Mespil in the Dark: A twist on the something everyday

The intimacy of the flats blurs the line between fiction and reality to exquisite effect 

Mespil in the Dark: Director Gavin Quinn says the impulse for the series has been percolating for a long time. Photograph: Ros Kavanagh

Mespil in the Dark: Director Gavin Quinn says the impulse for the series has been percolating for a long time. Photograph: Ros Kavanagh

 

Night in the city: an actor celebrates his birthday in his flat alone. Early the next morning, an actress heads out to a corporate gig to pay her rent. Both are residents of the Mespil flats, which takes a starring role in Pan Pan Theatre’s latest performance project, which director Gavin Quinn describes as a series of films “about a bohemian oasis in the middle of the city, where a cast of actors and artists live, and what they have to do to survive”. 

The impulse for Mespil in the Dark, Quinn explains over Zoom, has been percolating for a long time. “It was really inspired by the stories I have collected over the years in my conversations with actors,” he says. “Conversations about their daily routines, about how the city is changing, about what they had to do to survive.”

The original conception was for a two-fold approach to the subject matter: a theatre production, as well as a film. With the pandemic making live performance impossible, the filmic iteration took priority, but it was an integral part of Quinn’s vision from the start, so it was less about making concessions to the form than exploiting its singular point of view.

Using film, Quinn explains, “we could immediately get in really close, to have an almost voyeuristic effect, where all the small triumphs, the minutiae of [the characters’] days would become interesting because they felt so real”.

Working with eight actors whose lives he knew well enabled Quinn to shape the project in a way that the boundaries between fiction and reality could be cannily blurred. “Essentially,” he admits, “we collected all these actors whose experience [chimed with] the kind of stories that we were trying to tell.”

Anna Sheils-McNamee is one of those actors. A version of her life appears on screen in episode two of the series, in which she performs alongside her partner, the actor Tadhgh Murphy, and their infant son Rian. She says “Gavin and Eugene [O’Brien, who wrote the screenplay] interviewed us before we started working on the films, asking us about our morning routines, what a perfect day or evening would look like, and one of the things that came up as we were talking was all these random jobs I used to do to pay my rent between gigs, and that sort of became the story for my episode.” As O’Brien explains, “the city has changed so much and we wanted to represent how [artists] have to do all this work to make a living between jobs, so Anna’s real [experiences] fed into that.”

Mespil in the Dark gives us an intimate portrait of the characters who inhabit them and the understated dramas of their lives. Photograph: Ros Kavanagh
Mespil in the Dark gives us an intimate portrait of the characters who inhabit them and the understated dramas of their lives. Photograph: Ros Kavanagh
We wanted to take something everyday and put a twist on it, so some of the incidents in the films might be true but the actors are playing different people than themselves

As someone who made his way as a writer in the 1990s, he says, “when four of us were renting a house for like 2p each, living on the dole and what we made from a profit-share show; that sort of life is impossible now.”

Other elements of Sheils-McNamee’s experiences influenced the script. “On the day we were workshopping in December,” she recalls, “we couldn’t get childcare, so Rian ended up coming with us, and he ended up being part of our story.” She also lived in the Mespil flats at one stage. “It was a few years ago,” she says, “and there were lots of actors living in and out of them, I think, all living similar lives in these tiny flats.”

The casts’ experiences, O’Brien explains, “definitely fed into the script, but the films themselves are complete artifice. We wanted to take something everyday and put a twist on it, so some of the incidents in the films might be true but the actors are playing different people than themselves.” The intimacy, however, blurs the line between fiction and reality to exquisite effect. 

The Mespil flats, meanwhile, take on the force of a character, and Quinn says he was attracted to the complex for that very reason. The complex, he says, is “a Dublin icon, an inspiration for city dwelling”. As the first modern post-war flat development in the country, it represented “the aspiration of modern living in Dublin”.

As O’Brien observes “when we think of apartment living from the outside, it figures as a kind of microcosm. [What comes to mind] is all the different kinds of people who live there. The appeal is the wonder of what is inside.”

And they do reveal a wonder. Despite their apparent uniformity of the Mespil’s architecture, one of the striking things about the film is how different the flats all are inside. Sheils-McNamee remembers how surprised she was by the uniqueness of the individual flats in the complex when she lived there.

“I remember being in one, and the whole flat was set up like an altar so it was like walking into a mini-cathedral. The flats themselves are tiny, but some people buy two or three of them and knock them into each other. Then some are like little cupboards. Mine was, but I loved it because it had this gorgeous massive window, and it was very cheap to rent, or it must have been, because I was able to live there.”

Quinn had similar experiences of the flats: “You can walk into one and everything is cement and rendered incredibly swish, like a five star hotel in Soho. In another, there will be no pictures on the walls, two teacups, two plates, and an old sofa. The flat is like a B&B; it’s just somewhere to rest your head after work, before going out to work again in the morning. Where for someone else, their identity is their home.”

With production designer Aedín Cosgrove, Quinn and O’Brien had fun playing with the interiors of each apartment to reflect the characters who live there. “So, Francis: his apartment is sleek and polished, and almost can’t contain his energy, his burnt soul,” Quinn says, “whereas Aidan’s is like a museum.”

Scene from Mespil in the Dark: The casts’ experiences have fed into the script. Photograph: Ros Kavanagh
Scene from Mespil in the Dark: The casts’ experiences have fed into the script. Photograph: Ros Kavanagh
The overlapping lives is not just a meta-fictional conceit. That is what community is when you live in an apartment complex

If Mespil in the Dark gives us an intimate view of these domestic spaces, it also gives us an intimate portrait of the characters who inhabit them and the understated dramas of their lives.

In episode one, loner Aidan (Andrew Bennett) gargles with coconut oil as he prepares for a voiceover job. In episode two, Turlogh (Murphy) and Sheila (Sheils-McNamee) share childcare duties and row about how they will pay their rent. In episode three, architect Francis (Ned Dennehy) prepares a bitter lecture about the destruction of Dublin. In episode four, Lans (Karim Tamu) attempts to study as his “white mother” Olive (Olwen Fouéré) hovers over him.  

Some of the stories intersect in casual, serendipitous ways. Sheila practises her terrible French with Aidan. Aidan and Lans squat beneath a wall, hiding from Olive. Aidan calls into another neighbour looking to borrow an ingredient for his dinner. The overlapping lives is not just a meta-fictional conceit, Quinn insists. “That is what community is when you live in an apartment complex. It is someone knocking on your door because you dropped your wallet in the hall. It’s about these incidental moments of connection.” 

This is something, Quinn argues, that is under threat in Dublin at the moment, as artists continue to be pushed out of the city by rising rents. “It is part of a big conversation,” he says, “that question of what happens when people move out of Dublin, when they have to commute for hours to work.” What it means for actors, he concludes, “is that they don’t get the peripheral knowledge that comes from living in the city. They don’t pick up the incidental work. It’s like students living off campus; you are only part of the conversation. And it is happening more and more.”

It is a great loss to both the individual, he says, as well as the city. “We are all the poorer for it.”

Mespil in the Dark will be presented nightly via vimeo from June 16th-20th as part of the Brightening Air Festival. panpantheatre.com

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