Home: Part One – Abbey stream amplifies the voices of silenced mother and baby home survivors

Theatre review: Powerful, earth-shifting testimonies are solemnly read as scripts

HOME: PART ONE

Streaming from the Abbey Theatre, Dublin
★★★☆☆
You might recall that 10 years ago, during the fallout of a different commission investigating the Catholic Church and the State, artists made a slate of decent plays using archival files and government documents (of all things). The pathos of theatre can transform the bleak, detached findings of reports into something potentially more stirring.

The arrival of Home: Part One, the urgent streamed play by the Abbey Theatre's joint directors, Graham McLaren and Neil Murray, sees a similar aesthetic response to recent discoveries. The play is woven from witness accounts and extracts from the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes, an inquiry that seemed to suspend catharsis for the nation, no less than for survivors. After the revelation of those personal testimonies being destroyed by the commission, the Abbey Theatre has seized its affecting symbolism as the national theatre by amplifying the voices of those silenced.

For many performers the texts don't allow much room for exploration, restricting them to solemn deliveries as if walking a tightrope between eloquence and respect

On a dark, empty stage relieved only by the white shafts of Kevin McFadden’s gracious lighting, sombre figures dressed in black come and go, outlining a disturbing anatomy of human trafficking made possible through the collusion of religious institutions and adoption agencies. A society might allow fatigue to set in from a deluge of such stories, hearing them in the same repetitive media reports, but art can cut deeper. In Liz Fitzgibbon’s compassionate reading of Philomena Lee’s testimony, describing the heart-aching scene of watching a child being driven away to an adoptive home, she asks with hurt disbelief: “Can you imagine how I felt?”

The strongest moments in Home run with that question, lending three-dimensional emotion to paper-flat observation. Reading an account by Bridget Walsh, Joan Sheehy delivers startlingly realistic stumbles as someone wading through the near-casual horror of their child's neglect. Within a nicely restrained performance by Máire Ní Ghráinne, reading the testimony of Theresa Tinggal, there is a sense of an otherwise composed woman subtly stung by the unsolved mystery of her true parents.

For many performers these texts don't allow much room for exploration, restricting them to solemn deliveries as if walking a tightrope between eloquence and respect. Unlike the play's mesmerising blues performances by Mary Coughlan, transforming stories about church institutions and motherhood into moving song, these powerful, earth-shifting testimonies receive something as disappointingly traditional as a script reading.

There's no denying the high volume of its message. The survivors' stories were told. We saw it happen

Such horrors have been transmuted into elaborate art before. The play’s curator, Noelle Brown, previously gave us Postscript, a gumshoe detective story that disarmingly went on a personal quest to unseal adoption records. Perhaps the conventional approach is down to the institution. Like the Abbey Theatre’s other streamed plays, Home is serialised, courting audiences’ attention through regular instalments of individual stories, as if Aristotle’s unity of action had been pluralised.

From the play's more significant innovations – its poignant filmed portraits of survivors; the light it shines on woeful, racist prejudice; an unfazed finale performance by Brenda Fricker voicing a call to confront the State's secrets – there's no denying the high volume of its message. The survivors' stories were told. We saw it happen.

Streaming on the Abbey Theatre's YouTube channel until July 17th