It’s Ireland’s best public theatre, and it needs our support
With its extraordinary Monto cycle, which includes the searing Laundry and, at this month’s Dublin Fringe Festival, the remarkable Thirteen sequence, Louise Lowe’s Anu Productions has become a kind of alternative national theatre, exploring the legacy of coercive institutionalisation, sexual exploitation, poverty, social collapse and the heroin epidemic
Thirteen: reflects on the themes and tensions that arise from commemoration of the Lockout
In April 1916, just before the Rising, one of the best Irish plays of the 20th century had its premiere. WB Yeats’s At the Hawk’s Well is a superb piece of theatrical writing and a profound reflection on the theatre itself. It has, through its obvious influence on Samuel Beckett, a radiant afterlife in contemporary culture. But it didn’t open at Yeats’s own theatre, the Abbey. It played in Lady Emerald Cunard’s drawing room on Cavendish Square in London. The audience was small, rarefied and hand-picked: it included TS Eliot and Ezra Pound. Yeats had concluded that work like this was not for a mass audience. He had chosen intensity and intimacy over impact and scale.
This Yeatsian dilemma is especially sharp in Irish theatre just now. A paradox is at work, most notably in relation to perhaps the most interesting company in Ireland at the moment, Louise Lowe’s Anu. Lowe and her collaborators have given us the continuing Monto cycle, including the searing and monumental Laundry. They haunted a house on Henrietta Street with a stunning evocation of life in tenement Dublin during the 1913 Lockout. And, over the course of Dublin Fringe Festival, they created the remarkable Thirteen sequence of site-specific performances around the city, reflecting on the themes and tensions that arise from commemoration of the Lockout.
This work is of extraordinary quality. It is theatrically adventurous in the way it shifts continually between in-your-face social realism and nonrealistic choreography, between moments that seem to blend entirely into the surrounding life of the city and those that stand starkly apart from it. It is performed with an almost manic conviction by a multiskilled and utterly committed ensemble. It is thoughtfully conceived and rigorously executed. It keeps a careful balance between the delivery of shocks and the shaping of a kind of poetry.
And it is deadly serious. Anu, for all its roots in Dublin’s north inner city, has been a kind of alternative national theatre, exploring the legacy of coercive institutionalisation, sexual exploitation, poverty, social collapse and the heroin epidemic. The Thirteen project is by far the most interesting approach to the decade of commemorations that we’ve seen in any field so far.
So where’s the dilemma? It comes back, albeit in very different political and artistic circumstances, to Yeats’s choice between an intense intimacy on the one side and large-scale impact on the other. Except that the dilemma is even deeper. Lowe’s work is urgently and directly political in a way that Yeats’s was not. It evokes a notion of “reality” – contemporary lived experience – that Yeats could do without. It’s set not in the heroic age of Cúchulainn but in what we might call the continuous past – a history that is still playing itself out. It cries out for public engagement. Yet its aesthetic is all about the small scale, the personal, the close-up.