Mespil in the Dark: Suspenseful mystery in a charming Dublin bohemia

Can an apartment building tell the story of a city’s decline into an artistic wasteland?

Mespil in the Dark: Andrew Bennett. Photograph Ros Kavanagh

Mespil in the Dark: Andrew Bennett. Photograph Ros Kavanagh

 

Mespil in the Dark

Streaming at panpantheatre.com
4 stars
Somewhere within a gloomy city, the residents of a mysterious apartment block are busy with their problems. A couple, tormented by questions of desirability and jealousy, inch closer towards confrontation. There’s an artist whose spiritualism and habits seem unrecognisably strange to others. Somebody living a solitary existence has an unsettling vision of death. One could say they sound uncannily like the tenants of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1954 classic Rear Window – though danger does lurk in the hallways of Pan Pan’s streamed play Mespil in the Dark.

Director Gavin Quinn’s suspenseful production, released in four episodes over as many nights, plays out in a charming Dublin bohemia. Its setting, the Mespil Estate, provides a superb juxtaposition, peeling back austerely modern and remote exteriors to reveal intimate quarters meticulous in detail. An antique writing desk fits cosily in one living room. Freshly leafed books and notepads are seen everywhere, from dinner table to bedroom mattress to toilet seat. If characters seem omnivorous in their curiosities and appetites, that’s because they’re all artists living in one neighbourhood.

It would be easy to play up the eccentricities. (The script is by Eugene O’Brien, whose recent plays The Good House of Happiness and Eliza’s Adventures in the Uncanny Valley were so neck-creakingly high-concept as to be nearly indecipherable.) Yes, you might scratch your head as an actor named Aidan (Andrew Bennett) chants unknown words in meditation and gets headstrong over an Asian spice that’s difficult to find. Yet, in scenes such as a lightning-fast French class with a neighbour, or a last-minute job recording a passionless advertisement, there’s an uplifting community of performers doing what they must to get by.

A major plot strand seems to get under way by the end of the first episode, as Aidan, in one of the tenants’ quid pro quos, assists a neighbour (Ashley Xie) by reading her screenplay. A scene conjures an image of an unconscious body in a sleeping bag, lying on the floor of an apartment building’s basement. If this chilling arrival of the city’s despairing homelessness crisis at the doorstep of bohemia isn’t an omen, Ashley leaves Aidan with a grim warning. “Do you get a smell in the hallways? The smell of death?” she says.

Such mystery speaks to bigger issues about a city and its artists, which Pan Pan is well aware of. Earlier this year filmed scenes from the company’s 2005 production One: Healing with Theatre resurfaced and did the rounds online; the touching project folded 100 different actors’ stories of how they chose their profession into a bracing epic. Mespil in the Dark feels like a stark follow-up, acting out against threats to artists’ way of life, in the form of an attractively sombre arthouse-thriller.

The greater ambition of Quinn and designer Aedín Cosgrove seems a gamble that we’ll have to wait and see as Mespil in the Dark continues: can an apartment building tell the story of a city’s decline into an artistic wasteland? On Demand until August 29th