Tuesday, October 8, 2013

ANU Productions, 'Thirteen': Where Do We Stand Now?

Photo: Patrick Redmond

As I mentioned before, I am reviewing Thirteen in two parts. Part one is here.

Here are my thoughts on the remaining chapters (Soup, Save The Kiddies, InquiryProtest Part 2, Incitement, Bargaining, and Assembly) and on the event as a whole.

"Someday the real history of the Lockout will be written, and on that day the callousness of capitalism will be exposed, along with clericalism and all the weeds that it nurtures."
- Dora Montefiore

Halfway through Thirteen - the theatrical epic by ANU Productions marking the centenary of the 1913 Lockout - we realise that the devices of audience implication it insists on are problematic (Constituent(s)), and the work is more affecting when it presents unheard histories with voices on either side of a crisis (the aesthetically arresting Resilience), and strongest when it makes you feel part of a greater unit: a people, a city (Citizen X). 

"This is not a debate on the public sector, and one hundred years ago it was not a debate on the public sector". There's a moment in Bargaining - a live debate on collective bargaining, which was a central issue in the Lockout - where Trade Union official Michael Halpenny is trying to dissuade economist Mark Coleman's suggestion (though, artfully, he doesn't directly voice it) that the public sector was responsible for the economic crash. Chair Carol Fausett then tries to bring the discussion to the question: "Has the balance of power between employee and employer changed since 1913?". There is merit to some of what of Coleman is saying about shedding jobs in some areas and creating them in others, and his citations of wage differences between teachers, arts officers and college teachers are effective. But when a university professor in the audience speaks up and reveals how he has not taken a penny off the state, we begin to think that Coleman isn't as read up as we thought. 

Sinéad Corcoran follows up her introspecting Protest Part 1 with a suitably titled Protest Part 2. Unfortunately, this isn't as enlightening. We're instructed to put on a pair of headsets in an art gallery and speak what we hear: descriptions of household crockery and the names of women silenced by history. We watch Corcoran pace along the window, tensely holding a haul of glass bottles wrapped up in the folds of her red dress. But the performance feels restricted by its own presentation and it doesn't sustain once the audio track starts again.

The subject of the female body being heard runs throughout Thirteen but before I continue with that thought I'll address two performances where women are absent. 

When we were introduced to Jed Murray's impassioned James Larkin in Suasion we got a loud earful of a sermon on the Irish labour movement. Director Louise Lowe wisely allows us to see a private side of him in Inquiry (pictured below). In an office room we sit and watch Larkin study film footage of a recreation of the Askwith Inquiry, the one meeting between Larkin and William Martin Murphy (you can read the speech Larkin gave to the inquiry here).

Here we see Larkin consumed by his fight against Murphy, delivering passages of his flaming speech and performing raw dance movement against the projected images. It illuminates the war within the man, as he takes out a dictionary and reads the definition of "delusions of grandeur". Did he ever think for a moment that he was wrong? At the end he lifts his hand across his forehead and mouth just like Cairtiona Ennis did as Rosie Hackett in Suasion and as the hairdresser in Porous. But what does it mean?

Photo: Patrick Redmond

"If you had 30 minutes left in Dublin where would you go?", asks a young man (Eric O'Brien) carrying a suitcase packed to begin a life elsewhere. In Incitement we're invited to accompany him to the Anna Livia statue in Croppies Memorial Park. It was where his parents had first met (back when the statue was on O'Connell Street). "I just couldn't stay any longer", he says, listing off emigration figures and offering us Denny's rashers and pudding. As well-meaning as Irish mothers are, you can't bring them through the airport. It's the lightest chapter in the series, with a very appropriate delivery of Yeats's September 1913: "Was it for this the wild geese spread/The grey wing upon every tide"?

O'Brien gives a timely mention of the protests that took place at the beginning of the new Dail session. "I thought something was finally going to happen", he says. Thirteen has felt the most adament of ANU's work to incite the audience towards protest but this hasn't been the strongest mark of the series. Its greatest power has been to bring us to the women of 1913 who have been written out of history.

Soup (pictured below) begins outside the Abbey theatre with a humorous discussion about the titular subject between two modern Dubliners (Lloyd Cooney and Thomas Reilly). They tell us that soup is a classless meal, eaten by everyone from the poor to the Queen of England. "Though she probably eats swan soup", jests one of them. It's a funny line but it's a profound morsel of truth in retrospect: the taught history of the 1913 Lockout is one steeped in a Catholic nationalist narrative.

There's then an extraordinary moment when Derbhle Crotty, in thespian dress, bursts through the doors of the theatre chasing an Abbey employee. Crotty is playing Helena Moloney - an Abbey actress and republican revolutionary who used theatrics to outwit police and on one crucial occasion disguised Larkin as an elderly clergyman to facilitate his escape after his famous speech from the balcony of the Imperial Hotel. Moloney is being attacked for performing sensitive material (though, considering the The Playboy of the Western World riots six years earlier, the Abbey management might not be completely unreasonable in their objections). Women have had the power to protest long before Larkin, we hear her say. She leads us into the basement of Liberty Hall, where we once again walk into Suasion, which I had described as dangerously agitprop in part one of my review.

Photo: Patrick Redmond

A different chapter of Thirteen opens every day throughout the Fringe festival, and so if you had seen Suasion before Soup was up and running you would have been spectator to Larkin's labour movement propaganda and then, almost tacked on at the end, a section where we hear from suffragette Dora Montefiore (Bairbre Ni Chaoimh) and an impoverished mother (Bairbre Ní hAodha) about being bashed by Catholic priests for sending children to foster care in England. But this time around the balance of power is shifted. The Lockout is predominantly remembered as a time of men's speeches and principals, not as a time when mothers were forced into impossible circumstance and criminalised by clerics. Molonoy's silver speech swells with the power of Crotty's voice, disposing the Church as a lie and denoucing the fiscal undervaluing of the arts and, with that, the art of living. This is the speech that stokes the flames of revolution, and forever it should be burned into our history books.

Save The Kiddies quite literally covers the same ground but it gives us a lead in Ni Chaoimh's Dora Montefiore. Meeting at the site of the public baths where the children were cleaned up before being sent on the boats to England, Montefiore and the desperate mother played by Bairbre Ní hAodha inform us that priests have kidnapped some of the children. We're sent sprinting across the Liffey to Liberty Hall, and along the way we're disclosed the attacks made on Montefiore, accusing her of Protestant proselytising and of sending children into slave labour. Quietly and powerfully, Ni Chaoimh exposes the viciousness of the clergy of the time.

When we arrive at Liberty Hall we again walk into that scene in Suasion, though this time Crotty's Helena Moloney leads us into a dressing room and offers us a swig of whiskey in the wake of a tragedy: the death of a young woman named Alice Brady on Bloody Sunday. She recites a poem that Brady used to deliver, a lyric on womanhood. "Woman is mystery", rolls one line, and with it comes our realisation of perhaps Lowe's greatest article in this entire event: to write an female version of history, one that brings figures such as Rosie Hackett, Dora Montefiore and Helena Moloney vividly to life along with their extraordinary efforts to relieve the suffering of a disenfranchised city, and where a mother's response to a child's pain is not eclipsed by Catholic and nationalist ideology. Woman is no longer a mystery; she is a force of protest.

In part one of my review I posed the theory that all the actors in Thirteen have both a 1913 and a 2013 role, and that they are in the same predicaments in each era. This seems applicable to Caitriona Ennis, Thomas Reilly and Laura Murray (and it's not too far a stretch to imagine links between Lloyd Cooney and Eric O'Brien's modern personae and their 1913 versions in Living the Lockout) but it doesn't extend to the entire cast. However, there is a moment in the Liberty Hall meeting in Suasion where Dee Burke's character is described as an undocumented survivor of the Lockout, and this seems to correspond with the anonymity of her modern role as the red-jacketed woman on her way to work in Citizen X. It's impossible to attend all the performances of Thirteen and not come to recognise the faces of spectators and actors, and it's with this spirit of group identity that the whole event wraps things up.

In Assembly (pictured below) we return to where it all began: the Art Park site in the Docklands where we followed Dee Burke to in Citizen X. Owen Boss's intermingling images of 1913 and 2013 are still projecting onto a building wall. The entire cast of Thirteen are in attendance, wearing red (which is perhaps a greater nod to revolution than initially realised) and dispelling the night darkness with torches. They read out a letter from Colm O'Gorman, the president of Amnesty International Ireland, which calls for the foremost protection of the citizenry in constitutional amendments. What O'Gorman does is describe government cuts and austerity in terms of attacks on human dignity (a sharp refrain of a whisper from Protest Part 1). 

Assembly is Thirteen's equivalent to the modern day laundry scene in Laundry, where a course of action in the present is made visible. O'Gorman cites court cases in Greece and Latvia where cuts to salaries and pensions were ruled as unconstitutional, a measure which could be utilized in Ireland in the establishment of a Court of Appeal, which of course was a motion to be voted on in the ensuing referendum (and was successfully passed). This reform means that rather than a single judgement by the Supreme Court ruling on the constitutionality of acts passed by the government, individual judges will be allowed to make rulings, thereby expanding the field of judicial experts on the preservation of constitutionality in the passing of bills.

O'Gorman's letter states that it's not enough to try to return to the hay days of the Celtic Tiger. A new path must be imagined now. Like the protesters of 1913, whose mission was to reimagine their lives and improve their living situations, we must now make a break with tradition. But how do we begin? Where do we stand? Both are questions that this assembly has us ask, as matching wristbands have us pair up in the crowd and deal these questions to a stranger. Maybe it's the start of something, the quiet seeds of revolution. Or maybe we'll just disband and get the Luas back into town. But before we go the cast silently perform one of the recurring dance movements throughout the series: the raising of the hand across the forehead and across the mouth, as if clearing their minds and mouths of the thoughts and words of protests past, readying new ideas, new speeches for those of us locked out in 2013.

What a journey Thirteen has been, and while it's been the roughest of ANU's work that I've seen, in terms of scale it has been incredibly ambitious. In the likes of Constituent(s) and Suasion (before it overlapped with Soup and Save The Kiddies) we saw these really clunky devices to try and implicate the audience. I think whatever civic action a theatre-goer decides to take, it needs to come from a self-realisation, and in other ANU performances that realisation came from a powerful sense of the present being refracted through the past, of the spectator acquiring a lived memory of a hidden history and bringing it into the political landscape of the present. In this regard, Citizen X was the most effective with its artful linking of 1913 tenements with Priory Hall. In the fiery beauty of Resilience and the eloquent arguments of Soup and Save The Kiddies, the troubled epistemologies of Irish feminity were exposed, elegantly penning some rewrites into our history of the Lockout. 

I'm not sure if Thirteen stokes the flames of a revolution but there's no doubt how ambitious it is to be political, to engage us as people with rapturous voices. "Where do I stand?" "Where do I begin?". I think the answer to both is: "Somewhere new". 

What did everybody else think?

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