Thursday, January 19, 2012

THEATREclub and Project Arts Centre, ‘The Family’: We Begin and End With a Family

Project Arts Centre Upstairs, Dublin
Jan 17-28

My review of The Family (with spoilers) coming up just as soon as I see Mrs. Green on Sunday for book club …

In a recent interview with, THEATREclub’s Grace Dyas revealed how the company had become centred on a trilogy of plays about Ireland, commencing with The Family, followed by the already acclaimed and unforgiving Heroin (both of which are intending to tour), and finally a project commissioned for St. Michael’s estate called History. If all goes according to plan I will get to see and write about these plays in that order (I’ve already seen Heroin but due to its sheer antagonism I’m still undecided as to what side the coin has landed for me, so a second viewing will be required).

If you’re going to put a sociological history of Ireland onstage, there is nowhere more appropriate to begin than the family. From the very beginning, as a unit of individuals, it is influential to our development as social beings, even teaching us our first words. Culturally, it holds great power in Ireland as some notion of ‘family’ constituted the nucleus of our legislative history, the effects of which are still seen today with phrasing in the constitution that still perceives women primarily as homemakers and overlooks the underdeveloped rights of children. In the present from which THEATREclub are harking back from, the complications of such a constitution are increasingly evident and the process of resolving them is frustratingly slow. If there is a need to review ‘the family’ in Irish society, the company’s approach isn’t to battle it out in some frictional political arena.

Instead, THEATREclub bring us all home.    

Doireann Coady’s set gives us Portmarnock through way of 1950s Pleasantville America. Louise and Lauren, their hair classically curled, scuffle over a black dress while Shane and Ger get up to mischief in the estate, a possible parallel to Richie Cunningham and Fonzie. Barry is a more mature guy, always wearing a tie, always drinking tea. However, in a kitchen made from plywood a scarlet kettle is not the only thing that reaches boiling point. Tempers rise as individuals aren’t listened to, or saying enough as the case may be, and a cacophony of voices all speaking at the same time becomes a glorious symphony of miscommunication that will leave the Irish son, mother, daughter or father with a grin. It’s a scene we all know well.

Our families are in here too, in some guise. Performers slip in and out of the performing roles of parent, child and sibling, and in this ambiguity we can glimpse resemblances to situations with our own kin. The idea of a family meal is wonderful but the effort of producing it can be another story. Lauren might as well take to the carrots with a pick axe, and while her approach may be destroying their dinner and worthy of Louise’s protests, at the same time we see a daughter’s determination for independence. When Louise stands tiptoe to teach the colossal Ger to waltz, as if a mother teaching her son to dance, with an unexpected belt of Moon River: the scene becomes completely disarming and moving. And you know a THEATREclub show has gone dark when Lauren Larken needs to light up a cigarette and cry her eyes out. That little woman has a huge heart.

Dyas is in greater control of her space than ever before. If the punches and slams of her beat poet playwriting was what had people taking notes in the early days, her confidence as a director impresses here, using a theatrical code which causes Aristotelian poetics to fuse, spark, and the physicality of her performers basks in the ensuing fireworks. When Shane Byrne takes to the air, pirouetting to the club music behind him, there is no fixed interpretation to the action. All we’ve got is our intuition, and what we know to feel. Perhaps we’ll never really understand Shane. But when Ger takes up position to the same song, it could suggest that somebody does.

The Family are not alone, of course. Brian Bennett plays his silver bow tie-wearing neighbour with delightful cheese(*) and an eerie sense of suspicion. When he tells disappointed Gemma that she can come into his house any time, it’s hard to know whether to consider him kind or possibly dangerous. I suppose you don’t ever really know your neighbours.   

(*) It always gets me how Bennett can make the simplest statement funny. His out of the blue “I’m going to go inside now” is funnier in retrospect of the fact that he was purely setting up the knick-knacking gag later. Also, does he always end up nick-naming other performers in the shows he’s in? I think he did in ‘As you are’ and ‘Jumping Off the Earth’. Here he christens Gemma “Gem-Jam”.

THEATREclub’s work always considers itself in the urgent present, and in the effort to make a cultural conversation around The Family a series of post-show talks have been planned this week in Project Arts Centre.  The fake grass and white picket fence could literally have been blasted here from the postmodern explosion of the Sixties but where such ideology was born in uncertainty, THEATREclub gives us a discourse that we can rely on, and the universality of which makes everyone an expert. When Louise Lewis realises she’s not abandoned as she believed, asking us all “Can you see me?”, we see in her someone we've seen all our lives, yet somehow different. 

What did everybody else think?

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