Faultline review: Immersive journey through a societal upheaval
Dublin Theatre Festival: This absorbing new work remembers a faultline in the early days of Irish gay rights
Faultline: this immersive performance is thrillingly immediate. Photograph: Pat Redmond
11 Parnell Square East
The inspiration behind ANU and the Gate Theatre’s absorbing new immersive co-production is an upheaval borne by Ireland’s gay community in the early 1980s: a series of homophobic murders, and intrusive, prejudiced investigations, whose resulting exodus represented a societal “faultline”. Its effect is more visceral, though, inspiring the seismic disturbance of how it felt to live on one.
The site, in this instance, is more proximate than specific: a recreation of the headquarters of the Irish Gay Rights Movement, and its nightclub Phoenix Club, on the opposite side of Parnell Square. In Owen Boss and Maree Kearns’s impressively detailed design, plunging us into a basement labyrinth, the lives within seem more hermetically sealed than intermingled with the city today. That’s an unusual approach for ANU, as though imagining the intolerance of the early 1980s – where criminalised sexuality made attacks commonplace and a gay club had to have a lemonade bar – was now the stuff of legend.
In expression, though, the performance is thrillingly immediate: when a riveting dance sequence erupts in the corridors, as full of voguing as a more primal pent up energy, it’s hard to imagine any club containing such depth of feeling. In the artful journey that director Louise Lowe provides, though, characters establish themselves in cryptic glances, unrestrained choreography, and fluent involving speech.
A couple meet furtively in the toilets, where risks are high, and in Matthew Williamson and Stephen Quinn’s frenetic movement an almost wordless encounter moves through nervous excitement and aggressive release to a kind of stunned trance. “I can be anywhere I want to be,” inists Williamson. When we next see him, we know that is more prayer than belief.
Other meetings come with articulate detail. Nandi Bhebhe’s London diva finds a place in gay clubs that has eluded her in life. “The politics of where to sit,” she recalls of school, too boyish for the girls, too girlish for the boys, “it’s exhausting.” With admirable frankness, the tiny support structures for people struggling with their sexuality can be overwhelmed. “People use this word, ‘movement’,” Matthew Malone’s sympathetically exasperated Paul confides. “And it’s just a few people in a room.”
Against the progress of today, you might flatter yourself that this is precisely how a movement began. Yet in the sobering encounters we have with each person, relating their own responses to impossible situations, we are asked – sometimes individually – “What would you have done?” The question invites lingering reflection, rather than role-play response.
In the concluding shudders of this understated production, where Bhebhe’s exceptional performance of supreme confidence almost breaks down under duress, you’re reminded that fault lines can remain placid for eons. The past teaches us to be alert to every future tremor.
Runs until Sunday, December 1st