With love, to Dublin and theatre
“Dublin by Lamplight.” It’s about theatre and theatrics. About history and myth. It’s about who we were and who we are. It’s about actors that agonise, and overly dramatic dramatists. It’s about players, poets, playwrights and politics. It’s about Dublin. It’s about as perfect an homage as you are ever likely to see. It’s finally on stage at its spiritual home, our national theatre, The Abbey, where it rightfully belongs. And it’s about bloody time. For “Dublin by Lamplight,” written by Michael West and developed in collaboration with Corn Exchange, and directed by Annie Ryan, is about as brilliant, moving, and enjoyable a production as you’re ever likely to see.
Set in 1904, the year The Abbey Theatre first opened, and the year of Leopold Bloom’s legendary ramblings in Joyce’s “Ulysses,” “Dublin by Lamplight” sees the fictional Irish National Theatre of Ireland wanting to do a play. There’s politics in the dramatically charged air, with the King due to visit the city the day the theatre first opens its doors. The cast’s melodramatic performance of their politically charged, love story, “The Wooing of Emer,” is equalled only by their politically charged and melodramatic lives taking place off stage. But the fourth wall was only ever a convention between the stage and the streets. Behind the drama and laughter, the cost of saying something might entail a greater sacrifice. But to remain silent is to be swallowed up by the darkness. Even if not everyone sees its value, when all’s said and done, the ‘tee-ay-it-er’ is really your only man to shine a light in the dark.
West’s extraordinary script, developed in collaboration with the company, is a richly woven tapestry of theatre, history, humour and humanity. It might hit the brakes and come to a somewhat abrupt halt, but jokes come hard and fast throughout, with layers upon layers of Joycean styled referencing concealing hidden depths and meanings. West’s squat, square morgue on the corner of Abbey and Marlborough Street might be historical, but it also suggests other interrogations for those who wish to go beyond the humour. Director Annie Ryan, working with both Story Theatre and Commedia styles, loving crafts a visual spectacle steeped in twilight. Warm, haunting, with a divine physicality that almost defies description, “Dublin by Lamplight” overflows with Ryan’s love of the theatrical. Like West, Ryan would be the first to acknowledge the collaborative nature of “Dublin by Lamplight” and the immense contribution made by others. But Ryan and West are unquestionably the driving force behind this extraordinary production, and deserve to be acknowledged as such.
When it comes to design, as with all things “Dublin by Lamplight,” its apparent surface simplicity belies a richly detailed complexity at work. Set design by Kris Stone displays an almost Zen-like sensibility, where minimalism conceals the path to riches and transformation. Matt Frey’s lighting isn’t so much designed as it is costumed and choreographed, an almost living, breathing entity alongside the six-strong cast. Costumes by Sinéad Cuthbert are the stuff of alchemy, changing and rearranging within impossible fractions of seconds, with Hair and Make-up by Val Sherlock adding those vital finishing touches to “Dublin by Lamplight’s” band of Irish rebels, wronged women, socialists, nationalists and theatrical impresarios. Conor Linehan’s exquisite composition for piano, performed live onstage by Linehan, perfectly conveys “Dublin by Lamplight’s” heightened theatricality, as well as capturing the lives and experiences of its characters. As for “Dublin by Lamplight's” superlative cast: all praise falls short. Performances by Colin Campbell, Karen Egan, Catríona Ennis, Louis Lovett, Gus McDonagh and Paul Reid are the stuff of legend, with Ennis’s Maggie, Reid’s Martyn and Lovett’s unforgettable Willy Hayes destined to live long in theatrical memory.
No company, or play, has a God given right to be staged at the national theatre. But if you earn that right, as Corn Exchange certainly have, you deserve to be given the opportunity. The Abbey’s joint artistic directors, Graham McClaren and Neil Murray, are to be applauded for making this possible, broadening the possibilities of what might grace the stage of our national theatre into the future. If it is a rare and genuine treat to see a revival of “Dublin by Lamplight,” it is an absolute privilege and pleasure to see it on the Abbey stage where it uniquely resonates. A space it questions, playfully pokes fun at, yet ultimately reveres. It's taken thirteen years to get there. Don't wait another thirteen before going to see it. A love poem to Dublin and theatre, “Dublin by Lamplight” is uniquely special. Indeed, it should be the solemn and sworn duty of every Dubliner to go see it. Of every Irishman and woman. So, go. Do it for Ireland. Go have an experience you won't ever regret.
The Corn Exchange’s “Dublin by Lamplight,” written by Michael West in collaboration with the company, and directed by Annie Ryan, runs at The Abbey Theatre until April 1st.
For more information, visit The Abbey Theatre or Corn Exchange