In 1847, the Native American, Choctaw tribe raised $170 for Irish famine relief. An act of generosity commemorated in the Kindred Spirits sculpture in Midleton, Co. Cork. Around the same time another American, Asenath Nicholson, with similar aspirations to generosity, journeyed to Ireland in 1844, and again in 1846, to document the horrors of The Irish Famine. In Donnacha Dennehy’s multi-disciplinary opera, “The Hunger” (completed 2016, revised 2019), a weak polemic makes for a somewhat obvious case, with its portrayal of Nicholson proving far less inspiring. Thankfully, singing by soprano Katherine Manley as Nicholson, and sean-nós singer Iarla Ó Lionáird as an unnamed Irish peasant, manage to find some memorable moments, despite a limited palette, musically and lyrically.
Looking down from her mountain like a distant God, or a post-convent Maria looking lost in Brigadoon, Nicholson sings of her trips to Ireland where she witnesses, and documents, the horrors the poor are subjected to. For, as Dennehy’s title makes plain, an argument keenly supported by some irritating, lectured interruptions, The Irish Famine was indeed a hunger, purposely exacerbated by a deliberately mismanaged famine. A decision taken by a victim blaming, British government in the name of the open market. The catastrophic effects of which are made painfully visible by Ó Lionáird’s labouring scrap of a man, cradling a small bundle and a spade, dutifully digging as he traverses the Irish Trail of Tears. All witnessed by the bemoaning Nicholson. In between, noted academics intersperse singing with brief polemics projected onto a series of screens, discussing the Irish Famine and the practices of the open market, linking both to similar events today. Of which several questions are suggested, with no easy answers forthcoming, even if they're implied.
Under Tom Creed’s painstakingly staid direction, there’s very little to look at in “The Hunger.” Particularly when it comes to movement, which travels painfully slow along predictable pathways. Subtitles, as opposed to surtitles, serve to fracture focus. Ably assisted by projected soundbites from interviewed academics regularly rupturing the experience. Designer Jim Findlay’s set, superbly enlarged by the use of projections, cleverly marries music with landscape; Findlay’s window-box platform diagonally raking the stage, slicing through the orchestra playing live. If Findlay’s set and video design deliver texture, Christopher Kuhl’s sophisticated lighting delivers some dark intensity. Against which Crash Ensemble, conducted by Alan Pierson, deliver a pitch perfect performance of Dennehy’s oppressively focused composition; a dissonant amalgam of unbearable heartbreak and unspeakable foreboding.
Nicholson'sIt’s a testament to Manley’s singing that she both reveals and redeems Nicholson. Known for dishing out bibles along with her cornbread, little of generosity makes its way onto the stage. Instead, Nicholson seems frequently engaged in a kind of voyeuristic hand wringing as she documents the unfolding tragedy from her journalistic distance, deigning to come down from her lofty heights for a closer look. Looking distressed and sounding distraught, Nicholson recounts bloated dogs and dying children, all documented in her two books, frequently reminding us of the suffering she suffered seeing which she'll never forget. Before heading home and ending her days writing the first vegan cookbook back in New Jersey. Indeed, were it not for Manley’s heartfelt singing, deftly negotiating the rhythmic constraints of Nicholson’s weak and prosaic lyrics, Nicholson risks coming off as little more than a self-centred, well intentioned tourist.
In contrast, Ó Lionáird’s unnamed peasant doesn’t say much, being less a character so much as a famine statistic, or a laboured, black mood. But what Ó Lionáird says, he often says powerfully. Or, rather, sings powerfully. Looking and sounding like a mistreated Job, lugging his spade like a crucifix, crawling, Jesus like, along the Via Dolorosa on his hands and knees as he drags himself towards Golgotha, Ó Lionáird’s haunting laments are intoned like psalms. Mantra-like cries hurled to the heavens. Throughout, Ó Lionáird's hypnotic incantations suggest Native American ceremonial cries, Gospel revivals and Southern spirituals, and even a hint of Flamenco cante, to accompany his uniquely Irish keening. Moving emotional mountains even as he struggles to climb them, each lament enacts another station of the cross, like a medieval passion play. Making a statement far more compelling than any of the academic arguments made against laissez-faire economics.
Dealing in heavy themes heavily handled, “The Hunger” is both a heartfelt lament and a lacklustre lecture, in which Nicholson and her Irish peasant appeal for divine intervention. But “The Hunger” is a strictly secular psalm, narrow in its focus and intensity. Often made curiously compelling in the absence, or silence, of a listening humanity that cares enough to seek changes beyond charity.
“The Hunger” (completed 2016, revised 2019) by Donnacha Dennehy, conducted nay Alan Pierson, and directed by Tom Creed, runs at The Abbey Theatre until August 24.
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