Friday, September 20, 2013

ANU Productions, 'Thirteen': Why Should We Fight?

Photo: Patrick Redmond

It's about time I wrote something about Thirteen - the thirteen-part theatrical epic by ANU Productions that is using the city as as a mise en scene to bring the Lockout of 100 years ago into focus.

I will be reviewing the event in two parts, with this post discussing the first eight chapters: Citizen X, ResiliencePorous, Suasion, Constituent(s), Backwash, Speakers Corner and Protest: Part 1.

Almost always working in non-theatre locations, ANU Productions, guided by director Louise Lowe and visual artist Owen Boss, demystify troubled Dublin histories while drawing the audience through the fourth wall and into the flow of history. Their presentation of the past brings the spectator face to face with the social issues of the time and leaves them with a sense that they can enact change in the present. It's theatre that implicates, to not sound too coarse, and it effectively makes the theatre-goer feel less than a consumer and more like a citizen.

Thirteen feels like the most adament work to date to try and incite social action. It also demonstrates the best and worst of the company's means of implicating the audience.

The big question is: why should we fight? It was perhaps easiest to know with Laundry (2011). Brought through the door of the Magdalene Laundry on Sean McDermott Street, we listened to the voices of the women silenced there throughout the years, revealing the abusive conduct of the religious organisations in charge. It concluded with a scene in a modern day laundry service which left you informed on the current state of the controversy. The injustice was unmistakable in Laundry, the aggressor very clear. But the distinction between the abuser and the abused isn't always black and white, as subtly suggested by one woman's description of the laundry as a refuge and not a prison.

The Boys of Foley Street (2012) revealed that picking a fight is often much more complex. "Am I the problem?", I wondered as I stood there in an alley, given an I-Phone to video one guy beat the crap out of another. I roll it up my sleeve and pretend to go along with it. These were the streets of 1970s Dublin, where communities are fractured by drugs and gangs. But who are the bad guys? Is it the crooks or the aggressive neighbourhood watch that rose up to stop them? Is it the wounded mothers who emasculate their sons and drive them towards some violent assertion of themselves, or is it the emasculated men reared by savage mothers who grow up to abusively impose their masculinity on women? The real culprit might be the capitalist machine which took away the work on the docks and left the worker, unemployed and alienated, desperate to find another industry. In that case, we're all an accomplice.

The Boys of Foley Street left us with a complex machine of gender and economic issues, and the choice of action for the spectator was left to be derived from their thoughts on that. Where Thirteen runs into trouble is where it preaches a singular ideology and leaves the audience feel as if they're part of something that they didn't sign up for.

Suasion (pictured above) is the main offender here. We are brought into the basement of Liberty Hall which was once a venue for agitprop plays for the union men. Actors assume Lockout figures such as Rosie Hackett, Jim Larkin and his right-hand man PT Daly, who appropriately is played by his great grandson, ANU co-artistic director Owen Boss.

The performance is a piece of agitprop itself but the propaganda in it feels dangerous. Larkin (played here by the impassioned Jed Murray) is reputed for his speeches inciting unity and purpose but here they seem dubious. We're too suspicious of the one-sided argument being put across. It tries to delineate by bringing in another historical moment of the Liberty Hall basement: the site where impoverished mothers signed to send their children to care in England. Suffragette philanthropist Dora Montetiore (the always quietly poignant Bairbre Ni Chaoimh) describes how priests condemned mothers for sending their children to the care of Protestant families and even physically removed youngsters from the boats before they could sail. By the end a chord is struck with the separation of parent and child and the realities of emigration in Ireland today. But as a whole, Suasion is not convincing.

Photo: Patrick Redmond

Constituent(s) (pictured above) contains the company's most overt (and backfiring) attempt to implicate the audience. In a restored carriage from William Martin Murphy's tram company, we watch Lloyd Cooney begin his spirited monologue from the Living the Lockout exhibition this past summer. This time it gets interrupted by two modern day Dubliners (Thomas Reilly and Laura Murray) who break into the carriage and take over the performance. Murray's character can be imagined as a contemporary version of the woman she played in Living the Lockout: a mother whose husband cannot contribute to her family's well being. Here she finally protests but she goes too far and protests against the audience: "What are you doing? Watching a play?". Constituent(s) overturns the gaze in theatrical performance and tries to instill a sense of impracticality in the theatre goer. The performances are powerful but the event is more demoralising than incendiary.

We need to be able to connect to the people affected by the labour issues in today's Dublin. Citizen X  is the strongest chapter in this regard. And while most of the other productions don't stand all that solid on their own and feel as if they are to be viewed along with other installments, this is the most whole of the series so far. Boarding the Luas at Jervis while listening to a downloaded MP3, we hear the voice of the Luas announcer expand her observations beyond the scheduled stops. She instructs us to follow a woman (Dee Burke) in a red jacket on her way to work.

It's an artful meditation on proximity, one that achieves the real goal here: to bridge the distance between 1913 and 2013. We get off the Luas in the heart of the glamorously soulless docklands which Owen Boss is using as a canvass for a video projection that intermingles the past and present. Like 100 years ago, people are still living in uninhabitable housing, deprived of money and hope. The tenement slums of Dublin aren't a thing of the past; they're still with us. And after seeing the red jacketed woman forced into an explosive dance movement, we're left walking home through a city that needs only the smallest spark to ignite.

Photo: Patrick Redmond

We find certain female gestures to be recurring throughout the works. The action where Dee Burke lets her hair down and swipes it repeatedly with her hands, as if signifying an internal pain behind feminine appearance, is seen repeated by Katherine Atkinson in Resilience (pictured above). Aesthetically, ANU always coincide naturalism (the emphasis of the realness of a subject) with its reactionary form expressionism (the distorted presentation of a subject affected by intense mood and feeling). The company draw mostly on the latter aesthetic here, as Atkinson's soaring violin becomes the score for an impassioned dance between the muscled Thomas Reilly and the fiery Zara Starr. The result is a movement that encapsulates gender relations throughout the years, as both performers' efforts to eclipse the other represent a struggle for parental rights. "I'd have rather let them die in my arms than give them away", says Reilly, who's children have been sent to better living conditions in England. You can tell from Starr that the decision wasn't easy but there is also real pain in Reilly's eyes, who had no influence in the matter. For the first time Thirteen, similar to The Boys of Foley Street, seems to look at two sides of a situation where there are no easy answers. Also, when Reilly plays a modern man in Constituent(s) he mentions sending money to support a son in England. In fact, I'm beginning to suspect that each actor across Thirteen has both a historical and a present day role, and there is a shared set of circumstances and principals between them.

For example, Suasion saw the shrewd Caitriona Ennis playing spirited activist Rosie Hackett. So, when Ennis portrays a modern day worker in a hair salon in Porous (pictured below) who has just lost her job, we shouldn't expect her to take it lying down. This production begins with us looking in through the salon window as if looking at a piece of visual art. Ennis invites us inside to the sweet smells of scented candles and the glow of chic lightbulbs. The design elements are glossy and so is the script - as this is definitely the closest to a traditionally crafted play that ANU gets.

Ennis describes her living situation with her senile grandmother and her completely unromantic life. "Will you kiss me?", she asks. I reckon it will make her feel better. Her former colleagues also show up, Blue Wicked in hand (including Yazmin Murphy, who is the real life hairdresser that this performance takes its story from). "Things don't just vanish", says Ennis, and before we know it she's organising a sit-in protest. Porous is polished but it isn't really credible.

The performance wells up our sympathies for the unemployed worker but also exposes their ignorance for the employer's circumstances. It was a wise move to create sister chapter Backwash, which gives the employer's side of the story, delicately delivered by Zara Starr. While it provides needed counterbalance, this production doesn't have enough content. An employer and employee confrontation is dragged out too long and Starr speaks in quiet wavering fragments with no structure. The most interesting moment is when she stirs from her naturalist mode of acting while speaking about insolvency, and does the same dance action with her arms as Dee Burke in Citizen X. Similarly, there's a moment in Porous when Ennis looks in the mirror and gently moves her hand across her forehead and her mouth, and it's repeated when she's Rosie Hackett in Suasion.

Photo: Patrick Redmond

Where we look for portrayals of us - the employers and employees in Dublin 2013 - the figures in Porous and Backwash don't really hit it. We're best representing ourselves in Speakers Corner, which could probably be the most important stop on the entire journey. Organised at the James Connolly statue opposite Liberty Hall - the site of many of Larkin's speeches during the Lockout - Owen Boss and actor Conor Madden kick off a public forum. It serves as a live interaction with the entire event and it gives a clear voice to the issues affecting people today.

"We need to find alternative forms of protest", says one speaker. It's something in my mind as I go to Protest: Part 1. In the crumbling decadence of the tenement house at No. 14 Henrietta Street, the audience meet a mute female performer. We receive instructions to organise ourselves and choose a leader and a note-taker. We turn over a series of cards with tasks written on them, with penalties for refusing to carry them out. We instruct the performer to carry coal buckets and you find yourself literally getting dirt on your hands.

This is a strict piece of performance art and it reveals some interesting things. A worker-employer relationship can be seen as the leader of the group sometimes comes under pressure to enforce the rules of the game. Another member of the group might be threatening to rebel against the system altogether. But it's where you find ways to subvert the cruelty of the tasks that is the most insightful, where a command to put a woman's head under water becomes a light, almost baptismal submerse, and an instruction to clean her with a steel brush makes you treat it as if it were the softest of feathers.

It's when you ask her to take you into another room when she whispers the real heartbeat of this entire theatrical journey:

"Dignity can be vandalised, mocked and cruelly assaulted. But it can never be taken away; only surrendered".

Dignity. That's what is at stake here. And as Thirteen unfolds itself towards its unknown conclusion, you begin to feel that it's worth fighting for. This is why we should fight.

What did everybody else think?

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