‘ARE YOU afraid?” a young woman asks me directly with angry, accusing eyes. There’s no point denying it. But one emotion doesn’t cover the range of experiences created by The Boys of Foley Street, a piece that is deeply unsettling then oddly reassuring, exhilarating then shaming, coherent and chaotic.
Following Anu Productions’ World’s End Lane, a dizzyingly intimate tour through the remnants of Monto’s red-light district, and Laundry, which depicted the plight of Magdalene women in poetic and cowing detail, the third part of The Monto Cycle is no less immersive, but more frenetic, as though the only way to honour an explosive decade in Dublin is to chase down its fragments.
Beginning with a 1975 radio documentary made by Pat Kenny and Kieran Sheedy, the production first provides some lucid context. We hear interviews with the boys and observe flitting references – both overt and subtle – to the seismic events of the period: the Dublin and Monaghan bombings, the death of de Valera, an impoverished city “with no structures in place for these kids”, and a community fractured by drugs and emerging gangs. Without spoiling the surprise, or muting its shock, the audience experience is similarly ruptured: you never feel entirely safe, or completely abandoned, but you do feel wholly involved.
Again entrusting us to hair-raising and intimate encounters with a large, naturalistic cast, director Louise Lowe never treats us as if we are detached witnesses. Asked to follow someone – or more frequently to “move!” – we may find ourselves holding a thug’s jacket or filming a punishment beating, meeting the gaze of a bomb victim, caked in dust, as she recreates the moment of impact, or trapped in a recreated Hades of abuse and addiction. Like its source, this is a form of documentary, but with none of the dispassion.
Lowe’s deeply affecting production is more concerned with people than place, which is why it sprawls across more ground than the previous two – there are several car rides, please buckle up – and why it feels less perfectly contained. Throughout, you may observe designer Owen Boss and costume designer Niamh Lunny’s startling attention to detail, but Lowe’s political points register more subtly. Fiction and reality warp into one, the past is always vividly present, and we are made to see ourselves as participants in the stories; either obedient accomplices or people capable of support and compassion.
“It’s crazy. That was us,” says one of the documentary’s original boys, years later, observing a turning point in the city. The artful and devastating point here is that it was all of us – that it still is.
Until October 13th
– Peter Crawley