Jim Nolan’s new play dares to dream big
Catherine Walsh and Brendan Conroy in Dreamland
Everyman Palace Theatre, Cork
An Ireland in which people with ideas above their station are regarded as dangerously radical provides both context and atmosphere for Jim Nolan’s new play. Presented by the Garter Lane Arts Centre, the Everyman Palace and the Project Arts Centre, Dreamland centres on Johnny Kinnane, who has recently returned from America with a missionary impulse to convert the people, beginning, unlike most missionaries, with his bar.
Kinnane’s plans to inject a little magic into people’s lives include an amusement park built around the skeleton of a whale and, even more shocking, the introduction of jazz to the introverted village community. This is Ireland in 1934, and the local heavies intend to deflate Kinnane’s aspirations, violently if necessary, especially as he has transgressed even further by befriending a Jewish immigrant.
Nolan is a daring writer, suggesting that Hitler and Gen Eoin Duffy are more or less equal as portents of the evil to come, and equating Brownshirts and Blueshirts as matched expressions of home-grown Nazi thuggery. It is in Conall Keating’s work as the adolescent Dinny, caught between the decency of his own family and the glamour of fascist rhetoric, that Nolan provides the most coherent expression of the moral argument at the core of the play.
Unfortunately, the debate is carried in dialogue that is unbalanced by the weight of its message. There is a speech on Hitler suggesting that even small-town Ireland knew all about what was happening in Germany in 1934, and with such detail that it sent at least this writer date-checking; another, on the “Shinners” and the sins of the fathers; another again for the eponymous dreamland.
Even when relieved by some of Nolan’s lovely lines – for example Kinnane (Brendan Conroy) remembering that his dreamland had its moments “and they were mine” – it seems too much and too frantic. Perhaps a director other than Nolan would have imposed a sharper focus, accentuating the talents of the strong cast and disguising the several contradictions in character and plot.
Yet the dream survives. Nolan is a courageous writer, and finally something splendid seems to emerge as his people dance into their darkening future under a sky of stars.