In this agonising, essential era of inquiries and reports, in which a nation’s history of institutionalised child abuse moves from the dark of suspicion into the harsh light of day, how should we respond to the avalanche of revelation? The impact of the Ferns, Ryan, Murphy and Cloyne Reports have been traumatising, enraging, numbing. Unsure if we have plumbed the depths of clerical abuse and State inaction, or how reckoning with our past will help forge a future, most of us have the same question: where will it end?
Brokentalkers, one of the country’s most fearless and pathbreaking theatre companies, have here put the tools of their theatre – a bricolage of documentary, testimony, dance, music, found materials and multimedia – to look for an answer: attempting to give human voice to official reports, to make the inconceivable comprehensible. If the intention isn’t wholly achieved, it is because – politically, personally and artistically – we’re still at the beginning of that process.
Introducing the performance, co-director Gary Keegan explains a personal connection to Artane Industrial school. His grandfather, a local undertaker, would return home upset by the bruises on a dead child “not knowing where they came from”. From this clear perspective, however, the production and the audience soon become overloaded: Brokentalkers will not limit their enquiry to Artane, as though it would betray the breadth of their research to make a single school representative of a corrosive system.
Nor will Keegan and co-director Feidlim Cannon restrict the stage to a single focus: information, movement and images explode across it, organised sometimes into cowing litanies: instruments of abuse, dates in the history of church-controlled industrial schools. Covered with a translucent scrim, Lucy Andrews and David Fagan’s white-tiled, imposing set seems distant; where dancers in distorting masks abstract the boys’ suffering and resilience, making them seem more distant again.
Art, Brokentalkers know, must transform events and emotions, but while some of Eddie Kay’s choreography and Séan Miller’s music have powerful reverberations – a skipping rope becomes a sickening cudgel, sustained discordant brass notes are deeply unsettling – some truths are still too raw to estrange. An audience, no less than a nation, must not flinch as we attempt to own our history: if the stories are almost too much to take, should the methods used to tell them be too?
When it is direct, it is devastating. A woman’s voice recalls children manufacturing rosary beads, so tortured with hunger, “we would eat some of the beads”. But one chilling sequence, an excerpt from a 1976 television tribute to the now deceased Br Joseph O’Connor, founder of the Artane Boys Band and subject of the worst allegations, symbolises our own unresolved anger and misdirects our energies. This is an easy, useless target for the revulsion of a bewildered people, whom The Blue Boy would prefer to see insisting on the rights of their children and the nation’s future. For the moment, the important realisation of this flawed, urgent work is that we all saw the bruises and we must understand where they came from.
Ends October 16th