Photo: Patrick Redmond
No. 14 Henrietta St, Dublin
Jul 4-Aug 31
My review of The Dublin Tenement Experience's Living the Lockout exhibition - devised by ANU Productions - coming up just as soon as I try to hide from you underneath my Sunday hat ...
There is a house at No. 14 Henrietta Street.
A Georgian townhouse built around 1748. Originally a majestic home for an aristocratic family, the building had been converted to tenement use by the late nineteenth century. 100 people were recorded as living there in 1913. Conditions such as these were demoralising and insanitary, and were common across Dublin. Overcrowding and poor diets also meant that infectuous diseases were rampant. The mortality rate for infants was particularly high.
And then came the Lockout. The stalemate between workers and employers had resulted in anti-trade unionist William Martin Murphy's call to shut out workers registered with Jim Larkin's Irish Transport and General Workers Union (ITGWU) from their jobs. Incomes dried up almost instantly and many businesses came to a standstill.
Remarkably, No. 14 Henrietta St has remained undisturbed since, retaining its architecture from this turbulent time. Now it is the residence for the Dublin Tenement Experience's exhibition about tenement life 100 years ago. And as a piece of dramatic performance, it is the most powerful thing to come so far this year.
We meet young Charlie (Lloyd Cooney) on a high after his recent victories over the police constables, singing an ode to the Union men. The rumble has left him with wounds but none deep enough to cut his spirit. Jim Larkin has lit a fire in him, given principles for a man to live by. Over a washbowl he cleans the blood from his body and he is then ready to rejoin his 600 neighbours on Henrietta St in their mission to transform their quality of life. He does wonder what has happened to his brother Denis (Eric O'Brien) though, who he hasn't seen in some time.
Under Louise Lowe's intelligent direction we move from room to room. The Georgian decor is struck in places as vibrant blue and yellow paint crumbles to reveal a brick shell underneath, but it does nothing to reduce this beauteous wonder. We're led into a dark quiet room where Mary (Laura Murray), a young mother, sits on a four-poster bed with two children sleeping gently beside her. She recalls the sweet moment her husband asked her out, and the events that lead to their living in Henrietta Street. She knows that the Lockout is going to push her family to their limits, and despite the bed being a treasured gift from her father, she now has to consider selling it off.
And she even gets a buyer. Right there, from someone in the audience, yearning to help.
There's something extraordinary when a spectator identifies the pain of a character and is willing to duet along with the actor. Of course, it's easier when no else is watching you, which has been the game plan in previous ANU performances where you found yourself isolated from the rest of the audience and engaging with performers one-to-one. It strikes you then that in Living the Lockout you can see the rest of the audience all the time. And I have not seen an audience as engaged and moved by a theatre event in quite a while.
When Dennis makes his appearance and asks for his mother, one observant spectator informs him: "She's at mass". Another tries to help Mary by telling her how many shillings she thinks she can get for the bed. And when the performance builds to its dramatic conclusion (another of Lowe's choreographed struggles in tight quarters that casts a claustrophobia on the viewer), some people were moved to tears.
Of course, the participation of the audience is also a testament to the actors at work and their abilities to create a powerful illusion. It has to be said that ANU Productions work with some of the best actors in the country. Murray's gentle monologue is particularly a prized moment, and Cooney's spirited performance is extremely impressive.
Like the company's recent site-specific productions about the Monto area, the performance ends up a being very complex work, projecting historical values of gender, class and institutions. "I never thought I would see a priest tearing a child out of hands of a parent", says Bairbre Ní hAodha's washerwoman, a refrain from Laundry. The performance illustrates how the Dublin working class discovered a real voice for the first time but under what desperate conditions, where how can you blame a wife for secretly resenting her striking husband? It's enough to tear a community apart as well as unite them, something that hit us hard in last year's The Boys of Foley Street.
When the performance ends a comment card is given to you with one section asking if you'd like to see Living the Lockout to be a permanent exhibition. It's a question that was raised when ANU produced Laundry at the Magdalene laundry on Sean McDermott Street in 2011. Why not turn these site-specifc performances into permanent fixtures in our cultural and heritage landscape? They reveal important truths about Irish history, as well as serving as excellent commemorations. Speaking of, I wonder how we can expect to see theatre respond to the other significant anniversaries in Irish history in the coming years?
As for ANU's treatment of the Lockout, there is thankfully more to come. Their upcoming project at the Dublin Fringe Festival, Thirteen, has been described as a series of thirteen interconnecting works that have the events of the Lockout unfold in present day Dublin.
But beforehand, visit No. 14 Henreitta Street. The heart of this house will show you the heart of a people, as well as the impossible times that break it. It's closer to 1913 than you've ever been.
What did everybody else think?