‘Just another Dublin dope trying to find ways to say, I love you, woman’

Late at the Gate review: gifted writer and performer Emmet Kirwan responds to John Osborne’s ‘Look Back in Anger’

Emmet Kirwan: 'If people think I am like Jimmy Porter, then I’m in trouble.’ Photograph: Gate Theatre

Emmet Kirwan: 'If people think I am like Jimmy Porter, then I’m in trouble.’ Photograph: Gate Theatre

 

The epithet “Angry Young Men”, used since the late 1950s to describe a wide range of artists critical of society, is a term that tends to stick better than it tends to fit.

You can understand why Emmet Kirwan, the first artist to appear at the new Late at the Gate performances, would rather decline the honorific, or, at the very least, broaden its membership for more inclusive times.

Initiating this new platform, where artists and audience can respond to the Gate’s programme, Kirwan has been presented in marketing material as “a contemporary Jimmy Porter”, which, given the bilious, misogynistic behaviour of the protagonist of Osborne’s Look Back in Anger, currently on the Gate stage in director Annabelle Comyn’s immensely sceptical production, is not a great look for anybody. “If people think I am like Jimmy Porter, then I’m in trouble,” Kirwan says gamely, by way of introduction.

He needn’t worry. Taking to the stage to deliver three new poems, Kirwan’s work may touch on manhood, youth and rage, but he’s critical with compassion, combining a wide scope of reference together with a generous insight into himself and others, a scourge with a soul. (It may help that, even at a sprightly 37, Kirwan is more mature than Osborne, who was 26 at the time of his breakout play.)

Emmet Kirwan: `If people think I am like Jimmy Porter, then I’m in trouble.’ Photograph: Gate Theatre
Emmet Kirwan. Photograph: Gate Theatre

In Kirwan’s verses, composed at the nexus between spoken word and hip hop, imagery and detail come thick and fast. His first poem, Kikamora’s Cry, though, may be overloaded. A meditation on Dublin’s history in the world which flickers between politics, myth and various faiths, its kaleidoscope may be too whirling for a single sitting. Two figures sitting on the Ha’penny Bridge are sentinels “protecting the kingdom of a Gael Agamemnon”, for instance, nursing a “Clytemnestra-inspired dream of socialism that would give them a roof over their head.” It makes, as Jimmy Porter does, a kind of performance of knowledge, dazzling but overwhelming.

In Mam and Dad are Worried, though, Kirwan places his politics within an absorbing personal context. “My Ma and Da say, Watch yourself, because they’ll get you,” he begins, sketching the scrupulous honesty of his parents, and their deep scepticism about upsetting the status quo.

Kirwan’s poem rails against injustices large and small: how deference is bullied into us, how rebellious working-class characters are lionised on stage and vilified in real life; how parents learn, heart-breakingly, that they can’t protect their children forever. “They can’t see, the lesson they gave me/ Is the reason that I am the man I am/ The man I wanted to be.” When it comes to confronting real issues, Jimmy Porter may talk it, but Emmet Kirwan walks it.

His last poem, I Love You, Woman, is a reproach to Osborne without directly referencing him. “You’re the better part of me, woman,” it begins, addressing both a partner and, more daringly, the female within: “the one that stands in front of me and inside me.” That is still a brave gesture in theatre, poetry and hip hop, where feminism is expressed hesitantly, if at all.

Similarly, as Kirwan archly acknowledges, love is much easier to compose and perform than to honestly convey: “I’m sorry for writing this down instead of saying it to you.” The refrain, for all its simplicity, is hard-won and vulnerable, shrugging off a carapace while still delighting in images. And if the dense wordplay of the earlier pieces echoed Joyce, a more edifying example of an angry young man than Osborne provides, Kirwan sees their aims as springing from the same impulse: “Just another Dublin dope trying to find bright colourful ways to say, I love you, woman.”

Like the whole performance, that feels like a necessary antidote to anger: to be brave in love and to never look back.

Late at the Gate continues on March 23rd and 24th at 10.30pm