Tucked away between residential buildings on Dublin’s North Strand is a little oasis of greenery and budding life. There are raised beds and hanging plants, archways strung with leafy tendrils, and picnic tables around which local residents can commune. This is Mud Island Community Garden, a remarkable grassroots project established on derelict wasteground in 2011, which now thrives as a hub of local spirit.
This May, it also becomes an outdoor arena, hosting a new immersive theatre production, written by Michele Forbes and Owen Roe, and brought to life by director Louise Lowe, who has been transforming secret sites across the city with her company ANU since 2009.
Forbes and Roe, partners in real life as well as in writing, were approached by theatre producers Maria Fleming and Laura MacNaughton about getting involved in an event at Mud Island in the autumn of 2020. Fleming and MacNaughton had recently set up a production company, Exit Pursued by a Bear, to focus on theatre projects for young audiences. The Mud Island idea was a “passion project”, as Forbes describes it, and the initial approach was about the married couple performing something at the site.
However, inspired by the garden’s magic and history (in Weston St John Joyce’s compendium, The Neighbourhoods of Dublin, Mud Island was “inhabited by a gang of smugglers, highwaymen, and desperadoes of every description”), Forbes and Roe suggested instead that they might write something.
He spent a few years in the late 1980s as a lead writer for the children's TV series Pajo's Junkbox, which he describes as 'a real education in entertainment'
The idea for writing together did not come out of nowhere. Forbes, who trained as an actor, left performance behind more than a decade ago to focus on writing, and has published two critically-acclaimed literary novels since. Despite her vast experience as an actor, Forbes has been reluctant to write for the stage. In 2013, she co-wrote the play Postscript with actor and activist Noelle Browne, inspired by Browne’s experience of searching for her birth mother.
“I loved the collaboration involved in that,” Forbes says, “which is very different from the way you write a novel, which is all about being on your own and finding your voice.” Working with Roe on an original drama had a similar attraction to her project with Browne. “For me,” she admits, “theatre is all about collaboration.”
Roe, meanwhile, also felt nervous about trying to write for the stage. As one of Ireland’s leading actors, before the pandemic he was too busy to contemplate it. However, Roe is not completely without form. He spent a few years in the late 1980s as a lead writer for the children’s TV series Pajo’s Junkbox, which he describes as “a real education in entertainment; how to talk to children without talking down to them”.
Roe explains how the idea for writing a play first came about. “Listening to our own families and friends talking over the last few years,” he says, “we were very aware of how a lot of what has been happening has been affecting children. Covid, climate change, now the war in Ukraine; children have been exposed to a lot of difficulties, a lot of negativity, but they don’t necessarily have the resources to deal with it. So we decided we would write something really positive, to reintroduce them to the idea of wonderment, of positivity, to the idea of play. That’s what we do in the theatre: play!”
The idea for Our Little World, Forbes continues, “was to find a way of bringing a focus to the small things. The world is vast, but we are interconnected. If we stop and look at what is around us, it is easier to feel our place in the world.”
They don’t use the term mindfulness to describe their intention, but the idea of reflection resonates. In a space such as Mud Garden, Forbes says, “the environment has a physical effect on you, on your wellbeing. Just looking at the plants growing. There’s a sort of magic place and a feeling of safety there.”
The dramatic narrative, meanwhile, is ignited when the audience meet the main characters of the piece: three aliens played by Gillian McCarthy, Michael Glenn Murphy and Robbie O’Connor, who have been marooned on planet Earth (also appearing in the show is Hazel Clifford). “Lost in an unfamiliar environment,” Roe says, “they have had no choice but to adapt. They have made Earth their home and in order to survive, they have become great gardeners. They have to in order to survive.” They still want to go home, however; it is up to the young audience to convince them to stay.
'You really could not get a more immersive, more willing audience than kids'
Our Little World is intrinsically interactive, with children entrusted with a series of tasks they have to perform to help the scenes move along. “Their movement will change the story as it goes on,” Roe says, “so we needed the script to be flexible enough to allow [the children] to take their responsibilities on board.” Having workshopped the production with a group of local schoolchildren, the writers have concluded that “you really could not get a more immersive, more willing audience than kids” and they have had a special thrill “seeing our words, our world, take on a whole new level” in action.
After the long 24 months since theatres closed, it has been exciting too, for Roe in particular, to be working with a theatre troupe again. “I really missed [acting] when the theatres were closed,” Rowe admits. “The sense of family-ness, of making something together, when we literally couldn’t be together at all.”
Sitting in on rehearsals for his debut play, then, has been good preparation for a return to the stage for the actor too. In July, Roe will star in the forthcoming production of Sebastian Barry’s play, Steward of Christendom, at the Gate Theatre, in a production also directed by Lowe. He will play the leading role of Thomas Dunne, infamously originated by Donal McCann in 1995.
However, Rowe is keen to deflect any excess of attention. “It is not a one-man show,” he emphasises, “I am part of an ensemble. I am an ensemble actor.” Echoing Forbes’ delight in collaboration, he insists: “That’s what I love about theatre.”
Our Little World runs from May 6th to May 20th at Mud Island Community Garden.