Look but don’t touch
The lunatics have certainly taken over the asylum in Enda Walsh’s “Arlington,” a dystopian, boy meets girl love story that takes place in a sterile landscape devoid of human contact. The girl in question, Isla, is locked, Rapunzel like, in her tower, waiting for her number to be called. Her rescuing prince, as much in need of rescue himself, inhabits a Big Brother space behind the wall, voyeuristically looking on Isla’s excuse for a life, lived in full disclosure before the surveillance cameras. He might look, but he can never touch, with conversations serving to highlight the distance as much as forming any connection between the two. Referencing Beckett, Kafka, Orwell and Sartre, to name but a few, and with heavy helpings from its existential buffet, “Arlington’s” painfully recognisable, new order brims with light and shadow. Thematically and theatrically dark and dense, “Arlington” ultimately strives for joy in this brave and thought provoking production.
Divided into three sections, “Arlington” uses dance, text, music and design to tell its multi-layered tale. If existential angst is the feeling of dread arising from existential freedom and responsibility, “Arlington” digs deeper, seeking to find that which exists when freedom and responsibility have been taken away, in a landscape dominated by grief, loneliness and isolation, without any meaningful connection to another human being. With humans housed in human filing cabinets called Towers, the metaphors come hard and fast in Walsh’s disturbing, yet ultimately hopeful, script. Yet it’s a script with limits, for “Arlington’s” interplay of dance, music and text, employing a rich physical and theatrical vocabulary, means text can sometimes feel a little strained in places, compared to movement which often evokes a stronger response.
Yet Walsh, the director, ensures “Arlington” is built upon a collaborative foundation and allows his collaborators ample room. Composer Teho Teardo’s excellent score is complimented by a delicious soundtrack you just want to rush out and buy, featuring songs ranging from The Ramones to the Spice Girls. Designer Jamie Vartan excels with a wonderful set that borders on being an installation. The wizard behind the curtain might be pulling the strings, but Vartan ensures it’s a digitised illusion being crafted. Cold, sterile, impersonal, with the help of video designer, Jack Phelan, it all suggests the digitisation of the human, with many scenes reminiscent of a video game. Adam Silverman’s lighting design reinforces this sense of the video game, with lights snapping on and off changing landscapes, sounds and scenes in a digital universe in which humans merely pass through. The end result is a technical masterclass, with “Arlington” delivering a technically tight and complex show, beautifully and brilliantly executed. Yet despite its embarrassment of riches, “Arlington” isn't always as strong as its individual components. Even though a cohesion of sorts is achieved at the end, making the journey one worth taking, there’s also a sense of it trying a little too hard in places and of lingering a little too long at times.
The human embedded in the technology is wonderfully embodied in three strong performances, even if vocal issues at times, resulting from pace primarily, impact on engagement. Hugh O’Connor’s nervous wreck with a big heart is an absolute joy. Charlie Murphy is simply astonishing, utilising a physical vocabulary to accentuate and support her dialogue that is just mesmerising to watch. As is Oona Doherty, whose dance sequence, if lingering a little too long in places, is utterly exhilarating, confirming her, and choreographer Emma Martin, as two of the most exciting dance talents around.
Like theatrical jazz, “Arlington” brings disparate elements together to riff and improvise around a structure, and more often than not they hit the mark. You won’t always know where it’s going or taking you, but, like a kiss or a caress, it's best enjoyed when you just surrender to it. “Arlington” may be dark, thought provoking, swimming in loneliness and isolation, but there’s also joy to be had here in what is an utterly unforgettable experience.
“Arlington” by Enda Walsh, produced by Landmark Productions and The Galway International Arts Festival, runs at The Abbey Theatre until February 25th
For more information, visit The Abbey Theatre