The concluding chapter of ANU's Monto Cycle brings 100 years of history full circle. Photo: Patrick Redmond.
Oonagh Young Gallery, Dublin Theatre Festival
Sept 25-Oct 12
A few weeks ago I talked to ANU director Louise Lowe about Vardo and the Monto Cycle as a whole. My review coming up just as soon as I count backwards from one hundred ...
Do you believe in curses? A fearful young woman asks me on the street, her manner suspicious enough to draw concern from a passerby ("I wouldn't get involved with her if I were you"). Is he also a discreet performer in ANU Productions' new promenade? Along the way we realise that embedded in the streets of the former Monto - now the quarter mile area around Foley Street in Dublin's north inner city - are stories of psychic readings and miraculous statues; the folklore of a community that has long believed in the mystical. Most of the individuals we encounter mention Terriss Lee, a local Romany fortuneteller who can look directly into your soul. From what we witness in director Louise Lowe's paralysing production, the ability to look forward may be more crucial that ever. Terrifyingly, history is threatening to repeat itself.
100 years ago this area was a notorious red light district, since romanticised in George Desmond Hodnett's popular song Take Her Up to Monto but Lowe gave us its brutal actuality in the aptly titled World's End Lane. ANU proceeded to trace the regenerations of the area that followed. Sex workers given retreat in a convent found their conditions growing punitive as decades passed, manifesting the mid century Magdalene nightmare of Laundry. Outside their prison walls, a surge of unemployment saw the disappearance of a dockworker community and the rise of a gang culture in the 1970s, as witnessed in Boys of Foley Street. By the time the company cast their attention to the present state of the area - now home to a large multicultural community, many of whom are undocumented - an underground network of sex workers had already begun its operations. It presents a startling reality: the Monto is back.
It's an institution that Lowe places a very light hand on. No answers are given as to how the young call girl played by Breffni Holahan found herself in quarters so eerily ordinary that it could be mistaken for a student apartment. The actor's unshaken delivery reveals one certainty - she feels truly invisible. The corporate sheen of an approaching car and the 'power mom' zeal of the driver played by Bairbre Ni hAodha both take a dark turn, as the line between an expensively flash business world and an underground organisation feels shockingly blurred.
Where previously ANU have dragged the past into modern surroundings, Vardo firmly uses the present landscape while highlighting its engraved history. Lowe doesn't waste the irony of having a prostitute's bedroom that overlooks the former Gloucester St Magdalene laundry. The steely Una Kavanagh places a gun in your hand and aims it at the rooftop bell that thwarted the escape of many women incarcerated inside. It isn't difficult to pull the trigger.
Vardo distinguishes itself from other instalments by its delayed use of dance and visual effects to remind us that we are watching a performance and not a passable reality. This makes for the most naturalistic episode of the set, holding tightly onto the viewer throughout, giving primacy to real locations where you'll find it hard to separate the flourishes of Owen Boss and Carl Kennedy's design from pre-existing detail. The affect extends to an awareness of our visibility in public, drawing wary eyes from onlookers as you listen to a trafficked Russian woman's whispered plea for help in the corner of a bus station, and while you hold the hands of a grieving Nigerian man as he cries in the middle of the terminal (an aching turn by Kunle Animashaun).
It isn't just the undocumented and the transient who are dispirited. The resistance of a recently jail-sprung Dublin woman feels rallied against a broader system of meaning. "I would do it again" she says, "and I will do it again. And we will do it again". In Laura Murray's defiant turn, the willingness to persevere a repeating history shatters us into pieces.
Gathered at the end by Terriss Lee in her psychic parlour (traditionally a gypsy wagon or "vardo"), you realise that not everyone made it. The dancer Emma O'Kane deals fortune's hand as images are projected of ghosts from past chapters of the cycle, wrapping up 100 years of history. Is it all to be repeated? The grave face of a woman in a dark alley resurfaces from the beginning of the journey like a fateful tarot. "Don't you know that this place is dangerous"? You'd desperately wish for a different outcome.
What did everybody else think?