Where memories stalk the streets

Ghosts and memories stalk the streets and stages at this year’s Dublin Theatre Festival, as the question of facing up to the past resurfaces again and again.

This is not a festival that looks for themes but it’s one that tends to find them, partly because so much of what is on offer is home-grown. Not all of it by any means – this year’s two-week gathering includes a first visit by groundbreaking New Yorkers the Wooster Group – but there is a firm emphasis on Irish theatre-making here, which means common preoccupations can bubble to the surface. The result is far from parochial: focus on the particular and you often touch the universal. And all over town, the past is pressing in on the present.

Nowhere is this more keenly felt than in ANU Productions’ The Boys of Foley Street. The team behind last year’s outstanding Laundry returns with a superb and disturbing piece of immersive work, peeling another layer off the troubled history of Dublin’s north inner city.

As with Laundry, the form fits the content. Then, we were locked in; this time we are on the streets, never sure who to trust. The focus is the 1970s, an era when recession, unemployment and the influx of heroin fuelled an aggressive sub-culture of crime and prostitution. Audience members undertake their own personal odyssey through this world and gradually get sucked in: you are asked to hold a thug’s coat while he beats up another criminal or to fasten together a shaking girl’s dress with safety pins. As with all good immersive theatre, the detail is what counts: the most unsettling episode is in a tiny, grubby flat, meticulous in period furnishing. Here, as the atmosphere simmers with violence, a young teenage girl offers you tea. The guilty relief you feel when you are able to escape is shocking.

Quietly, the company draws links with today. It is not clear when the drama, directed by Louise Lowe, has ended or where the edges are: it makes you see more sharply the world you move through.

Conscience, responsibility and the way the past impacts on the present also feature in Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (Abbey Theatre) with its dizzying proposition of a character who can sin with impunity because the scars on his soul will mark his portrait rather than his face. Wilde’s moral fable is sumptuously brought to life in Neil Bartlett’s seductive yet sinister staging.

Tom Canton makes an excellent debut as Dorian, a blond Adonis who succumbs to the slippery suggestion of Lord Henry Wotton (Jasper Britton, superbly reptilian) that he revel in all the pleasures youth can buy without paying any price. It is a theme that may resonate with audiences familiar with recession and a culture obsessed by youth, but Bartlett wisely lets such echoes take care of themselves, focusing instead on the story’s preoccupations with art and truth. Dorian’s tragedy plays out on a set that suggests both affluence and artifice – rustling silks combine with bare walls – and a chorus of characters both urge him on and mutter disapproval. Though self-consciously theatrical, it conveys dark truths. “I do love acting,” says one character, languidly. “It is so much more real than life.”

That may be a typical Wildean aphorism but it points to another leitmotif of this year’s festival. Many shows test out where theatre begins and ends. That’s certainly the case with Dylan Tighe’s Record (New Theatre) and Feidlim Cannon’s Have I No Mouth (Project Arts Centre). Both are intimate, innovative pieces that experiment with blurring real life and theatre by staging episodes from their creators’ own experience.

And it is emphatically the case in the Wooster Group’s Hamlet (O’Reilly Theatre). This typically unconventional production picks up the themes of haunting and play-acting in Shakespeare’s drama and runs with them.

Elizabeth LeCompte’s staging takes as its start point the fact that Richard Burton’s stage performance on Broadway in 1964 was filmed. She brings the process full circle: here the actors on stage attempt to imitate the film, which crackles behind them.

Most actors try to escape their predecessors’ readings of a part; Scott Shepherd, playing Hamlet, does the reverse, emulating Burton’s pronunciation, style and movement. It’s a playful idea: the film has been cut in places and the cast amusingly replicate the odd jerky acting this produces. But gradually the staging grows in stature. The spectres on the film fade and flicker; the actors on stage seem to channel, rather than imitate, them, and the play itself exerts its grip.

Fascinatingly it meditates on the fleeting nature of theatre, on transience, and on death, and it is touching to see Shepherd emulate the ghostly image of Burton as he addresses the spectre of Hamlet’s father.

Declan Hughes’s The Last Summer (Gate Theatre) also explores the interface between past and present, contrasting two summers on the edge of upheaval. Hughes interweaves the aspirations of four 17-year-old lads in 1977 with the experiences of their older selves, 30 years later, just before the start of the financial crisis.

Central to the story is Paul (Sam McGovern), the cleverest and the one who got away – to the US. When he returns home to his Dublin suburb, it’s clear that he has unfinished emotional business to handle.

The themes – remorse, regret, responsibility – are strong, and the play’s sceptical view of nostalgia hits home. But it is a curiously stiff-legged affair, held back by some stilted dialogue and a plot that lacks clarity and coherence. It’s well delivered by the cast but it lacks fizz.

Finally to Maeve Brennan, the brilliant Irish émigré who flourished as a writer in New York before gradually giving way to mental instability. Emma Donoghue’s enjoyable play The Talk of the Town (Project Arts Centre) opens with Brennan in her heyday – reeling round the offices of The New Yorker in the 1950s, dropping caustic witticisms – and then chronicles her decline.

It’s overly arch at the outset and the staged scenes from Brennan’s Irish stories sit uneasily. But, in Annabelle Comyn’s production, Lorcan Cranitch is excellent as the meticulous editor William Shawn and Catherine Walker suggests vulnerability and loneliness behind Brennan’s brittle exterior: another haunted individual trying to find her bearings.

The festival ends on October 14, dublintheatrefestival.com

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