Message and story make for uneasy bedfellows in an ambitious Mainstream
In Rosaleen McDonagh’s latest work, “Mainstream,” Traveller is the in vogue, reality television, late night talk show topic of choice, ensured to excite every documentarian looking to tackle the issue of diversity. The documentarian in question being Eleanor, a woman who never identified with disability, intent on capturing the story of man-mountain Jack, his estranged partner Mary-Anne and their “surrogate child” Eoin, a man, wheelchair bound, older than the pair of them. These three share history, which includes horrific experiences whilst in the care of the State as Traveller children. But the story you start with is not always the story you tell, and secrets from the past become dislodged from their burial place the more Eleanor probes. Part love story, part polemic, McDonagh’s “Mainstream” is an ambitious work. And if it drifts into asserting its message over telling its captivating story in places, it still has enough heart to bring it all home.
McDonagh’s “Mainstream” has a lot it wants and needs to say. Unfortunately “Mainstream” almost has too much it needs to say and, much and all as we need to hear it, the message frequently overwhelms the story. At times it risks almost splitting “Mainstream” in two under the burden of all the points it wants to make, almost as if afraid it might never get another chance. This sets up a problematic contrast in places. When Mary-Anne and Eleanor come face to face, the conversation shifts from two characters in conflict into an airing, sharing and debating of opposing points of view, which risks characters being reduced to mouthpieces. While McDonagh’s insights are pertinent and relevant, dramatically they often slow everything down. In contrast, “Mainstream” is at its most successful when it lets the characters and their stories do the heavy lifting. The penultimate scene between Mary-Anne and Jack is heart breakingly brilliant, as is the subtle, if short, seduction scene. Indeed, structurally “Mainstream” doesn't always get the balance right, with some scenes not quite having enough time to land dramatically or to transition effectively. But those that do make a strong and stirring impact. Indeed, one of the highlights of McDonagh’s ambitious script is its giving voice to the confrontation between the traveller male and traveller woman, realised in a gripping scene between Mary-Anne and Jack. A scene that transcends, whilst simultaneously embracing, traveller culture, lodging the experience firmly in the universally human.
Niamh Lunny’s set design sacrifices consistently clear sight lines in order to offer a different perspective, offering something of a mixed blessing that pays off on some occasions, not so well on others. Against which director Jim Culleton does a sterling job with his cast of traveller, settled and disabled actors, avoiding what McDonagh calls “cripping up,” where actors with no impairments play actors who have impairments. If there was a palpable sense of opening night nerves, this hopefully will diminish as the run continues. Donal Toolan as the belligerent Eoin turns in a strong performance, as does Gráinne Hallahan as the self-serving Eleanor. Neili Conroy as Mary-Anne does a standout job as a woman who has reached breaking point. John Connors as the brooding Jack, a traveller man in denial of his past, takes a moment or two to settle, but when he does he dominates to terrific effect.
Those in attendance on opening night will be aware that there were a number of teething problems. Technically there were issues with projections a nd cameras, as well as opening night nerves and a significant issue resulting from the vagaries of live performance. So what happened, happened. Time to let it go, move on, trust the cast, script and director, and get back to the business of telling a tale that needs to be heard. McDonagh’s script deserves it.
You might be tempted to dismiss “Mainstream” as a niche work, but to do so would be foolish. If it’s a little heavy handed with its message in places, “Mainstream” is also a sharp, funny, insightful and intelligent script. One that brings into focus ideas about unique and shared human experiences in a valuable, brave and important production.
“Mainstream” by Rosaleen McDonagh, produced by Project Arts Centre and Fishamble:The New Play Company, runs at The Project Arts Centre as part of Project 50 until November 26th