The First Child: Equal parts baffling and brilliant

Dublin Theatre Festival: This is a remarkable conclusion to Donnacha Dennehy and Enda Walsh’s partnership

THE FIRST CHILD

O'Reilly Theatre, Belvedere College, Dublin
★★★★★
In Donnacha Dennehy and Enda Walsh's The First Child the mundane is made macabre, the ordinary rendered aberrant, by a chilling collision of circumstance and time.

To pull a conventional plot from Walsh’s libretto is difficult. Characters extol the merits of baby carriers and sterilisers in sung nonsequiturs; the “drama” is so pedestrian it is funny. However, it is worth trying to put a shape on the story of The First Child, in which a young girl (Karen) damaged by hate grows up to hate, and is compelled to avenge her own misery.

Enda Walsh gives us a triptych of simultaneously unfolding scenes that lift the drama from its pedestrian concerns with parenthood and vengeance towards the mythic realm, where the stage action is replete with possibility

As director, meanwhile, Walsh offers us much more than what his libretto suggests in the repeated refrains that cut like a knife through the soaring sweet tones of Dennehy’s choral compositions for the small youth choir that appears on stage. Walsh gives us a triptych of simultaneously unfolding scenes that lift the drama from its pedestrian concerns with parenthood and vengeance towards the mythic realm, where the stage action is replete with possibility.

Is the old woman in the bed Karen revisioning her past? Is the young girl dancing Karen before she was corrupted? Is the bald nurse, who bends in supplication in front of a chorus of children, begging for forgiveness or to be restored to innocence? What is in the carrier bags those ghostly child singers clutch so closely to their chests? The emotional baggage that pertains to any life? “All is real and all are ghosts,” the children sing; The First Child, Walsh suggests, is the child in all of us.

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The theatrical elements are deeply intertwined in this mesmerising and quizzical production from Landmark Productions and Irish National Opera. Between them, set designer Jamie Vartan, lighting designer Adam Silverman, video designer Jack Phelan and choreographer Emma Martin create visual moments that repeat and stutter, that play with and pervert our sense of time and place, just as Dennehy’s unsettled and unsettling score for Crash Ensemble does.

The microtonal underscore and use of heavy percussion help the menace rise, while the unique timbres of singers Sarah Shine, Niamh O’Sullivan, Emmett O’Hanlon, Dean Power and, in particular, Eric Jurenas provide a powerful reminder of the voice as instrument.

Equal parts baffling and brilliant, The First Child is a remarkable conclusion to the Dennehy-Walsh partnership. What a treat it would be to see the cycle performed in rep.

Runs at the O'Reilly Theatre until Saturday, October 9th, as part of Dublin Theatre Festival; on demand until Saturday, October 23rd