Saturday, January 14, 2012

Úna McKevitt, ‘565+’: The Woman Who Walked Into Theatre


Project Arts Centre, Dublin
Jan 12-14


My review of 565+ coming up just as soon as I give Sam Shepherd a thumbs up …





Úna McKevitt’s collaborators, or “compatriots”, as they have been deemed several times, are an interesting bunch. 2009’s Victor and Gord saw the theatre maker put her sister Áine onstage along with neighbour and friend Vickey. As the two shared stories of their inseparable childhoods and distanced adulthoods, undeniable on one hand was their charm and courage as non-actors, and McKevitt’s aesthetic achievement of crafting theatre text from human bodies and experiences on the other.  She would go on to push this method further,  incorporating four  more individuals into Victor and Gord,  and its success has been a testament to both the director’s fondness for ‘reading’ people and the battles fought by her compatriots on the grounds of reality outside the metaphorical remove of the theatre.     


With 565+ McKevitt turns to her cousin Marie O’Rourke: a sixty-something school teacher, athletic chatterer, and natural-born comic. This is the story of her history with depression she explains upon entering, along with a footnote citing her onstage nerves and her uncertainty as to whether or not she will be able to emotionally connect with her recollections on this particular night. These events did happen a long time ago after all, and obviously McKevitt is not interested in pre-rehearsing her cousin’s emotional state but rather let it dictate itself naturally in the live performance.  


Marie charts her depression as beginning with her husband who suffered from alcoholism, and the stress it put on their household. Having to make a choice between him or her family, she got a barring order. He later died from liver failure. On the suggestions of a counsellor, she tried out activities to put her mind at ease, ranging from unsuccessful group counselling (she claims she was the best talker but not the best listener) to surfing under the tutelage of an eighteen-year-old sand haired, blue eyed beau.  Someone then proposed the theatre. She went to a production of Jane Eyre (one of her favourite books) and found solace: “That’s when it started”. She’s since seen over 565 shows.


O’Rourke’s presence is warm, charming, and inherently theatrical. Discussing her childhood she recalls tuning into the classical music played on a local radio station and seeing her first play: a community production of the Passion. “What do I need to get myself up there?”, she remembers thinking to herself. The fact that she trips on lines is forgiven and affirms her wonderful humanity. McKevitt herself is positioned nearby, throwing a line prompt when required. When O’Rourke fails to notice a button falling unplanned from her jacket, a minor mishap, McKevitt picks it up, acting simultaneously as stage-hand and family.  


It was O’Rourke’s calamitous attempts at arriving in time for the curtain that set me giggling (particularly an episode involving a car crash and Hedda Gabbler). It is beautiful though how the act of theatre-going becomes intrinsic to her identity, combing references to plays into her story. It was a moment during her recall of the stage production of Roddy Doyle’s The Woman Who Walked Into Doors that we saw that on this particular night, despite her footnote at the beginning forewarning otherwise, Marie did emotionally return to the pain of the past. And that was devastating.


565+ features as part of the First Fortnight Festival: a mental health arts festival aiming to end cultural prejudice toward those suffering from mental illness. In one moment, Marie describes being surrounded by the domestic frustrations of her house. From the steps at the top of the seating rig she shares her tendency to sit on the stairs, away from the bedroom and the kitchen, feeling neither high nor low. When some of her ten-year-old students knocked on the door one day asking if she needed help cleaning the house, the audience share her immense gratefulness.


Marie’s story sheds light on another aspect of the human psyche. Her accreditation of the healing power of the theatre can suggest something about the essence of spectatorship, the ability of the art form to affect our mental state inside and outside its presence. The show structurally poses several questions. Are we to take McKevitt’s theatre as some extreme form of naturalism or does it turn the tables on realism all together? What are the consequences of a theatre devoid of metaphorical presentation? Is there a limit in terms of sources for theatrical text?


Most importantly: what happens to an art form fascinated with death (narratively obsessed with conflict, temporal in existence) when it is occupied with fighting compatriots, full of wonderful and surviving life?  



What did everybody else think?


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