Monday, December 23, 2013

THEATREclub, 'HISTORY': The Republic That Never Was

As the finale of THEATREclub's trilogy of history plays, will this look backwards move us forward? 

Below is my review of THEATREclub's HISTORY - the last play I will be reviewing this year. I will be taking a break for Christmas but check back next Monday for my top 10 theatre productions of 2013. Meanwhile, my review of HISTORY coming up just as soon as I am also in the play ...

In their new play, THEATREclub set the sizeable task of staging 100 years of Irish history. Fortunately, they have found a place to tell it for them. 

The flames of revolution were never quite extinguished in St Michael's Estate, a 14 acre site in Inchicore, presented here as emblem of a nation's persecuted past. When the 1916 rebels were imprisoned in a British military barracks on the site they continued envisioning an Irish Republic in their cells. But when Barry O'Connor's revolutionary vigorously recites the Proclamation of Independence he repeats and scratches one particular line: "Cherishing all of the children of the nation equally". Certain promises weren't kept.

The community of St Michael's know this better than anyone, having seen four regeneration plans for the area's dilapidated social housing - the first of its kind in Ireland - fall through in 15 years. One scene cranks out a medley of actions where in between cleaning a constantly filthy residential landing (thanks to a rather ready stage hand), actors make phone calls to Shane Byrne's necktie-wearing city employee concerning the maintenance of the estate. The riff plays until the homes become uninhabitable.  

While St Michael's is seen as a stand-in for the nation, the audience are also made stand-ins for St Michael's, as we're asked to vote on a motion derived from one of the community meetings. It's one of the many doubling devices that director Grace Dyas has become skilled in spinning. The relationship between symbol and personhood is another, as icons such as Lauren Larken's cape-swooping Cathleen Ni Houlihan and Louise Lewis' mired Virgin Mary contrast with the actors' presentations of their real lives.

It's when Lewis speaks of a personal recollection of her family home that the thread between HISTORY and the two other plays in THEATREclub's trilogy becomes clear. Like the man who tears his kitchen apart to the dance strains of 'The Rhythm of the Night' in The Family, and the addict in HEROIN whose weighed and trembled effort to build a home is devastatingly undone, we have all been displaced from a republic that wasn't delivered. We haven't been living where we're supposed to. We never have.

It doesn't always come together in HISTORY. A nod to the traditional use of monologues in Irish theatre seeks justification for lengthy speeches, almost always amplified by microphones. It becomes a tired device. And while the audience don't get to sit complacent in their seats (the actors won't proceed unless they receive verbal responses from you) they do receive thorough unnecessary explanations of scenes as we are watching them. We're ready to get in on this; you'd just wish the company would trust us more to handle and interpret the action ourselves.

From the performances though, you can see that this is personal. The design team try to get us in on the action as well as Joe Lee's powerful video projections of St Michael's play out on Doireann Coady's blank canvas set, while Eoin Winning's lights regularly encompass the audience in the play's lit action. Meanwhile, Sean Miller's unruly music compositions stoke the fire. Tapping along with your feet, you feel like getting out of your seat and - just fuck it - make something happen!  

Which actually is what's next - a march on the streets. While HISTORY is at times too casual and doesn't sustain, it almost doesn't want to admit to be a play. Perhaps it is Dyas' last double act in this trilogy: to produce a theatre performance about displacement that is itself displaced from the theatre. After all, change happens in the outside world. That's where history can be made. 

What did everybody else think?

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