The Lonely Luchador is Head Above Water’s contribution to this year’s Scene and Heard Festival at Smock Alley Theatre. Given the chance to present a work in progress, the stage floor is open for risks, novelty and new ways of storytelling.
El Hombre, the worlds greatest wrestler, is in Mexico to compete for the Mexican Championship Wrestling Heavyweight Title. In spandex and blue face mask he is ready to rumble. Or is he? Perhaps the time come to retire? To live a gentle life in the countryside with his beautiful wife Anna Lucia (Nathalie Clément). However, his manager Dexter (Tom Doonan) and Anna Lucia have other plans and insist on him taking on this last fight. Sure, all he has to do is take on the monster among men that is Mister Muerto. His black mask and deadliest finishing move in Combat Sports are legendary. Young, powerful and deadly Mister Muerto is El Hombre’s greatest challenge. As the two titans of wrestling come face to face, the plot unwinds in a series of twists, turns, surprises and daring feats of physical comedy that make The Lonely Luchador a festival hit.
With The Lonely Luchador Head Above Water have succeeded in their aim of bringing original theatre and physical comedy to the Dublin stage. 30 minutes of riotous fun The Lonely Luchador features sharp and precise physical comedy at its finest. Compere and referee Joe Clinton, as Earl, kicks off the performance by inviting the audience to join in with boos and cheers; to involve themselves in the play like a real wrestling audience would. This was set upon with Friday night joy by the audience; who took little persuading to cheer on the good guy. As Conor Duffy’s El Hombre and Gavan O’Connor Duffy’s Mister Muerto face off tightly choreographed physical comedy is on full display. Body slams, kicks to the face, fighting off stage in the midst of the audience, this action – packed scene is excellently coordinated to draw as much entertainment as possible from the raucous fight scene. It will turn even the disinterested into a wrestling fan for the night.
Writer, director and El Hombre Conor Duffy shines throughout; imbuing his character with just enough emotion to make the audience root for him. Clément, armed only with her sharp tongue and hand fan, manages to utilise props and accents to great effect. Rounding off the group is Tom Doonan as El Hombre’s manager: a Texan with a cowboy hat and heeled boots, he is a chancer on the make. The accents are hammy and the action fast and physical. Every opportunity is mined for laughs in this ensemble piece.
Fun from beginning to end The Lonely Luchador was a very enjoyable part of this years Scene and Heard Festival. It will be very interesting to see what Head Above Water are planning to do with this in the future. Whatever they decide, it is bound to be cracking good fun.
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.
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.
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.
For homeless men living on the streets of Dublin it can seem as though they are stripped of their identity; histories, talents and even names. Mark Richardson’s Anonymous seeks to undo this.
Dolan is new to the streets and it shows. Despite having no shoes on he is still clean and somewhat green; willing to trust in others and have faith. He opens himself up and is vulnerable when talking about how he came to be on the streets. For Dolan his life may not be a long harsh process of homelessness but for older associate Sean, it is. Sean doesn’t have friends. He doesn’t have a name either. Or at least that is what he tells people. It soon becomes clear however that he is someone others turn to for advice and comfort. Slow to talk about himself he chooses to protect himself with the invisibility that comes with being looked over hundreds of times a day. He is the self – proclaimed oldest homeless man in Dublin and knows how to survive with little else except his notebooks.
The staging and costumes are relatively simple. Rubbish and fallen leaves are bundled up in a corner. The two main characters are armed with only their backpacks, some cardboard and the items on their bodies to protect them from the elements.
Over time we learn that Sean is a poet. Some of the play is delivered in verse, and poetry is integral to the nature of Anonymous. The language used is frequently lyrical and used to underscore humorous moments. It is important to note that this play is not gloomy or self-righteous but instead has many scenes which are funny and hopeful. Which also helps to show how the homeless are still people with minds who create and value art; for themselves and for others. Can art be a way out of poverty?
There are several points of heightened emotion in the play, including the ending that could do with a little sharpening to really touch the audience. Closing with multiple curtain calls after a surprising ending Anonymous is an important and valuable play that can both entertain and touch the heart of the audience. On the streets around The International Bar people are sleeping in shop doorways and begging for money to pay for a hostel bed. It is a sobering reminder that this play draws on what is for many a way of life.