“It is becoming painfully obvious that there is no peace to be found here,” says Donal Davoren, a poet searching for a quiet place to write.
Well, what was he expecting? His refuge is a teeming tenement building in Dublin and it is the height of the War of Independence. “I have no connection with the politics of the day,” he explains later, “and I don’t want to have any connection.” That must be Sean O’Casey’s most mordant joke. The politics of the day are likely to explode through his window, raid his home in the middle of the night, or cast him, mistakenly, as an IRA gunman on the run – a pose he assumes when it suits him.
Nothing is more absurd in O’Casey’s 1923 play than the notion that art could be indifferent to politics. Set just three years earlier, its near-vaudevillian succession of intrusions leading towards something more shattering, was first performed during a vicious Civil War. It was a dangerous weapon itself, a tragedy played for laughs.
In this spirited new co-production between the Abbey and the Lyric, director Wayne Jordan takes a playful approach to such ideas of distance and danger. The tenement house, reconceived in ahistorical terms by designer Sarah Bacon, now has all the permanence of a pop-up business. Wrought from bare plywood and cardboard, it underlines the production's more radical gesture, to bring a classic play into a time that can't settle.
As Davoren, Mark O’Halloran grimaces and clenches with exasperation, moving through a series of postures, physical and verbal. His roommate Seumas (the excellent David Ganly), a former Volunteer turned steet pedlar, fills his case with wind-up plastic toys and floats the most salient comments: “That’s the Irish people all over – they treat a joke as a serious thing and a serious thing as a joke.”
There's something pointedly juvenile, then, about their visitors. Amy McAllister is sly and engaging as Minnie Powell, played so girlishly against O'Halloran's older Davoren that their flirtation is made something sinister. Bacon's era-hopping costumes may skew more contemporary for younger characters, but that hardly denotes progressive views. With Lloyd Cooney's superb junior revolutionary Tommy flinging himself around like a toddler throwing a tantrum, violent rhetoric seems infantile and insincere.
It's a point underscored by the huffing and hen-pecked double-act of Catherine Walsh and Malcolm Adams, and it falls to Ganly, in the production's standout performance, to wrest back the tragedy with Seumas's quiet observation that he only believed in the gun "when there wasn't a gun in the country".
What does that all mean now, though; what is the show’s connection to the politics of the day? Opening in Belfast on the day the North went to the polls, destined for Dublin soon after the results of the Marriage Equality referendum, the play’s braid of poetry and violence, bomb-making and bible-thumping seem hopefully anachronistic.
Jordan seems more energised by a performative engagement with history, merrily raiding theatre’s attic to give it a new look: the twist of an assassin’s body through the window, a moon hanging low and round as a spotlight, a moment given over to a toy monkey with a clattering cymbal. These are smart moves when the play feels more like an inheritance than an imperative. It’s everything we can do to get out of its shadow.
At Lyric Theatre, Belfast until Jun 6; then Abbey Theatre, Dublin June 12-Aug 1