Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Smashing Times, 'Witness': Theatre for Change

Project Arts Centre
Nov 5-9

My review of Witness - a programme of new work by Smashing Times - coming up just as soon as I do a good impression of Enda Kenny ...

What are Smashing Times asking us to witness in their new work? It's a flurry of engagements with social issues in this electic line-up - an accumulation of months of development and collaboration with community groups such as the Dublin Samaritans. With a 'Theatre for Change' ethos the company seek to resolve conflicts within society but when the art itself is conflicted, playing the role of witness can be confusing.

Most assured is Testimonies, a series of monologues adapted from the experiences of people affected by mental illness and suicide. A humble account of a young Dublin man attending a U2 concert with his best friend is loyally delivered by Adam Traynor, as he merrily describes his mate's drunken romps and his bad habit for hitting on other guys' girlfriends. The text, sensitively written by Paul Kennedy and gently led by director Bairbre Ní Chaoimh, observes the changes in the tragic man's behaviour and the powerlessness and guilt felt by the speaker. It finds some solace in the voice of a grievance counselor, who advises ultimately to remove feelings of anger and to remember the dead man with respect.

The performance lowly alludes to a failed relationship as a source for the conflict inside the victim's mind but this remains unconfirmed, which is authentic of a society where silence shrouds mental illness, leaving many shocked when they learn of a suicide or of the quiet turmoil suffered by others. Another of Kennedy's monologues overtly links recent economic difficulties as a source of depression. A woman receives a worrying phone message from her husband in the night, describing himself on a beach. An understated Gillian Hackett brings us through the motions of the worried spouse in a marriage stressed by a bad investment and the arrival of the bailiffs. How the writer and actor measure the final moments of the piece is beautiful. The only issue with it is its length, or either its last place slot in what is already a packed evening.

Writing about these issues isn't simple, and Kennedy demonstrates a great sensitivity towards them. A monologue written and directed by Smashing Times leader Mary Moynihan, however, seems to throw everything from the mental illness discourse at the wall and hopes that something will stick. This account of a career woman, accompanied by contrived movement, has everything from a dead parent, a schizophrenic aunt, a pill overdose, panic attacks, a quotable band name ("Helen and the Depressions") and even words of wisdom from a mysterious gypsy man. The script doesn't dig but rather piles on contributing factors and overt social commentary ("mental illness isn't 9 to 5"). More is not always better; in fact, most of the time it isn't.

The multi-disciplinary Uprising also seems to have too many targets. Set in a Belfast warehouse during the recent flag riots, a disc jockey and his friend are visited by ghosts who provide different perspectives on experiences of war and peace in Northern Ireland. Tara McKevitt, the only explicitly credited author of the work, had demonstrated a sensibility towards cross-border violence in her 2010 play Grenades. McKevitt scribbles furiously here to write credible voices but Moynihan's fussy directorial vision makes this a seriously conflicted work, with hokey movement and a flamboyant music selection undercutting its content. When the focus rushes to include America and the effects of war felt under the Bush administration, it's obvious that the director is trying to jam far too much into this play.

Smashing Times bring awareness to important issues, and its various engagements with school groups and communities for civic action is an admirable use of the form. But if it doesn't resolve the conflict within its own aesthetic, its cries for resolution will fall on deaf ears.

What did everybody else think?

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