Undertaking a musical and historical journey, Moonfish Theatre’s "Redemption Falls" marries Joseph O’Connor’s marvellous novel of post Civil War America to a clunky history of the folk ballad. One with a decidedly American slant, even if healthy traces of Irish trad recognise its influence in shaping the future sounds of America. Through music, performance, voiceovers and projections "Redemption Falls" sets a maudlin, sluggish pace with its low key keenings displaying little of the muscularity of either the music or novel that inspired it. Leaving O’Connor's smart tale less smartly told in a somewhat stiff and lacklustre theatre gig, showing occasional bolts of brilliance.
Feeling like a cross between a low budget, Ken Burns documentary, with its dated letters and narrative asides, and a lower budget performance of a concept album,"Redemption Falls" weaves three stories into one overly long, folk ballad taster session. A young woman walks barefoot from Baton Rouge to find her lost brother on the far side of the West. A villain with a code goes all John Wayne looking for righteous vengeance. An Irish American General and his childless wife struggle to build a family and a town. Till one fateful day when all three stories collide and all are forever altered. In between there’s blood, rapes, prisons, killings, separated by a series of variously styled songs, old and new, of varying quality.
While O’Connor’s tales are unquestionably meaty, few of the musical renditions prove up to the emotional heavy lifting required, Grace Kiely’s breathtaking solo aside. In addition, while Ionia Ní Chróinín, Máiréad Ní Chróinín, Morgan Cooke, Zita Monaghan McGowan, Pat Hargan, Sean T Ó Meallaigh and Kiely prove musically proficient, not all musicians look comfortable acting, although Kiely proves to be something of a revelation in both arenas. No doubt a director would have helped, tightening pace and focus, and pushing some to deliver stronger performances. Even so, some compositionally clever moments prove extremely impressive, including a blood drenched drum and a smartly used fiddle speaking of dark and horrific things. Lian Bell’s rough and rustic flavoured set yields something of a pyrrhic victory, alongside Sarah Jane Shiels's suggestive lighting, both looking cramped and often swamped in shadow, as if designed for a different venue and rig.
In “Redemption Falls" murder, rape, and the displacement of women and children renders them the real victims of the horrors of war. Yet its lengthy exploration of the folk ballad fails to offer them a soundtrack. From Woody Guthrie to Bob Dylan, the legendary Odetta to the great Sandy Denny, purveyors of the folk ballad have imbued their songs with the earthiness of lived experience, often viscerally conveyed with a haunting honesty that speaks straight to the heart. In contrast, "Redemption Falls" offers the tourist in a museum experience, by way of an academic styled overview cliched to high heaven. A lyrically lacklustre final number sums up some of the paler attempts, as does a predictable blues song about the devil at the crossroads, and a Bon Jovi wannabe posing weakly for The Searchers styled sillouhettes. Free from realism, the visual, performative, and musical spaces "Redemption Falls" ventures into often show surprising inconsistency in terms of experimentation and innovation. Especially given Moonfish’s own history and the novel that inspired it. Yet when it finds the right notes, "Redemption Falls” can resonate somewhat beautifully.
“Redemption Falls” freely adapted from the novel by Joseph O’Connor and presented by Moonfish Theatre, Abbey Theatre, and Galway International Arts festival in a co-production with Town hall Theatre, ran as part of Dublin Theatre Festival 2019 and continues at The Peacock Stage of The Abbey Theatre until October 19.
For more information, visit The Abbey Theatre.