Saturday, January 10, 2015

Exorcising Traumas at First Fortnight Festival

Eleanor Tiernan's National Therapy Project sets out to heal the Irish psyche by satirising past miseries. 

It speaks volumes that First Fortnight, an arts festival that runs the first two weeks of each year with the aim of challenging prejudice to psychological well-being, brings its audiences through the doors of St. Patrick's Hospital, the country's largest mental health provider. Passing staff, doctors and visitors bring the otherwise un-reminded reality of illness and recovery into view. It proves the length of which festival director J.P. Swaine and his team are willing to face stigma head on. 

St. Patrick's, for its neat decor and occasional elegant painting, wasn't always as welcoming. At a reading of Austen Clarke's 1966 poem Mnemosyne Lay in Dust, we hear an account of the writer's incarceration in the hospital in 1919. At a marathon 40 minutes, the long poem is divided up by three poets. Joycean descriptions of the Dublin streets are read benignly by Peter Sirr, instilling images of the narrator's journey to the hospital, and his being plunged into scalding baths soon after his arrival. It is Doireann Ní Ghríofa who conveys the torture chamber though, her sonorous voice lapping on passages of internal strife, and a paranoia that suspects an intruder inside the speaker's chamber based on the slightest misplacement of a bar of soap. Elder poet Gerard Smyth then, whose words sound agreeable as if reverberating from a mouth made of oak, details the slow movement towards lucidity, and finally a stepping into the light. The reading recalls Clarke's critique of institutional abuse, an Irish One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, but also an extraordinary summation of personal history and the use of art to exorcise trauma. 

Similarly, performance artist Ciara McKeon is looking to communicate the pain and shock of the sudden death of her Polish housemate. Inside the beige, crumbled octagonal gallery in the 18th century City Assembly House, her exhibition I Have to Say, I Have to Say is made up of objects from the house they shared: hacked up cabinets, various jars of Polish food, and most significantly the brown decaying foxgloves that used to grow in the back garden, now emanating from the gallery wall. The performer slowly wades back and forth through them with the same drag of Beckett's Footfalls until, arrested, producing a clump of paste from her mouth, conveying a tasteless existence. Then planting plugs in her ears before tapping at an arrangement of bells, McKeon is connoting the dampening of the senses, a dull and desensitised life. A singular gesture sees her stretch determinedly behind her shoulders and neck, as if trying to relieve a nerve she can't reach. Foxgloves, we learn, don't fall for most of their decline and their bells don't ring when they drop. With a thud, McKeon releases thimbles that drop to the floor like empty bells, signalling the end of a courageous event articulating a disquieting domestic life.

When it comes to dealing with the vast range of atrocities that befell the country in the last 1,000 years, the best critical distance might be gained from our collective sense of humour. Eleanor Tiernan's National Therapy Project sets out to heal the Irish psyche by satirising past miseries. We find ourselves lying on the floor clutching a potato, looking up to the image of a red-haired child projected on the ceiling and crying out "It's not your fault!" after several significant woes ("When the Children of Lir turned into swans for 900 years", "Sonya O'Sullivan getting diarrhea in the tunnel", "When Miley took Fidelma for a roll in the hay"). Tiernan's deadpan delivery as a behavioural cognitive expert is hilarious. The most interesting moments are when you find yourself voicing extraordinary forgiveness of contentious issues such as the U.S. Military occupation of Shannon Airport, the repression of sexuality under the Catholic Church, and the neglectful leadership of Bertie Ahern. She also spells out some sound arguments against our tendency to abuse American tourists and those who mistake us to be English abroad. The National Therapy Project might actually be a breakthrough, that is, letting go of our anger and embracing a new way of "hiberno-living".

Theatre highlights of the festival include Eva O'Connor's coming-of-age drama My Name is Saoirse and an in-development showing of Stefanie Preissner's new play about the use of social media by young people, User Not Found.  Also, First Fortnight will colonise existing spoken word events, specifically the beat-droppin' Slam Sunday and storytelling night Milk and Cookies, both which regularly feature articulate young speakers with their fingers on the pulse of their generation, unafraid to share stories concerning mental health, sexuality and digital society. 

'I Have to Say, I Have to Say' runs at City Assembly House on Jan 13th, 1pm

'National Therapy Project' runs at Mermaid Arts Centre on Jan 17th and Riverbank Arts Centre on Jan 30th

'User Not Found' runs at Axis Ballymun on Jan 13th.

Milk and Cookies runs at Irish Writers' Centre on Jan 13th

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