Sunday, October 23, 2011

ANU Productions, ‘Laundry’: This Is Not Rome

The Magdalene Laundry, Sean MacDermott Street, Ulster Bank Dublin Theatre Festival
Sept 27-Oct 15

My review (with spoilers) of Laundry (*), as well as a few thoughts on how it and The Blue Boy have dealt with the subject of the Catholic Church, coming up just as soon as I remember four names for you ...

(*) While I was stalking the Lab with the hope of getting a return ticket for ‘World’s End Lane’ (didn’t happen) I heard people from ANU tell audiences that they do hope to bring back ‘Laundry’ next year. I would strongly recommend not reading this review until you see the show, even if it’s a long wait. The show is well worth a look.

A year ago I wroteabout audience reactions to the participatory theatre at last year’s UlsterBank Dublin Theatre Festival and how individuals felt (at Ontroerend Goed’s Internal in particular) abject and ill-treated. My opinion was that audiences were mistaking the illusion inherent in theatre for a reality-based prejudice, and that no matter what alien and intimidating form art can take we can always trust our safety in that distance between metaphor and life.

Never have I had to rigorously reassure myself of this than at Laundry, where ANU Productions unlock the doors of the Gloucester Street Magdalene Laundry and bring us inside its majestic, antiseptic interiors with an un-yielding naturalism. Sterile fumes of soap fill our lungs as soon as the audience enter, only three admitted at a time. The floor tiles are hard and the doors are heavy. Windows permit light but their glass is stained dark and is so thick and garbled that only the black shapes of the bars bolted outside can be seen through it.

Our course through the building is a series of one-on-one interactions with actors in different rooms. When founded in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the Magdalene asylums were originally designed to rehabilitate “fallen women” (women of sexual promiscuity or poor moral character, most notably prostitutes) but such intentions later twisted into prison-like environments where unmarried mothers, abused girls and mentally disabled women were also committed and forced to do hard physical labour. Being considered too flirtatious or beautiful was also reason to be incarcerated. The Gloucester Street laundry didn’t close until 1996, and it wasn’t until that decade that individuals started coming forward with allegations of abuse.  

Director Louise Lowe gives these testimonies a powerful home not just in the performances she provokes from her actors but also in a competent understanding and utilizing of the sacred ground she’s been given. Lowe has earned a reputation for her off-site work, being able to take the foundations of the theatre space and construct its architecture in chosen locations. The slam of doors and the voluminous odour of soap permeates our intimate experiences with performers, constant reminders of imprisonment. She employs sharp ironies. A certificate congratulating those who leave the laundry hangs in the same room where a girl (Fiona Shiel) opens a cabinet drawer full of women’s hair. A young mother (Una Kavanagh) still shows unconditional adoration of a stained glass portrait of the baby Jesus despite her own child being taken from her.

The most powerful of Lowe’s tools though is implication, bestowed to you by the piercing eyes of the women and their commands to carry buckets and enter rooms, and in the discovery of what your presence can cause. Can we make a difference if we try to reach out to Robbie O’Connor’s defiant young man skating and losing his battle with the confines that smother him, or if we tell somebody about Lauren White’s slipping presence, or if we stay and hold Sorcha Kenny’s shaking hand? Sitting next to Bairbre Ní Caomh in the church, her character a widow self-admitted to the laundry on the dying request of a husband who feared for her loneliness, gives us safe, sweet and eloquent insight into the complications of the times. We create brief bonds with these characters, praying for each other, whistling in confession boxes, and laughing together over pranks played on the nuns.

This performance allows its audience something very special. Laundry allows its audience to be brave. The make or break of that bravery comes when a girl asks for our help in escaping the fortress, to leave behind the curfews and the silence and the cold marble. And thus is perhaps one of the most important moments of Irish theatre this year: an opportunity to change, to help people that in the past we couldn’t.

A whirlwind escape later and you find yourself shoved in the back of a taxi with an armful of rags, the driver of which (Peter O’Byrne) gives you a brief history of the Monto area before leaving you at Scrub a Dub Laundrette. Here, locals Tony and Babs invite you to quite literally iron out the remaining wrinkles of the Magdalene controversy, most notably informing us of survivor advocacy group Justice for Magdalenes, whose campaigning successfully caught the attention of the UN Committee Against Torture. Despite the UN’s demanding of a statutory report into the issue, the Dáil in June announced a more limited investigation, one more concerned with clarifying State interaction with the laundries as opposed to pressuring the authorities of those institutions to hand over documents that may indicate to the whereabouts of women and children who disappeared in the laundries. In July Taoiseach Enda Kenny, in response to the Vatican’s fabrication of evidence in the Cloyne Report, declared what is surely the most controversial speech thus far in his career:

“This is not Rome. Nor is it industrial-school or Magdalene Ireland, where the swish of a soutane smothered conscience and humanity, and the swing of a thurible ruled the Irish-Catholic world. This is the ‘Republic’ of Ireland 2011. A Republic of laws, of rights and responsibilities, of proper civic order, where the delinquency and arrogance of a particular version of a particular kind of ‘mortality’ will no longer be tolerated of ignored”

It feels to me that we are on the doorstep of a Catholic Ireland where the power of clerical hierarchy will be incredibly diminished, and as Laundry and The Blue Boy stand as memorials to the victims of such hierarchy, and as evidence of its crimes, I think this will be a positive, safe, and healthy benefit to our community. Both pieces also react to the creativity of this hierarchy, of the disgusting ways in which horrors were inflicted or concealed. Fitting it is then that ANU Productions and Brokentalkers, who are among the most important and innovative voices of our artistic community, attack this horrible creativity with their own unmatched imagination and practice; The Blue Boy as an inter-disciplinary polemic, its movement and song raw with anger, and Laundry as both a complete relocation and redefinition of the theatrical experience.

Furthermore, both plays display criticism of how our legislators have yet to avenge those who were victims. The Blue Boy mentions the long-waiting referendum on child protection laws, delayed still even in the some years since the Ryan Report. Laundry is waiting for the government to conduct the statutory investigation into the laundries that the UN suggested. There is obviously still work to be done and a mess to be cleaned, and if this theatre has taught us anything it’s that it needs to be done. And we can do it. We all have soap now.

What did everybody else think?      

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