Róisín Ingle: Another lockdown – it won’t come to that. Will it?

We are in the last throes of the virtual now. That’s what you’d hope, anyway

Has the virtual world come to an end? Photograph: iStock

Has the virtual world come to an end? Photograph: iStock

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I’m sitting in a warehouse near Capel Street in Dublin watching a show. It’s still in rehearsal but after hundreds of careful, creative hours the metaphoric spectacle is nearing completion. There are outlandish costumes and dazzling lights and dry ice and performers doing what they do, which is create magic using only their bodies and voices.

As I sit watching with a handful of others I’m moved by how precious and rare it all seems, this magic-making that used to be an essential service but which, in the past 15 months, was made transgressive by a virus. (It will be essential again. Won’t it? It will. Soon.)

The show is an all-ages production by dance-theatre company Junk Ensemble. The Veiled Ones will be on in September as part of the Dublin Fringe Festival, in front of an actual audience of whatever numbers the regulations allow at that point. It’s a show about witches and misconceptions and transformations. There are four extraordinary adult performers, contorting their bodies in moving, mesmerising ways. There are two child actors in primrose yellow dresses putting a spell on us, this tiny audience in a warehouse.

On the final day of rehearsals the entire show is filmed as a kind of record for when it lands in September in the Samuel Beckett Theatre. The film will allow the directors to remember every prop and lighting, cue and costume detail for when they have to recreate it in a different space.

We’re in the last throes of the virtual now. That’s what you’d hope, anyway

I can’t help wondering: is it also being filmed in case there is another lockdown? In case the audiences are not allowed to come, and it needs to be presented as an online show instead? The Virtual Veiled Ones, they would call it then, maybe, the meticulously planned live performances having been scuppered by one variant or another.

Banish the thought. It will not come to that. Or will it?

No. No it won’t. We’re in the last throes of the virtual now. That’s what you’d hope, anyway. Those family Zoom quizzes seem almost quaint looking back, a relic of a very strange time. The friends’ nights (you’re muted, Barbara. I said YOU’RE MUTED) with alcohol-forward cocktails are a distant memory. Now some of us are happily paying €15 for a margarita, made by someone else, sipped under an awning.

No more: birthday gatherings online, choirs online, theatre online. All being gradually consigned to the pandemic dustbin of memory.

Virtual gatherings have been a huge part of my working life for the past 15 months or so. It started with the experimental Women’s Podcast Big Night In gatherings and then The Irish Times Summer Nights Festival last July, which led to our Winter Nights Festival in the midst of dark and dreary Lockdown 3. We’ve another Summer Nights spectacular coming up at the tail end of June. Roll up, roll up.

(In all seriousness, no joke, we really hope loads of you do roll up.)

These are very different times, though; aren’t they? You can sense it in the heavily pollinated summer air. These are the days of triumphant, tearful vaccination selfies in the Aviva stadium. Of endless photos of intricate restaurant desserts on Instagram. Of back-yard parties and fully vaxxed gatherings. These are the days of meeting but not hugging, of remembering to maintain eye contact, of relearning the art of small talk and how to behave in a group when everyone is talking and you are finding it hard to connect. Like, you’ve somehow forgotten how to connect.

It’s not just a matter of recovering what we’ve lost, it’s about getting to places where we’ve never been, which is far, far better

After 15 months mostly sitting at a screen, my work is taking me to real live places again, to see and talk to real live people. To a stunning Martello Tower, where the events for this weekend’s (virtual still, of course) Dalkey Book Festival are being filmed. I watch economist David McWilliams in the Dalkey tower talking to actor Matt Damon, who is in a luxury AirBnB in Byron Bay, Australia.

Later that morning, the President arrives for the event. I ask Michael D Higgins for his thoughts on that famous light at the end of the pandemic tunnel. “I think there’s a glimmer there,” he says. “The messages are important now. It’s important that people learn from it and not simply lapse back… it’s not just a matter of recovering what we’ve lost, it’s about getting to places where we’ve never been, which is far, far better.”

I think about his words while sitting in on the final day of rehearsals in Capel Street. My twin daughters are the girls in the primrose yellow dresses. That is why I am allowed to be here. When the final scene is completed, the girls hand around fairy cakes with lemon icing they made as a thank you for the cast. They don’t want to say goodbye.

Wrap party

“It feels like family,” they say and I file this away in my head, so in years to come I will remember the exact moment when they were bitten by this particular bug. The directors, also twins, say the cast are going for a glass of wine, a small wrap party. My daughters want to go but I’m not sure it’s appropriate. They are only 12.

“But we’ve worked with them for weeks. We don’t have to drink wine. Please, Mum?”

They sit outside a pub on Capel Street, drinking fizzy lemon through a straw. I listen as they reminisce with their fellow performers about memorable moments and challenging parts of the experience. With nothing to add, I listen and sip my own lemon drink. I am just the chaperone, I realise. It’s a role I’ve never played. I think I like it.

My daughters finish their drinks and tell me it’s time to go.

“It was lovely working with you,” their colleagues tell them. “You too,” the girls say. “See you in September.”

The three of us step out from under the awning into blinding sunshine. Into a new world. Into all the places we’ve never been.

roisin@irishtimes.com