In 1813, in a room on the ground floor at No 14 Henrietta Street, a maid is polishing the silver of Charles Viscount Dillon, an agent of the British government, who has a base in Dublin, as well as in London and Roscommon. She squints in the gas light, which throws shadows on walls lined with ornate wallpaper and topped with plaster friezes.
A century later, an Irish mother is minding her children in the same room, which has now shrunk, thanks to the partitions erected to give her a bit of privacy from the family of 13 who live on the other side of the makeshift wall. The walls are bare plaster, painted blue with copper sulphate to disinfect them; disease spreads rapidly in such crowded quarters.
The grand four-storey over-basement Georgian building is now home to as many as 17 families and an astonishing 103 people. The mansion is now a tenement.
In 2013, No 14 Henrietta Street has been given new life as a tourist attraction: an opportunity to experience tenement life in all its intimate squalor.
A partnership between the Irish Heritage Trust, Dublin City Council and the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, Living the Lockout: The Dublin Tenement Experience has been created by site-specific theatrical stalwarts Anu Productions as part of the centenary celebrations of the 1913 Lockout.
Louise Lowe and her collaborators had already been interested in the landmark industrial strike when they responded to a call to tender for “interpretation services” at the preserved tenement.
“We didn’t really know what ‘interpretation services’ were,” Lowe recalls, “but we did some research and thought that it was something that we could have a go at.”
The result is an incredible, emotional and visceral glimpse into the life of two families during the 1913 Lockout.
Family life, 1913
In the tradition of Sean O'Casey's Dublin Trilogy, it brings us political events through a domestic lens: two brothers on either side of Jim Larkin's call for action, and a mother forced to sell the last piece of furniture in the barren room she occupies with her children.
From the rest of the house, we hear the soundtrack of death and disease, a premonition of the future and an ever-present awareness of the residents’ precarious mortality.
When Anu won the tender and took up residence at No 14, Lowe saw it as a perfect opportunity “to do the kind of immersive historical research” that has informed all of the company’s work.
Its trilogy of performances set around the Foley Street area of Dublin’s north inner city was inspired by oral testimony and interaction with the community. Lowe took a similarly inclusive approach to creating an event for the Henrietta Street building.
She is the most democratic of directors, and the actors played a key role in researching the history of the house, the area and the lockout. This produced personal, first-hand evidence from the actors.
Lowe herself had a personal connection with Henrietta Street: her mother had grown up in the house opposite No 14 and offered personal memories of life on the street, as well as photographs, which added to the visual records that Anu Productions were collecting.
Laura Murray, meanwhile, drew on her own grandmother's letters to create her character of a mother torn between love and necessity.
Where the production process differed for Lowe and her team, however, was that they were "creating work for a very specific set of stakeholders". Anu usually creates work with only an audience in mind, for Living the Lockout, the brief was "cultural tourism" rather than artistic expression.
Luckily Anu has managed to fulfil its own creative ambitions, while satisfying the demands of its heritage and union partners.
What Lowe and her team had not considered, however, was that having their work in a tourist rather than a theatrical setting would bring them an entirely different audience.
That “has been really exciting for us, especially for the actors”, Lowe says. “The audience would not necessarily be regular theatre-goers, and most of them would never have seen one of our shows, so they react in a much different way.”
The shows are performed seven times a day, and some people have come for repeat viewings. One older male audience member came back to the performance the day after his first visit, ready to interact with the actors at those moments when they appeal directly to the audience for advice or help.
At one point, Murray’s mother character asks the audience to “give me a little something”, for example, and “he didn’t say a word the first time he came to the show but it seemed really important to him that he give her something the second time”.
A disparate audience
But if the audience for Living the Lockout is not drawn from Anu's committed followers, where is it coming from?
The afternoon I visit, a union group has just left and a family of American tourists are arriving, but Lowe says that the largest demographic so far has been people from the local community.
“People who used to live on the street or had a connection with the street,” she adds. “People who even lived in the building. One man lived in this room [the front room that serves as the box office] with his family of 13.”
It has been incredibly moving for Lowe and her team – and incredibly gratifying for the Irish Heritage Trust – to see how emotionally affected these former residents are by the opportunity to revisit the rooms where they played, slept or visited friends.
It has also added to the rich historical heritage that Lowe and her collaborators have uncovered with the help of oral historian Terry Fagan.
“They don’t just leave” when the event is over, Lowe says, “they want to share their own stories”. This in turn informs how the performance evolves every day.
Living the Lockout runs until the end of the summer, but Anu Productions will not vacate the building immediately thereafter. This is just one of the sites for its new project, 13, which commemorates the 1913 Lockout in a different way.
The company was already committed to staging 13 when the opportunity for Living the Lockout came up, and although 13 is far more complex than the cultural-tourism brief, the company's residency this summer has allowed them to do "the fundamental historical research we needed to do for 13".
In this production, the company will interrogate the very nature of commemoration and protest across 13 days of the Dublin Fringe Festival and in various formal and informal venues.
Many of the events will be free in public places, others will disrupt the daily business of the city. The theme, Lowe says, is "provocation. I suppose we want to ask people today what it is they think it is worth fighting for."
Living the Lockout: The Dublin Tenement Experience runs at 14 Henrietta Street until August 31. dublintenement
experience.com. 13 will run daily throughout the city as part of the Dublin Fringe Festival. dublinfringefest.com