The Family

 

Project Arts Centre, Dublin

Reassuringly familiar, but endlessly, uniquely strange, families are living, breathing, squabbling paradoxes. Everyone can recognise them without being easily able to define them. The same might now be said about THEATREclub, a company that is helping to change the nature of Irish theatre, or at least valiantly trying to rewire it. In addressing “the family” as a building block of society, its new production contains similar tensions, eschewing traditional theatrical representation (unities of character, time or narrative) in an attempt to represent something traditional.

In concept, design and performance, this is a sustained and daring effort to make the familiar seem scintillatingly strange. Doireann Coady’s set is as contentedly fake as a TV sitcom set, its cutaway kitchen opening on to a lawn of butcher’s grass and a white picket fence, while Emma Fraser’s costumes recall nothing more forcibly than Happy Days: nostalgic references to easily managed growing pains, unthreatening teenagers, maternal warmth, and fathers who know best. But where are the parents here? Instead, we get a seemingly orphaned generation.

Devised by director Grace Dyas, Coady and the cast, The Familyis a work rife with distrust. In the flow of its domestic scenes – the noisy evening chatter, doomed preparations for “a nice family dinner”, neighbourly chats with tearaway kids, and emotional disintegration over cups of tea – it’s hard to identify a stable authority figure. The cast, going by their own names, step in and out of archetypes: a dapper Barry O’Connor, for instance, is variously patriarchal (admonishing Gerard Kelly’s leather-jacketed rebel for swearing), fraternal (shrugging off a congratulatory kiss from the excellent, fretful Louise Lewis) and juvenile (dashing into the garden to play). The roles may be in slippage, just as a beaming Gemma Collins keeps drawing our attention to the discrepancy between stage time and real time, but that may be the point: in 90 minutes we watch the span of a day, a year and a lifetime. In families, we all get to play different parts.

Continuing the bold experiments and fresh-minted stage vocabulary of Dyas’s Heroinand Twenty Ten, The Familywill alienate as many as it engrosses: the rules of performance are new and unclear. When somebody claps and Eoin Winning’s handsome lights overexpose like a flashbulb, what transition does it signal? Manning a video camera, prompting lines and calling sound cues, is Brian Bennett’s commendably underplayed neighbour doubling as the stage manager, a chorus, or a god? The distrust of anything as conventional as a family unit extends into a distrust of coherent dramaturgy, where the significance of a well-turned line of dialogue, say, will devolve instead into improvised nothings.

At times the lack of detail becomes frustrating, such as a lengthy exchange between Collins and Kelly that goes nowhere. But Dyas is more interested in exposing the mechanics of theatre to inspire emotional effect, nowhere more strikingly than a carefully orchestrated sequence of stage violence between O’Connor and Lauren Larkin (“Push my head down,” he tells her) to communicate the unspeakable sadness of betrayal.

“You do know it’s all fake,” Bennett reassures Collins when both the family and the theatre seem to be breaking down around her. But she knows – as we do – that for all its clichés and artifice, The Familyis not fake; it is collapsing under the weight of how things should be and how things are. At this time of societal questioning and re-evaluation that seems laden with significance, THEATREclub are breaking down those fundamentals in the hope we might build them back up again.

Until Jan 28