feeling of a Manhattan apartment, whose owner has moved from beatnik poet to professional wordsmith. The shelves at the back of the stage are full of colour coordinated books and the desk and telephone table contain the organised clutter of a writer. The sofa and chair are homely and help to present the idea of middle-class literary success. It is the very picture of understated and aspirational.

Then This Theatre Company have presented a well paced, intelligent and absorbing piece of theatre. In a year that is already proving to be excellent for Dublin theatre Collected Stories is one show that truly stands out of the crowd.

 

Fizzy Drinks With Two Straws

First Written for The Reviews Hub

Fizzy Drinks With Two Straws – Theatre Upstairs, Dublin

Writer: Joyce Dignam

Directors: Joyce Dignam and Meabh Hennelly

Tea + Toast Theatre Company are presenting their entertaining short play Fizzy Drinks With Two Straws at Dublin’s Theatre Upstairs. The play previously premiered at Smock Alley Theatre’s Scene and Heard Festival, which gives theatre makers the chance to present and workshop new writing. It is interesting to see a play develop like this. It has been expanded upon for its current run and is being delivered on the back of a wealth of positive reviews from the festival.

The set sits perfectly in the theatre. The stage is a matter of inches from the front row. It largely consists of a soft green lawn, with a children’s slide and holiday paraphernalia (fizzy drinks, crisp packets, Barbie dolls) scattered about. One quarter of the stage is made of sand with small sandcastles facing the audience. This is Wexford. Sisters Lana are Rosie are here with their parents on holiday. They have been left outside to play while the adults are having a ‘grown up talk’ in the pub. Pints are consumed and the children are left to wonder is something wrong or it just for grownups? The phrase that we all know; “you’re too young to understand” stalks the play.

As the pair spend the day together their family story starts to unravel and through their young eyes the audience see how, although they may not understand, they are taking everything in. The clever use of a story within a story gives a ferocious insight into their family life and one can see how closely intertwined love, rage and fear can be. Both actresses, Ali Hardiman as Lara and Tara Maguire as Rosie, deliver assured performances that are often full of humour and naiveté. In some ways this is also a mystery play as the audience are drawn into the drama and try to work out what has bought the sisters to this point at the same time that they are trying to understand the grownups who keep changing around them. This is an interesting piece of new writing that will continue to entertain and intrigue for the rest of its run.

 

Vampirella

First Written for The Reviews Hub

Vampirella – Smock Alley, Dublin

Director: Conor Hanratty

Composer: Siobhan Cleary

Librettist: Katy Hayes

Conductor: Andrew Synnott

The world premiere of Opera Briefs 2017 production of Vampirella took place this evening in the main stage of Smock Alley Theatre. This work by composer Siobhan Cleary is the result of a creative partnership between the Royal Irish Academy of Music and The Lir National Academy of Dramatic Art at Trinity College Dublin.

Based on Angela Carter’s story this makes for an interesting and entertaining basis for an opera. As the somewhat unusual title suggests vampires feature heavily in this work. Set deep in the Carpathian Mountains The Count watches posthumously over his beloved daughter. His love outliving death. The young Countess meanwhile is consumed by loneliness, living in the shadows with only her Scottish Governess for company. In 1914 an English soldier called Hero seeks shelter in a desolate castle. Arriving on a bicycle in tweeds with a perfect upper class English accent his hunt for a cup of tea couldn’t be more out of place in this home of the undead. Soon he meets the beautiful Countess but is taken aback by her unusually sharp, pointy teeth and lengthy nails. When her pet cat scratches him she cannot resist the chance to drink.

Hero is presented as an innocent. He enters the stage from the right completely free of fear with a naïve sense of humour. Throughout the performance one waits to see whether he will retain this innocence and go onto survive or whether he will eventually be drawn into darkness. The final scene sees a change in tone that rounds of the opera on a sad and tragic note. Traditionally, in pantomime in particular, the characters representing good enter from stage right and those representing evil enter from stage left. This idea is used and played with in Vampirella when our protagonists take their places on the stage. The Count sits above the proceedings, only descending to the stage when he fears that his daughter will be lost to the charms of this invading Englishman.

Special applause should go to the orchestra who navigated the piece successfully from beginning to end while also managing to play in near darkness. They seemed to be both technically exact while supplementing and furthering the narrative without ever overpowering and obstructing the vocalists. The compact team worked well together in this tightly organised and plotted production. In line with this the stage is effectively utilised with simple props; a bicycle and a bed moving easily from one side to the other. Eight cloaked figures holding candles haunt the stage; singing, chanting, moving in unison.

This is an ideal opera to take place in the city that gave birth to Bram Stoker and that has been drawn year after year into tales of vampires. At the close of Vampirella one is left questioning who the real monsters are and can innocence survive in this world?

 

Try Not To Breathe by Holly Seddon Review

Last month the book club made a welcome change towards contemporary thrillers with journalist Holly Seddon’s debut Try Not to Breathe. Although there has been a plethora of female driven psychological thriller’s in recent years this is my first foray into the genre. Despite my slow start this was definitely a good introduction.

In 1995 15 year old Amy was found having been raped and left for dead by an unknown attacker. However she didn’t die. Instead she fell into a vegetative a state: a form of a coma where there are no obvious signs of life except for neural changes. When freelance journalist Alex visits the hospital to write about advances in neuro medicine she becomes intrigued with Amy. They come from similar backgrounds and are the same age, except as Alex has aged and lived through the past 15 years Amy has remained as if in stasis. Soon Alex finds herself investigating Amy’s case and is determined to hunt down the killer. In doing so will she find herself in the process?

Alex, who holds the primary narrative voice, is an intriguing character. A young, successful woman who ought to have the world at her feet is falling apart at the seams. Her marriage and work have been crushed and she is ‘dealing’ with this by attempting to drink herself to death whilst denying her alcoholism. Her interest in Amy offers a glimmer of redemption and brings her into contact Amy’s mystery visitor.

The main characters are well fleshed out and their less than ideal aspects help to make them recognisable. For example Amy’s confusion and naiveté, Alex’s drinking and others hiding behind silence, rounds them out to become characters that could walk off the page and sit next to you. Sometimes characters are at their most realistic when they are at their most undesirable. However it is important to note that Alex is a pleasant travelling companion for the novel and it feels as though you could bump into someone like her in the street. What is intriguing is what people do not say. How Alex has to chase down answers and knock on locked doors in order to try to recapture Amy’s final days. Journalists make good protagonists as they take the reader on the same journey they are on.

It is also interesting to look at a case such as this without the filter of social media and mobile technology, where someone can have secrets, can disappear. Sneddon’s past as a journalist can be seen throughout as the writing is well crafted and skips along navigating the line between storytelling and description well. The medical information comes across as accurate and useful. It is lightly dropped into the novel – as it would be in a good piece of journalism – so as to provide the needed information in a manageable manner.

The murder mystery aspect has readers scouring the text searching for clues and turning points. Can you work out what happened before Amy does? Most of the book club kept pace with Amy’s investigation and found the writing and characters kept them reading even more so than the thriller aspect. The end is wrapped up rather quickly and little time is given over to get to know the perpetrator. It might have been nice to have had a chapter or two near the end narrated by the murderer. Seddon does not do this, perhaps in part because she avoids making the murder sensational or gratuitous, instead keeping human, frail and real Amy – the victim – at its centre.

Full of suspense Try Not To Breathe hooks the reader in from the start. The quality writing keeps one reading as much as the level of intrigue. It is one of those books that once you have started will not be able to put down until you reach the end. Set aside a day or two to get lost in Sneddon’s writing to really enjoy the novel

 

Ballantine Books. London. 2016. Hardback. ISBN: 9781782399452.

Hagseed: The Tempest Retold by Margaret Atwood Review

 

As the 4ooth anniversary of Shakespeare’s death brought with it an outpouring of new appreciation. However at the same time there has been some debate as to the worthwhile of adapting Shakespeare for new generations. The London based Hogarth Press persuaded eight popular modern novelists to retell or respond to their favourite Shakespeare play in novel format for today’s audience. Margaret Atwood, best known for her feminist dystopias, chose Shakespeare’s final solo authored play and possible goodbye to the stage; The Tempest.

On the release of the Hogarth Press novels, Adam Gopnik of The New Yorker argued persuasively that Shakespeare, a jobbing writer and actor, would be somewhat bewildered by this turn of events. Stating that “Shakespeare believed in fate, order, and forgiveness; we believe in history, justice, and compassion – three pairings so similar as to sometimes seem the same, though they are not”. Shakespeare’s dramatic storylines that pulled in the London crowds have been muted and internalised and the outcast and dejected made sympathetic. This may work for a new audience but ultimately it pushes one back to the original; to seek out the certainty in order and forgiveness that has been lost over the centuries. However, if one is to argue that these novels push one back to the original plays is that a bad thing?

This argument seems to have been expected. For example Constance Grady at Vox focuses on the exciting plot lines to be developed from new adaptations. Once one is free of the language and poetry the storylines become open to response. From the literal island banishment of Prospero comes the figurative exile and prison of Atwood’s Felix.

The novel concerns theatre director Felix, who after losing his prestigious position at Makeshiweg Theatre Festival goes into hiding for several years before remerging as a prison literacy teacher. Having spent many years at the top as artistic director his plays had increasingly started to bewilder rather than charm the audience, and importantly the shareholders. His next production was to be The Tempest. This would bring him back to prominence and also give him the chance to resurrect his family and heal himself.

In the first few chapters Felix, who can be somewhat pompous and self-righteous, is the victim of an unexpected act of treachery that foists him from all he knows and leaves him plotting his revenge. “What was Felix waiting for? He hardly knew. A Chance opening, a lucky break? A pathway toward a moment of confrontation? A moment when the balance of power would lie with him. It was an impossible thing to wish for, but suppressed rage sustained hum. That, and his thirst for justice.”

Living in exile with thoughts of his daughter becoming increasingly real to him Felix is a shadow of his former self. Having named his daughter Miranda the chance to perform as Prospero gives Felix the chance to bring back his daughter. She had died shortly before the novel opens at the age of three. Their lives will parallel those of Prospero and his Miranda. As he lives out his days in the wilderness he allows himself to think her back into existence. “It was only a short distance from wistful daydreaming to the half-belief that she was still there with him, only invisible. Call it a conceit, a whimsy, a piece of acting: he didn’t really believe it, but he engaged in this non-reality as if it were real”.

Instead of being set on an island Hagseed takes place in a prison: Fletcher Correctional Facility. Felix uses this as his chance to lure his old adversaries onto his territory. Will he seek vengeance in the end though or will this be his final curtain call? The idea to set the action in a literal prison was inspired. It offers the sense of claustrophobia and entrapment that is necessary to make the character motivations seem believable. Throughout The Tempest there are many forms of imprisonment with every character being trapped and lacking control over their own destiny. In this light one can see how the characters come to take advantage of whatever skills or abilities they have to try to reassert their authority in a push for freedom.

Further Atwood latches on to the idea that more than any other play The Tempest is about production. “But above all, The Tempest is a play about a producer/director/playwright putting on a play – namely, the action that takes place on the island, complete with special effects – that contains another play, the masque of the goddesses. Of all Shakespeare’s plays, this one is most obviously about plays, directing and acting.”

This retelling is clever and self knowing. Hagseed is tremendous fun. It roars along tearing through the layers of acting, playing, identity, mischief and magic that mark Shakespeare’s final play. Although prior knowledge of The Tempest is helpful and will provide insight into the multiple layers Hagseed can, and should, be enjoyed by those unfamiliar with the play.

The title Hagseed refers to Caliban (it also comes from a list of swear words gathered from the text. Although he is granted the title of the novel his name is still used as an insult) however the novel is Felix’s (aka Prospero’s). Magic, control and power are played with throughout. The play is often thought to be Shakespeare’s goodbye to the theatre. As Prospero says goodbye to his magic books was the writer saying goodbye to his pen and paper? Similarly in Hagseed by recreating The Tempest will Felix either recapture Miranda or be finally ready to let her go. The father daughter relationship is beautiful although full of sorrow and softens Felix to the reader. It is this relationship that makes him seem human and damaged, rather than a power hungry. However it is surprising that Atwood set up the idea of a novel focusing on Caliban and then retreated from the idea.

The Tempest is an underappreciated play that contains more depth and feeling that often sighted at first glance. In Hagseed Atwood teases out the twin themes of grief and isolation to create a vital and surprising novel that does an excellent job of reimagining the storms and magic of the 1600s into music and special effects for today’s reader. This version perhaps leaves the reader with more hope than the original, with one being able to see a glimmer of life left for Felix. Most of all this is an excellent read from start to finish and can, and should, be enjoyed by all.

 

Hogarth Shakespeare. 2016. London. ISBN: 9781781090237