Christ deliver us!

Christ Deliver Us! at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin

Christ Deliver Us! at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin

Early in Thomas Kilroy’s fluid new version of Frank Wedekind’s searing drama of desire and repression, a 15-year-old girl argues with her mother over the appropriate length of her dress. Like the altering hemline of Winnie’s garment, adolescence is full of ups and downs, but Wedekind’s 1890 tragedy recognises that in the wrong circumstances, it follows a more harrowing trajectory.

Transplanting the play to a provincial Kilkenny school in the 1950s, in a country cowed by the Catholic Church, Kilroy paints adolescence with fond but unsentimental detail in distinctly grim circumstances. His title change alone – from Spring Awakeningto Christ Deliver Us! – shifts focus from the bloom of desire to the frost that kills it.

“Who wants to get bigger if it means ruining something lovely?” asks Aoife Duffin’s sheltered Winnie, her gentle performance following a fateful passage from innocence to experience, which provides the heart of the play.

Aaron Monaghan’s prematurely worldly Michael – absorbingly neat and nihilistic – conjures a darker sense of adolescence, yet he is not the only character to match sexual fascination with a fixation on death. His hapless friend, Mossy (an endearingly gauche Laurence Kinlan), is still less equipped to weather the pressure of adult severity and the confusion of sexuality.

In a nation still reeling from the Murphy and Ryan reports, our sensitivities are naturally high to any spectre of sexual abuse. Kilroy’s concern, however, is how sexual awakening is corrupted by the shadow of physical abuse, where ignorance is enforced with beatings and budding desires can warp into something dangerous. It may count as a period drama, but its echoes are heard today.

In a compelling and affecting production, director Wayne Jordan responds elegantly to the briskly episodic structure of the play while infusing his stage with its theme: the unnatural suppression of ungovernable development. Tufts of grass shoot up between the warped wooden boards of Naomi Wilkinson’s ingenious curvilinear set, where irrepressible nature cannot be fully trampled. Similarly, indoor and outdoor spaces are lightly summoned, just as the morals of society and the furtive fumbling of youth flare and flicker under Sinéad Wallace’s lighting.

Using gracefully choreographed movement to accommodate everything from skilful hurling scenes to set changes, Jordan balances energetic group displays with striking vignettes of torment and desire, few more moving or lyrical than a stifled dance class which flourishes into Simon Boyle and Stephen O’Rourke’s covert duet.

Like Wedekind, Kilroy takes great care neither to moralise nor demonise. Several of his priests may be tyrants and hypocrites, but Denis Conway’s Canon and Tom Hickey’s stammering Father Séamus offer shadows of tolerance and charity. It is the culture that is contaminated, suggests Kilroy, where parental figures – assuredly embodied by Eleanor Methven, Cathy Belton and Michael McElhatton – sway between fretfulness, lenience and inflexible authoritarianism.

Kilroy’s last moments mark his sharpest deviations from Wedekind. Reconciling sex, spirituality and self-determination, and defining them away from institutional corruption, his compassion speaks directly to today, delivering us from cynicism and hopelessness with a notably secular prayer.

An exhortation to respect the temple of the body and obey the pursuit of knowledge, it urges not a desperate response but a solemn Amen. Until Mar 13