Elsewhere: Agitprop opera combines the serious and the comic

Michael Gallen’s polyglot minimalist music captures energy of historic Monaghan strike

ELSEWHERE

Abbey Theatre, Dublin
★★★★☆
Michael Gallen's new opera, Elsewhere, which opened at the Abbey Theatre on Monday, was sparked by an event that hit the headlines on Thursday, January 30th, 1919. "ATTENDANTS SEIZE ASYLUM. Monaghan Buildings Surrounded by Police. RED FLAG HOISTED" blared the Freeman's Journal.

The remarkable if short-lived Monaghan Soviet, led by Peadar O’Donnell, had reached a standoff. The striking workers of the Monaghan Lunatic Asylum had locked themselves in with the inmates and were in control of the stores; the Royal Irish Constabulary had control of the grounds. At a time when strikes were commonplace, this one really stood out.

Monaghan-born Gallen’s opera focuses on the experience of Celine, an inmate who lived through the upheaval and whose sometimes distorted later perceptions are coloured by memories of it. The treatment of mental illness, nothing to boast about today, was altogether more reprehensible 100 years ago.

Michael Gallen is much taken by the caring core of the strike Peadar O'Donnell managed, and the opera's librettists present Celine in a way that makes wider commentary about the treatment of oddballs and outcasts in modern society

Gallen is much taken by the caring core of the strike O’Donnell managed, and the opera’s librettists – Gallen himself, the poet Annemarie Ní Churreáin and the playwright Dylan Coburn Gray – present Celine in a way that makes wider commentary about the treatment of oddballs and outcasts in modern society. If you wanted a label for the work, you could call it agitprop opera.

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The subject may be serious, but there is comedy, too, much of it provided initially unintentionally but later full on by the the work’s major voice of officialdom, the Inspector of Lunatics.

Tom Creed's visually and fluidly physically busy production, designed by Katie Davenport, choreographed by Shawn Fitzgerald-Ahern and incorporating video by Luca Truffarelli, has the players of France's Ensemble Miroirs Étendus and its conductor Fiona Monbet always onstage and sometimes a part of the action, as in a series of face-offs, like schoolyard fights between pairs of instruments.

The hard-working, multitasking cast – Daire Halpin as Celine with Amy Ní Fhearraigh, Adrian Dwyer, Sarah Shine, Sinéad O'Kelly, Fearghal Curtis and Aaron O'Hare – inhabit their roles with boundless energy. And Gallen's polyglot minimalist music captures both the repetitiveness of incarceration and the energy it cannot quite contain.

Elsewhere is at the Abbey Theatre until Saturday, November 20th