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Ironbound review: wit and humour in bleak portrayal of difficult life

Dublin Theatre Festival 2023: Martyna Majok’s Polish characters are pitch-perfect


The Peacock Stage, Abbey Theatre


The playwright Martyna Majok’s biography is, in a sense, a classic American story. Born in Poland, she emigrated to the United States with her 28-year-old mother, who, at the time, was pregnant and spoke no English. They settled in New Jersey, where Majok grew up in a largely immigrant, working-class community. In interviews, she notes that everyone worked the same kind of job – cleaning houses, taking care of the elderly, working in factories. She also remembers that, while at school, she produced far more pages for homework assignments than the teachers asked for.

In these reminiscences we can recognise the germ of what was to be an illustrious career: writing with great acuity on the immigrant experience and American class politics, the playwright earned scholarships to the University of Chicago, Yale School of Drama and Juilliard School, and was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 2018.

Ironbound, which premiered in 2014, is Majok’s first big work. It is an intimate portrait of Darja, a character based more or less on Majok’s mother. The play is staged at one location: a bus stop in a derelict part of Jersey, across from the factory where Darja worked when she first moved to the country. Beyond its socio-economic resonance, this is an appropriate space to situate the play as the audience is transported back and forth in time: we move from one decade to another in vignettes that, for the most part, feature Darja negotiating her relationships with two men: her first husband, Maks, a romantic Polish troubadour, and the postal worker Tommy, an unlikely mountebank and Darja’s late-in-life partner.


In the course of the drama we also meet Vic, a kind, young male escort, who happens upon Darja at a particularly low point as she wraps herself in cardboard on the ground, intending to spend the night outdoors. The circumstances that lead to this moment bear on two other key figures in Darja’s life, whose narrative significance is all the more emphasised by the fact that we never meet them onstage: her unnamed second husband, the brutal ex-factory owner, and Alexander, Darja’s son, who struggles with addiction and childhood trauma.

Majok’s ear for the dialogue of her working-class protagonists is pitch-perfect. In particular, the cadence and broken grammar of the Polish characters are authentic and sensitively portrayed, typical of Majok’s brand of warm realism. While the narrative never shies away from the bleak social and economic conditions of her protagonists, these characters equally never lose their wit, their humour or their desire for love, despite the compromises they make to survive.

The Abbey’s production, under the watchful eye of the director Aoife Spillane-Hinks, is excellent. And, though all the actors deserve praise, Olga Fedori’s performance as Darja warrants special mention. Fedori stays on stage for the play’s entire duration, making small changes to her wardrobe to convey the changes in timeline. Over the course of 90 minutes, Fedori’s dancerly grace and impressive emotional range carry us effortlessly from one scene to the next. A highly entertaining and poignant show.

Ironbound continues at the Abbey Theatre, as part of Dublin Theatre Festival, until Saturday, November 11th