Monto is back: the sex trade and the business of hope
With ‘Vardo’, the concluding part of Anu Productions’ thrillingly intimate four-part series, director Louise Lowe brings the extraordinary Monto Cycle full circle. But is that any way to leave it?
Vardo, part of a history of north-inner-city Dublin that has delivered some of the most ambitious theatre in living memory
Somewhere at home I have two mementoes of performance, sitting beside one another like sacred relics. The first is a plastic statue of the Virgin Mary, part-filled with violet-coloured methylated spirits, put in my hands four years ago by a frazzled prostitute who asked me to sneak it out from under the eyes of her vicious madam. The second is a piece of carbolic soap, wrapped in brown paper and string, which was given to me at the end of a harrowing journey through the former Gloucester Street Magdalene Laundry, and which is now tightly sealed in a jar that keeps its stringent scent – and the memories it triggers – at bay.
Both come from Anu Productions’ extraordinary Monto Cycle, a four-part history of the north-inner-city Dublin area, which has so far delivered some of the most ambitious and thrillingly intimate theatre in living memory. Even without the keepsakes, the work of director Louise Lowe, designer Owen Boss and their growing team of collaborators would have been unshakeably haunting.
It began in 2010, on what was once the site of one of Dublin’s most notorious brothels, with World’s End Lane. Led down alleyways, plied with septic historical facts or sealed into violent confrontations, audience members could never be quite sure what was real and what was performed (“Why did you follow me? Are you stupid?” somebody asked me, far too late, as we rounded a dangerous corner). It established a tone that has remained constant, positioning the audience somewhere between voyeur and participant, while letting the past mingle with the present in disorienting layers.
When the nation was reeling from fresh examinations of Magdalene history in 2011, Laundry plunged audience members, three at a time, into the former Gloucester Street laundry and a legacy of separations, humiliations and local legends. The Boys of Foley Street, a chronicle of the heroin epidemic and rise of gang culture in the area from the 1970s, may have been the most abrasive point of the cycle. An unnerving, breakneck promenade through punishing lanes and into the abusive homes of drug kingpins, it found a community imploding and made the audience guiltily complicit.
Somehow, though, the final part of the saga is already proving to be the hardest.
“Monto is back,” says Louise Lowe evenly, sounding neither in denial nor alarm about the resurgence of organised prostitution in the area, now conducted in private apartments and operating behind online shop fronts. Where the other shows existed in a complicated time warp, folding their periods into the present like double exposure, the concluding piece was always intended to bring us up to speed with today. It makes things difficult for a company that has worked hard over five years to establish trust and co-operation with the community when those new stories are either inconspicuous or hidden. “Nobody was interested in telling the story,” says Lowe.
Vardo takes its title from the Romany caravan once operated by Terriss Lee, grandmother to Lowe’s best friend, who worked in the area as a fortune teller (and who, in 1934, was brought to court on charges of “sorcery and witchcraft”). Eagle-eyed viewers at World’s End Lane may have noticed tarot cards discreetly placed in a mirror, one of several intricate and teasing clues scattered throughout the tetralogy.
“She was in the business of hope,” says Lowe. “Herself and her family told fortunes on this site. We wondered if that could underpin a lot of the work that we’re looking at for this particular part of the cycle. What if we look forward? We don’t want to tie it all up with a big bow, but also, it would be horrible to just leave without examining it properly.”
Lowe, a bright and engagingly brisk speaker, has a remarkable ability to involve everyone in a conversation, a clue to Anu’s collaborative method. Discussing the significance of Terriss as a symbol of people who retained their culture and language while successfully integrating with the community, she calls over to dancer and choreographer Emma O’Kane. “Emma, would you mind showing us what you had?” O’Kane, who plays the fortune teller Lee, begins a movement sequence that contains sly references to physical actions seen throughout the cycle, and which is inspired by an overheard conversation attesting that this was the time “of the strong woman rising”. It chimes with the heroes of the cycle: the mothers, the visionaries, the survivors.
“Do you want to go for a walk?” asks Lowe. Tracing a preliminary route with her company through Vardo, the journey triggers reports and folklore at every turn. The implausibly miraculous story of the Sacred Heart of Monto led to more recent tales, ambiguous and disquieting: a Nigerian man in Ireland unable to return home for his father’s funeral; a Russian woman conveyed into the Irish sex trade, whose few non-Russian words when found included “Galway Races” and “Fianna Fáil Ard Fheis”.
Those stories are still being refined into performances for what is referred to within Anu as “interceptions”; the moment in which you may find yourself approached by a stranger and ushered urgently into their confidence.
“Where we’re taking you now . . . ” Lowe hesitates. “It’s tricky.” Any more than a Magdalene confessional, or a booth lined with peepholes, or a drug alley punishment beating? “No, it’s much trickier than the others,” she says.
Sitting on a bed in an apartment that had once been a brothel, and looking out – of all places – over the roof of the Gloucester Street laundry, it becomes easier to understand why. Here, four performers have been condensing volumes of research on present-day prostitution into stylised actions. One exercise, typical of Anu, was to imagine a 12-hour shift, during which a snapshot was taken every five minutes. Those images have been put together as a continuous action, as though seen through time-lapse photography. It makes for a fascinating, chaotic vision of frustration, tedium and exploitation. There is something disheartening, the company realises, about the Monto Cycle coming full circle.
Collected in a small bedroom, the company reflect on the achievements and hazards of five years imaginatively mapping the area. Company stage manager Fiona Keller remembers her most hair-raising moment, when, during Boys of Foley Street, two gardaí happened upon a scene and intervened, pressing two actors and one audience member roughly against a wall. The audience member, believing it part of the show, laughed uproariously.
Elsewhere, parts of the area used in performance had simply disappeared: a social housing block demolished, whole streets barricaded, a launderette, Scrub-a-Dub, abruptly folded. The one-time ambition of presenting all four works together now looked unlikely. “In a way,” said Lowe, “it feels like we dreamed it all.”
“We’ve been thinking, How do we leave this?” says Bairbre Ní hAodha, the production co-ordinator. “And what are we saying? We realised that after four regenerations, it hasn’t changed. You don’t want to leave it on that note.”
“We’re back into flats in private ownership being used for illicit purposes, and people being crammed into them,” replies Lowe. “That’s the truth of it.”
Backwards in time
Meanwhile, Anu has been progressing: its site-specific work may be hard to revive and impossible to tour, but the award-winning company has brought its process elsewhere, originating Angel Meadow in Manchester this summer and due to co-produce a new piece, Beautiful Dreamers, with Performance Corporation in December as part of Limerick City of Culture.
We work our way back to the gallery, as though backwards in time; past the forbidding grey walls of Laundry, its roof now sagging with pigeons; along the regenerated Foley Street, where we had previously followed the ghosts of drug addicts and prostitutes; around the corner of World’s End Lane, where it all began, towards Vardo and the business of hope. Lowe and Ní hAodha begin to recap the day’s rehearsals, and the first question seems worthy of Anu’s entire remarkable undertaking, and, perhaps, its deeper purpose. “Right,” says Lowe. “Where are we now?”