The Dublin Theater Festival delves into the Irish literary canon


The most impressive work at this year’s Dublin Theater Festival is also the most formally traditional. by Tom Murphy A whistle in the dark at the Abbey Theater (until November 5) focuses on a warring Irish immigrant family in Coventry during the Teddy Boy era. Structured like a classic tragedy, the 1961 Eight Hands combines the pathos of Sophocles and Shakespeare with the bloody chaos of Jacobean drama. Although violence lurks throughout the nearly three-hour runtime (with an interval), the overriding note of Jason Byrne’s directing is one of searing but methodically paced tension.

Anchoring this achievement is a textured central performance by Seán McGinley as a degraded Dada paterfamilias, whose arrival on a tour of County Mayo sets the wheels of fate in motion. At first pleasantly courteous and self-effacing, this King Lear pound dealer quickly abandons his veneer of civility and pushes his five sons towards a culminating street fight. By turns laughably pretentious and sadistically cruel, the role could lend itself to over-the-top villainy. But McGinley switches deftly between aggressiveness and a weak, confused tone that undermines comedy in Dada’s chronically inarticulate monologues.

As eldest son Michael, Peter Coonan conveys the restlessness of a man who has enough strength of character to repudiate his family’s brutality but not enough to break free. There are also accomplished performances from Sarah Morris as his English wife Betty and Ruairí Heading as Mush. The unfortunate ingenuity of youngest son Des seems particularly poignant in James Doherty O’Brien’s performance. Peter Claffey and Timmy Creed provide some towering bottom muscle as the family dunces Iggy and Hugo.

The latter live under the influence of Michael’s main antagonist, Harry, a small and harmful criminal from the Dada district. Brian Gleeson captures the character’s tightly coiled rage, but his portrayal seems to lack a layer of menace. Some choreographic missteps also undermine the power of the macabre final scene. This Whistle nevertheless overflows with a visceral sense of claustrophobia that is complemented by the cramped misery of Cordelia Chisholm’s design. ★★★★☆

Matthew Williamson in ‘Lolling’, set in a pub basement © Ros Kavanagh

Confinement is also a feature of the promenade works imagined by the multidisciplinary company ANU. These have been an integral part of the festival for over a decade. This year’s offering consists of two overlapping 50-minute performances inspired by James Joyce Ulysses on the occasion of the centenary of its publication.

At the beginning of lounge (until October 21), created by Louise Lowe and Owen Boss, we are ushered into the basement of a pub opposite Sweny’s Pharmacy (where Leopold Bloom buys a bar of lemon soap). There we meet a bartender (Jamie O’Neill) with a gambling problem and a publicist (John Cronin) with a drinking problem. After spending the night sleeping on a bench, he nevertheless manages to repeat a winning and offbeat marketing pitch on the virtues of lotus flower tea (a nod to the “Lotus-Eaters” episode of Ulysses). The mood darkens as the bartender hides to escape a nervous delivery man (Matthew Williamson), who is owed money (another Joyce motif).

These dark firecrackers manage to evoke some of the stresses and pathologies of contemporary life in Dublin. But the links with Ulysses remain a little tenuous, and the end, which features a distraught customer (Robbie O’Connor), takes on a melodramatic note that clashes with the spirit of the novel. ★★★☆☆

This last character reappears in All the toughest woman (until October 22), where he is found searching in vain for news of his pregnant wife inside the National Maternity Hospital in Rue Holles (the setting for Mrs Purefoy’s agonizing labor at Ulysses). Created by Lowe in collaboration with Emilie Pine, the performance includes four other characters who tell rambling stories of infertility, hardship and burnout that paint a nightmarish portrait of health care. They might be right, but unleavened misery seems exhausting. And, again, there are few convincing echoes of Joyce’s ultimately redemptive novel. ★★☆☆☆

‘The Realistic Joneses’ at the Smock Alley Theater © Ros Kavanagh

In The Realistic Jones (until October 16) at the Smock Alley Theater, Will Eno delivers a more balanced yet decidedly crazy slice of experimental drama set in a mountainous region of the United States. The titular Jones are visited one evening by their new, younger neighbors, also called Jones. While the former speak and behave in a normal, realistic style, the latter, like many of Eno’s characters, converse in non-sequences and contradictions.

Initially unimpressed by such cheekiness, Bob (a beautifully dyspeptic Joe Spano) gradually takes a shine to Faline England’s Bubble-Headed Pony and begins to emulate her husband John’s (Conor Lovett) erratic affect. Meanwhile, Bob’s endlessly tolerant wife, Jennifer (Sorcha Fox), resists this wave of absurdity and sticks to realistic convention.

Judy Hegarty Lovett’s two-hour staging could arguably be cut short. But the clash of theatrical styles makes it an intellectually pleasing exercise. The piece ultimately offers an agile demonstration that actions speak louder than words. ★★★★☆

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