Walls and Windows: A compassionate look at inequalities Traveller families experience

Theatre review: Rosaleen McDonagh’s play explores complex social issues with empathy

John Connors in Rosaleen McDonagh’s Walls and Windows at the Abbey Theatre, directed by Jason Byrne. Photograph: Ros Kavanagh

John Connors in Rosaleen McDonagh’s Walls and Windows at the Abbey Theatre, directed by Jason Byrne. Photograph: Ros Kavanagh

 

WALLS AND WINDOWS

Abbey Theatre, Dublin
★★★☆☆
In JM Synge’s 1909 play The Tinker’s Wedding, a young Traveller woman tries to find a priest to marry her, using various tactics of wilfulness and wiliness. As Rosaleen McDonagh’s Walls and Windows opens, another Traveller wedding is on the horizon. The bride-to-be, Charlene, has decamped to her sister-in-law’s trailer to express her reservations about the marriage. Julia, it transpires, is the kind of woman people confide in, whether she likes it or not.

McDonagh’s drama explores multiple social themes through multiple characters. Within its 90 minutes we see the characters experience depression, homelessness, racism, homophobia, and ableism. However, it is the intersection of these human struggles – the structural inequality that underpins them – that McDonagh is keen to highlight.

And yet Walls and Windows is really Julia’s play. The weight of life’s inequalities weighs heavily on her, as an outsider on the site where she lives with her husband and two children. When she tries to forge a better life for her family elsewhere, however, the cracks in her life only widen. How do you make a life for yourself as a woman, as a mother, when the cards are stacked so heavily against you?

As Julia, Sorcha Fox gives a complex performance that is both tough and fragile, and in the on-demand recording the camera’s intimacy heightens our engagement with her. (What an enormous pity for the entire production, then, that Fox had to be replaced at the last minute for the live performances by Sarah Morris.)

McDonagh has a tendency towards explication, and the play’s unwieldy structure often privileges its messages over its characters. All the same, Jason Byrne’s fluid production – which uses Joanna Parker’s set and video design to give a sense of unsettled transience, as well as a tight representation of “home” in its various guises – is deeply moving. This is largely Fox’s achievement, but there is also powerful support from Nyree Yergainharsian in various stand-out ensemble roles and John Connors as Julia’s husband, John, whose final speech is delivered with open and vulnerable gravity.

“We know more about settled people’s lives than they do about us,” Julia says grimly as she waits for her social workers to arrive for another assessment. McDonagh’s play aims to fill this gap, and she fulfils that political purpose with empathy, intelligence and compassion.

Runs at the Abbey Theatre until Saturday, August 28th, with livestream on Friday and Saturday evening. Available to view on demand from August 29th until September 11th

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