Dear Ireland: Part One

Spread over four nights, Dear Ireland, the Abbey Theatre’s attempt at a national conversation on Covid-19, has divided many. For some it’s a cynical exercise heralding worrying concerns for the future of theatre. For others it's an unimaginative funding mechanism to justify paying artists currently out of work. For others it really is a creative response to the Covid-19 outbreak. Whatever your position, the prospect of sitting through fifty, talking head monologues commissioned by the Abbey might understandably leave you shrinking in dread, even without lockdown burnout. But theatre and technology is a conversation that's been coming for a long time. As The National Theatre in England has shown, online offerings provide wider access and an alternative income stream. Yet they have inherent dangers. Whatever your views, Covid-19 has brought the question to the forefront of everyone’s conversation. Suggesting that old school theatre practices need to be looked at given that technology isn't going to go away. Given the wide array of online productions currently available from around the world courtesy of Covid-19, alongside innovative engagements such as Mark O’Brien’s illuminating #TheAxisChats interviews, theatre online has never been more accessible. So did we really need fifty monologues? In fairness, The Abbey didn’t get the idea first. The New Theatre’s Fight Back Festival did the same thing on a more modest level with twelve artists producing some interesting and, occasionally, forgettable results. Neill Fleming, in Stewart Roche’s Shard, with Fleming looking like he had just weathered a sandstorm, showed huge promise and raised many questions. As does Dear Ireland: Part One, airing on the Abbey’s Youtube channel. Featuring works from the depth of the soul to others that preach from the dizzying heights of a soapbox, the memorable and the forgettable are again in evidence. With several feeling like creative writing assignments speaking as much about communicating via digital media as about Covid-19. Early signs are not promising. Staying Alive, Carmel Winters’ black comedy on social distancing, sets the template for much that follows as frayed über moaner, Lucianne McEvoy, bemoans everything and everyone in an online call. Walk, Enda Walsh’s uncharacteristic cure for insomnia, finds Zara Devlin poetically willowing in pastoral nostalgia. Her soft spoken sermon on hope straining patience as you drowsily drift in and out of the homily. No such drowsiness in An Impossible Woman by Iseult Golden, which sees Marion O’Dwyer living up to the title as we, once again, witness moaning by way of digital communication. A self righteous mother sending a video message to her estranged daughter reveals a family lawyer with a warped sense of family, her admonishing tones endlessly shifting between confession and justification with the psychobabble coming hard and fast. By now, you’re almost tempted to call it a day with the moaning and switch channels. But you really shouldn’t. Shower, by Sarah Hanly, sees Denise Gough seeking phone advice on how to repair a shower. An Irish nurse living in England, Gough has front-line PTSD written all over her. With divine simplicity, Gough breaks your heart with a performance of riveting vulnerability as a woman caring for everyone around her, grabbing a fleeting breather for herself between the rounds. Her pain offset by beguiling laughter as her plumber-come-counsellor reminds us that the smallest act of human kindness make all the difference. A genuine gem from Hanly and Gough. Dear Ireland I’m Riddled With Anxiety by John Connor, once again bemoans digitally as Graham Earley waits anxiously for a Covid-19 test. Hard drinking, hard smoking, Earley laments having to social distance from his Mam, a woman born of a generation without technology. Delivering a meditation on death, worrying about worrying, and the craic in Ireland, Connor disarmingly celebrates Ireland’s resilience while speaking to its history and spirit. Arguably the most innovative and humorous production, Window, by Shane O’Reilly, sees Amanda Coogan gossiping through a window she endlessly cleans. Silent, with subtitles and sign language, Coogan’s performance is an utter joy to behold, enriched by a gestural lexicon which sees Coogan revel in talking without words. Simply riveting, Coogan is marvellous whether trying to pronounce difficult names, releasing her inner Trash Metal goddess as she toughens up, or realises what exactly the next door neighbour is up to. Saying so much more by saying so much less, Window is a real treat. As is Nancy Harris’s Dear Ireland, An Unreliable Ex Lover Suddenly Writes, in which Marty Rea’s prodigal son not looking to return meditates on Ireland from an emigrant distance. A video call with humorous overtones, Rea makes Harris’ adulterous confessional wholly endearing as a man missing where the grass grows greener. A sideways apology, an unflattering love poem, Harris and Rea deliver a gorgeous I Love You to Ireland as clever and heartfelt as it is endearing. Possibly the shortest piece, Home by Owen McCafferty, again says so much by saying less. Here Patrick O’Kane mentally rambles through a shopping list as he rambles along a wintry strand. Again the diaspora themes loom large, with O’Kane mesmerising as he mines the subtext. Stopped dead in his tracks by a phone call, his inner monologue halted by a minimum of spoken words, his final gesture saying everything silently and simply. Into the final furlong, things again begin to stumble. Pints of Milk by Frank McGuinness, sees Joan Sheehy’s flint like address remembering the good old, unwashed days of managing without. She survived those, so we can survive anything. The ritual prayer to defiance and mother earth steeped in Catholic imagery. As is To Éire, a history lesson by Felicia 'Felispeaks' Olusanya which leaves you really wishing she hadn’t. With Deirdre Molloy cranking up even more religious imagery with flint like defiance, Molloy does her best rallying from the Felispeaks’ pulpit, declaiming around a Hail Mary laced with overt patriotism. Ending with A Start by Gina Moxley, Timmy Creed brings some needed humour as he cocoons in Kerry, agreeing to partake in the Dear Ireland exercise purely for the money. Reflections on Ireland and a life half lived are offset with lessons on how to survive day to day lockdown. And how to make fun of it all. More of which would have been welcome, Dear Ireland’s format might frustrate at times, with some of its offerings weaker than others, but when it’s good it does much to scratch that theatrical itch. It runs for three more nights. But if so many back to back monologues is too much for you, after May 2 you have six months to get through them all on Youtube where they will be made available. And you should. For on the evidence of Dear Ireland: Part One, there are some real gems here. And they’re all original. And that conversation on theatre and technology is happening, like it or not. Dear Ireland, presented by The Abbey Theatre on their dedicated Youtube Channel, runs April 29, 30 and May 1 at 7.30, featuring a new selection on monologues each night. All fifty can be viewed for six months from May 2. For more information, visit The Abbey Theatre

© 2016 Chris O'Rourke