The Book of Names: Louise Lowe sharpens Anu’s enthralling approach to theatre

Dublin Theatre Festival: The terror of the War of Independence is unavoidable in this immersive experience

The Book of Names, directed and written by Louise Lowe, and produced by Anu and Landmark for Dublin Theatre Festival, tells the story of a secret IRA cell in Dublin Port that smuggled in weapons for the War of Independence. Video: Bryan O'Brien

 

THE BOOK OF NAMES

The Pumphouse, Dublin Port
★★★★☆
At a startling outpost on the edge of Dublin, hidden among the loading areas and industrial buildings of the city’s port, a guide takes their audience back in time. Dressed in the high-vis uniform of a modern-day port employee, they begin to brief us as if we’re living 100 years ago.

Those arriving at Anu and Landmark’s play might be perceptive enough to separate citizen from performer, but it’s a stealthy transformation that sweeps Etta Fusi’s friendly usher into the excited accomplice of an IRA unit of dock workers, allured by trafficked explosives that would blow with a spark. The celebrated approach to theatre of Louise Lowe, the show’s writer and director, has undergone a retuning, a sharpening of its most enthralling methods.

I am suddenly unnerved when a sociable photographer, after offering me favours in Úna Kavanagh’s disarming performance, leads me to a crisis of conscience. Handed a pencil, I realise I am being asked to choose the IRA’s next target

Inside an Edwardian brick storehouse, in what resembles a soldiers’ mess hall, we’re met with the intense, suspicious glares of Irish Volunteers who soon erupt into frenetic movement, capturing the turbulence of the War of Independence. Loud and spectacular, Lowe’s punch-drunk-but-serious interpretation of immersive theatre settles into greyer, more complex issues, as a disagreement breaks out about how the Custom House attack was planned.

Some events from the past will be less familiar. When a gentle kitchen porter, superbly played by Michael Glenn Murphy, prays before a holy statue, he guiltily whispers to it, “I am the consequence.” It would be easy to sit an audience on the side, feeding them facts about how ordinary citizens became burdened with war crimes, but why stand back when you can relive it?

In the backroom of an old building, where a dossier on the Royal Irish Constabulary is being secretly kept, I am suddenly unnerved when a sociable photographer, after complimenting my appearance and offering me favours in Úna Kavanagh’s immensely disarming performance, leads me to a crisis of conscience. Handed a pencil, I realise that I am being asked to choose the IRA’s next target.

Anyone can be a suspect – in one riveting moment, a gunman played by the unblinkingly excellent Matthew Williamson compares our own features against the photograph of an enemy

Not since Anu’s acclaimed Monto cycle have such acts of complicity, stirring sordid feelings of playing a part, felt as spearlike. The terror of the war is unavoidable as the promenade jaunts us between different warehouses, filled with the thick murk of Owen Boss’s design, where fighters slide into sublime movement evoking the dangerous approaches and escapes of guerrilla warfare. Anyone can be a suspect – in one riveting moment, a gunman played by the unblinkingly excellent Matthew Williamson compares our own features against the photograph of an enemy.

Informed as much by research on the dockers as on their espionage, the play doesn’t contain its characters’ stories as comfortably. Interesting anecdotes, such as one individual’s breathless sidestep with death (given its required urgency by Darragh Feehely) or a veteran of the Easter Rising revealing their mixed feelings (a nicely judged Jamie O’Neill), don’t build towards something conclusive.

Perhaps that is deliberate. If it’s with heavy irony that we watch a leader speaking about the importance of accepting the Anglo-Irish Treaty, or to see a cadre of soldiers refusing to heed a warning of destruction, then the War of Independence was just the beginning.

Runs at the Pumphouse, Dublin Port, until Saturday, October 23rd, as part of Dublin Theatre Festival; livestreamed on Sunday, October 17th; also available on demand from Monday, October 18th, until Saturday, October 23rd

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