For two years, the people at theatre company ANU Productions have had a photograph sitting on their desks. The black-and-white image was taken on April 18th, 1949, the night that Ireland became a Republic. It shows throngs of people gathering on O'Connell Bridge and celebrating the birth of the new Republic.
It’s a hugely evocative image and ANU was inspired to do something based around that period.
"It was a point in history that always fascinated us," says producer Matt Smyth. "We had done a small bit of development on it in prehistoric times, pre-pandemic, with a vision to developing it at some point in the future."
At the beginning of 2020, the theatre company was busy working on Book of Names, a co-production with Landmark Productions and Dublin Port. The show was their most ambitious to date and was due to be staged as part of this year's Dublin Theatre Festival. Then the pandemic struck and everything needed to be reconfigured. Plans started changing and projects had to be pushed back and rescheduled.
We were really interested in working back from that image and thinking about what the city is
When it became clear that Dublin Theatre Festival would be unable to proceed as normal, organisers approached ANU to ask if they had anything that could be developed with the new status quo in mind.
With everything in a state of flux, it seemed like an appropriate time to revisit the image of O’Connell Bridge and create a piece that reflected on Dublin in the present moment.
"We were really interested in working back from that image and thinking about what the city is and what the landscape of the city is and how that often reflects our own sense of being and our own sense of purpose in a city," says producer Lynette Moran.
The result is The Party to End All Parties, an interactive piece that brings audience members inside the offices of the Irish Architecture Foundation on Bachelors Walk. Here they are invited to explore the pivotal role O'Connell Bridge has played in Ireland's history and how it has consistently served as a focal point for protest, revolution and change.
The show also stars Nandi Bhebhe, Niamh McCann and Robbie O'Connor, who have all worked with ANU on previous productions. During the show, audience members are guided outside by a cast member in character and invited to follow them to O'Connell Bridge. Along the way, they encounter and engage with another character who is "having a profound moment in terms of their relationship to the city".
The experience will culminate with the audience member having "the party to end all parties" alone on O'Connell Bridge. "That is the ultimate aim," says director Louise Lowe. "It is for you by you. Whatever happens for you in that moment is the party to end all parties."
From beginning to end, the show last 20 minutes. Only one audience member will take part in each performance, but the show will run constantly throughout the day.
“The show is very different from shows we’ve made before in that it is a much shorter and sharper and more personable experience in loads of ways,” adds Lowe.
The show will also be streamed live for free in October. “[That] will allow us to reach an international audience and national audience,” says Lowe. “For people who are unable to obtain a ticket or be in Dublin, there will be an opportunity to experience the work. Obviously it’ll be slightly augmented in terms of being streamed but hopefully that will also offer something really interesting to audiences.”
Making theatre against the backdrop of Covid-19 is no easy feat, but ANU Productions’ experience of staging intimate, site-specific work meant they were better placed than most to rise to the challenge. “For lots of people, we’re probably the obvious people to make work now,” says Moran.
Nonetheless it has been a very different creative experience . For one thing, the four - Louise Lowe, Owen Boss, Lynette Moran and Matt Smyth - have only been together in person twice since March, once for a site visit and once for a board meeting in the park. Much of the brainstorming for The Party to End All Parties has instead taken place over Zoom.
Cast and crew were able to come together for rehearsals earlier this month, a prospect that was “terrifying, but amazing”. “There’s a nervousness about going back into that way of working having been on Zoom and having been dreaming for a number of months, rather than being in that rehearsal room and doing the nuts and bolts of something that will be on in a couple of weeks.”
We've had such an opportunity to really expand our conversations
Sourcing a site was also a challenge. Where previously they would have knocked on doors to enquire about the availability of a building, that wasn’t an option this time around. Eventually the Irish Architecture Foundation stepped in and granted them use of its building.
“We have to give credit to them because doorstepping wasn’t a thing we could do but they were really open to the process and really open to hosting the work and very engaged with the role of the city, the role of the architecture of the city,” says Moran.
“They have been a really important partner for us and we’re indebted to their vision of taking this journey with us and saying, ‘Let’s make this happen’ at a time when most people are closing their doors and not really wanting to risk things.”
At the centre of The Party to End All Parties is a question about Dublin and how it functions as a city right now.
“I think the thing we really want to talk about in this work is our position in the city and the city as a mise en scene,” says Lowe. “The notion that the city is evolving and changing and it will change again. We are at such a crunch point in our own society, globally and personally. All the things that have brought us to this moment to stand on this bridge will be at play.”
‘Town was dead’
It's something they have discussed at length in the pasts months. Smyth recalls a recent board meeting at which someone said that "town was dead". One of the board members, Ali Grehan, Dublin City Architect, contested the assertion. What followed was a discussion "about Dublin and what makes a city and what is important".
“I was like, ‘Cool,’” says Smyth. “The fact that we’re in a park, the fact we have time to do this . . . These are some beautiful artistic things that have come out of this pandemic and that would not have happened without it.”
There have been other upsides to the unexpected downtime. Like having the time to tease out big existential questions.
“We have met every single day on Zoom,” says Moran. “In our normal production mode that isn’t possible. We’ve drilled each other in terms of our ideas, our ambitions, our thoughts for the future. We’ve had such an opportunity to really expand our conversations.”
“There were really pertinent questions about, ‘What are we now? Where do we sit in this world?’ As artists, what kind of work do we want to make? What does the world need from us in this moment in time?’” adds Lowe.
“They were big questions that we had time to ask ourselves. We had time to stop and go, ‘How can we generate a work that captures the essence of all the things that have made us excited about what we do in terms of communion and also keeps people distantly safe at the time?’”
While social distancing might get in the way of these sorts of communal experiences, it is the creative team’s hope that The Party To End All Parties will nonetheless succeed in conjuring a “sense of togetherness”.
"I think what has pushed [Willie White of the Dublin Theatre Festival] to invite this work is to create something that does give people that sense of belonging and connection and hope," says Lowe.
“We were pondering upon the idea of sitting in an auditorium and looking around and feeling this distance between you and other audience members and how lonely that feeling might be,” adds Moran. “Whereas I think if people come to this show, it will feel like an ANU show. It won’t feel compromised.”
ANU Production’s The Party to End All Parties. Previews Sept 22nd-23rd from 4pm-9.40pm. Runs Sept 24th-27th, Sept 29th-Oct 4th and Oct 6th-11th, 4pm-9.40pm.
See dublintheatre festival.ie