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“Move on!” cries a character in Tom Murphy’s Bailegangaire, desperately trying to urge her aged grandmother to reach the painful climax of her story and so push on towards recovery. She could be speaking for many characters on the stages of Dublin at this year’s theatre festival. The annual festival has become a highlight of the theatrical year, a flourishing three-week celebration of drama homegrown and international. And it has demonstrated a fearless willingness to discuss some of Ireland’s traumas of recent years.
There’s nothing quite so specific in the shows I saw, though shattered religious statues play a key part in two of them. But running through them all is a concern with secrets, lies and ghosts, a sense of people trying to find out who they are and rebuild after catastrophe. The family is the focus and the need for honesty the drive. It produces strong writing and powerful performances.
Hugo Hamilton digs back into his own family history for The Mariner at the Gate Theatre. His tale of Peter Shanley, a sailor who returns from the first world war much altered, is drawn from that of his own grandfather. In Hamilton’s drama, Peter (Sam O’Mahoney) has survived the Battle of Jutland but comes home so changed – heavily bandaged, shell-shocked and shrouded in shame – that his mother (Ingrid Craigie) becomes convinced he is an imposter. His wife (Lisa Dwyer Hogg) believes he is the man she loves, and so a tug of war develops that perhaps hints at the ambiguous response to those Irishmen who served with the British forces.
It’s a delicate, poignant and enigmatic piece, if a little too deliberate to have the full impact it could. Patrick Mason’s production, played out sensitively on a near-empty stage, evades realism, seeming rather to float, like a memory.
In the programme, Hamilton suggests that it can take “a hundred years to understand what happened a hundred years ago”. The timeframe is somewhat shorter in Mark O’Rowe’s Our Few and Evil Days at the Abbey Theatre, but a traumatised family is again the focus, a lost son again the ghostly presence.
An expertly twisted psychological thriller, it begins with an innocent enough scene and one all too familiar to stage drama: a dinner party. A daughter (Charlie Murphy) has brought her new boyfriend (Tom Vaughan-Lawlor) round to meet the parents (Ciarán Hinds and Sinéad Cusack). O’Rowe (who also directs) revels in creating banal, socially stiff chit-chat between them. But despite the determined realism – the sofas, the running taps, the lasagne – there’s unease about the piece. From the off, the production has a chill about it, cleverly maintained by Paul Keogan’s lighting.
A late-night confrontation tips us suddenly into stalker territory, but even then O’Rowe keeps foxing expectations and shifting the focus. He explores warped love in different guises, and when the final twist comes, it seems unlikely – a shock too far. But perhaps that is the point. O’Rowe creates a world in which evasions, half-truths and lies undermine the solidity of the household on view. Subtly unsettling performances are led by Cusack, excellent as Margaret, a woman so traumatised by the past that she forces herself to relive it, night after night.
Margaret could find her way into a Beckett play – as could Mommo in Tom Murphy’s great Bailegangaire. Revived 30 years after its premiere, the play comes to Dublin in Garry Hynes’ wonderful new Druid production, along with a new companion piece, Brigit (both at the Olympia Theatre).
In Bailegangaire, the ancient Mommo, shored up centre-stage in a huge old bed, rants at her hapless granddaughters, Mary and Dolly, and rambles distractedly through a long saga. Gradually we realise that the domestic tragedy that has afflicted the direction of all their lives is the same as the one that haunts Mommo’s wildly elaborate tale. Mary is convinced that if she can just get Mommo to reach the conclusion of her tale, all three of them will be able to move on. It’s superbly paced and performed here by Catherine Walsh, Aisling O’Sullivan and Marie Mullen.
Mullen’s performance as Mommo is even more remarkable if you see her too in Brigit, the prequel by 30 years, which uncovers the woman beneath this demented figure. Lighter in tone, often funny, it shows the same cottage, this time inhabited by Mommo, her husband Seamus, and the three grandchildren as infants. Seamus (Bosco Hogan) is commissioned to carve a statue of St Brigit for the convent and, as he works on it, increasingly obsessively, Mommo tells us about the real Brigit. The image that fits the convent, the artwork that Seamus wants to achieve and the picture Mommo paints of Brigit all diverge, perhaps reflecting their conflicting views of what a woman should be.
That pain and confusion is internalised in Eimear McBride’s astonishing novel A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing, adapted for stage by Annie Ryan and impressively delivered by Aoife Duffin (Samuel Beckett Theatre). In a stream of consciousness that echoes both Beckett and Joyce, but has its own unique, splintered style, Duffin draws us through the harrowing experiences of a loveless, damaged girl. She voices too the bitter mother, the vicious grandfather who slaps her down for showing her knickers as a tot and the predatory uncle who slips her knickers off a decade later. It’s a tough watch, but superbly shaped in Ryan’s Corn Exchange production and Duffin’s quite remarkable performance.
ANU Productions brings that frankness on to the streets themselves. In Vardo, the company performs the final part in a four-part series of immersive performances uncovering the rough past and present of a small area of North Dublin. Directed by Louise Lowe, the piece introduces you to trafficked sex workers, propelling you at one point through a busy bus station to hunt for a Russian runaway. One lost soul pushes a broken holy statue round the streets in a shopping trolley. She is a character – but on these streets, it can be hard to tell, as storytelling and reality collide. ANU’s productions are brave, compassionate and sobering, making you look more closely at what is around you.
An exhibition about the festival’s history, mounted in the sprightly Little Museum of Dublin, tells us that an early production was banned for allegedly showing a condom on stage. We have, thankfully, come a long way since then.
To October 12, dublintheatrefestival.com