Project Arts Centre, Dublin
“Did it work?” one actor asks another. “Did you feel it in your soul?”
The line is probably ad-libbed, in a show that feels bracingly loose yet carefully structured, when Barry O'Connor asks Gerard Kelly if his impression of a gunshot was convincing. That may seem like a flippant opening to TheatreClub's new production, but it's a clever statement about art and its effect, and the purpose of political theatre. Do you feel it in your soul?
Writer/director Grace Dyas’s project, commissioned by Dublin City Council to mark the regeneration of St Michael’s Estate in Inchicore, sets itself a considerable scope. Beginning with the aftermath of the Easter Rising, when captured revolutionaries were detained at a British military barracks on the 14-acre site, the production makes that location and its fitful transformation serve as a metaphor for the nation.
“Remember, we’re talking about here so we can talk about everywhere,” Kelly tells us.
There's something fidgety in that gesture, and the fact that the production is the concluding part of a trilogy about Ireland, following The Family and Heroin. But where those shows were unafraid to alienate the audience, through abrasive delivery or startling device, here everyone gets in on the ground level.
You see this in an early conversation, casual as pub banter, about the Proclamation of Irish Independence and "cherishing all of the children of the nation equally" – the production's most contested theme. The tone is playful, arch and impassioned, where performers at once represent national totems while addressing us simply as themselves. Lauren Larkin, in emerald green, appears on a plinth as Ireland, yet thaws into an individual ("Tonight I feel defiant"); Louise Lewis replaces her as the Virgin Mary, praying a fretful, self-recriminating babble ("Holy Mary, sorry sorry sorry"), human after all.
Such sequences come close to satire, but approaching
St Michael's itself, the show is guided by absolute sincerity. Chronicling the 1970s aspirations of tower blocks, where, Shane Byrne's city councillor tells us, people will "live in the sky", through decades of community strength against slow deterioration and drug problems, it carefully outlines the broken promises of four regeneration plans.
Dyas pays as much attention to the political and economic specifics as fleet and effective ways to communicate them. Under Sean Millar’s musical direction, time dissolves through snatches of song or harsh effects; Joe Lee’s towering video projections of archive footage inhabit the white canvas of Doireann Coady’s flexible stage, while the surge and fade of Eoin Winning’s lights ensure there’s never a division between the playing space and the audience.
That reveals the true agenda of the production: ending less as a performance than as a rally. It announces TheatreClub at its most ambitious and enflamed, yet somehow its least certain.
You may feel it in your soul, but what is the next step? Then again, who knows where or when History will end?