It's a Living Thing
There’s a moment in “Hentown” when a distraught man prays in whispers as he sits alone on a tenement stairwell. High above, the agonized cries of a woman reverberate along the walls and landings as he looks up helplessly. Soon the crying stops, there’s a moments silence before heavy footfalls echo down from the wooden steps above. Sounds heard in a tenement stairwell have unique characteristics. There’s a hollow, haunting, almost breath like quality making them at once distant and familiar. In "Hentown" these sounds are again made manifest in an extraordinary production that is both staggering as spectacle and an exhilarating experience. One which examines the tenements and those who lived there. Buildings that, at one time, often housed hundreds, and came to define a city and its people.
To celebrate the opening of Dublin City Council's Tenement Museum Dublin in early November, ANU Production’s immersive, site specific “Hentown” sets about making the distant familiar. Set in parts of the premises for the Tenement Museum Dublin on 14 Henrietta Street, “Hentown” is a stunning production rich in the experiences of tenement life. Director Louise Lowe takes the year 1963 as a jumping in point, a year which saw a Pope die, J.F. Kennedy visit Ireland, and some of the worse rainfall in Dublin’s history. Torrential downpours that led to two tenements collapsing on Bolton Street in June 1963, with loss of life. A few weeks later two more collapsed in Fenian Street, again with loss of life. In the weeks that followed hundred of families found themselves evicted from their unsafe tenement homes. Some were moved out to the suburbs, to places like Finglas and Ballyfermot, providing they qualified. Those who didn't qualify got rounded up and herded into Griffith Barracks, which became a glorified internment camp. Meanwhile, lives, loves, families, friends, communities, and an entire way of living was discarded amidst the rubble.
While “Hentown” remains grounded in the details of history, it’s real strength lies in giving voice to those who lived that history, told through a series of interwoven stories. Stories known only too well by an older generation, that need to be heard by generations yet to come. Like that of the newly wed lad’s lad, Git Stafford, and his adorable bride Nancy, celebrating their bridal party in the house Git grew up in. A party short lived when everything they know is taken away. Then there’s their neighbour Christy Doyle, a man with a birdcage rescued from Bolton Street, yet unable to rescue himself, or his wife, from the fate that awaits them. Sharing in this sense of a loss so large it goes beyond the personal, Gerry Keeley, and his wife Kate, square off like two gunslingers, their future as a family hanging by a thread. Gerry thinks there’s some sense to the idea of moving families out of the tenements. Kate is having none of it and will board herself in rather than be thrown out of the only home she’s ever known.
Over the course of an hour audiences are invited to move through parts of 14 Henrietta Street with the Staffords, along with their neighbours, where they enjoy a wedding party, help hide rescued birds, hear about Animal gangs and their buried treasures, and see first hand families, friends, and communities being torn apart. Through a complex, subtle, and seamless interweaving of narratives, and some first class writing,“Hentown” creates a rich and detailed tapestry of tenement life. Git Stafford’s monologue in the empty room he grew up in, made heart rending by the arrival of his friend and neighbour Christy, reveals an unbelievable attention to words, phrases, and mannerisms that brings both the time and the people alive. Performances ensure the audience, both those who remember and those discovering tenement life for the first time, are participants in the experience, feeling immersed in an immediacy of history and never just its witnesses. An experience made palpably visceral by some extraordinary performances from Robbie O’Connor, Gillian McCarthy, John Cronin, Thomas O’Reilly, Daniel Monaghan, Leanna Cuttle and Lily Rose Boss.
Emotionally, "Hentown" hits home with the same delicious pleasure of an unexpected kiss, followed by a full force, punch to the gut. Due in no small measure to Lowe’s calculated move of allowing men carry the bulk of “Hentown’s” emotional content. While women act on principle, regardless of the impact on family, it’s men who articulate the sense of loss and heartbreak. Doing so, Lowe manages to expose deeper levels of vulnerability as men struggle to find the words to give shape to the experience, their acts of articulation often more eloquent than the words themselves, never more so than when Git and Christy plan to meet up for a pint you know they're never going to have.
For many, tenement life, even with its hardships and squalor, embodied the best of what Dublin is about. Giving birth to the popular image of Dubliners as an inclusive, welcoming people who overcome adversity with humour and compassion, ever ready with a helping hand, looking out for one another, a tight knit community of friends and families where you could leave your front door open, or walk home safely at night, without fear. Others say that's just a romanticised notion; the squalor told a different tale. Embracing both these points of view, "Hentown" seems to trade in what can best be described as romantic realism, honouring both parts of the Dubliner's psyche simultaneously. A psyche, some say, is gradually dying out.
At one point in “Hentown” a character describes how walls retain the breaths, stories, and voices of all who have ever lived there. Voices that permeate the very fabric of the wood and plaster, steeped in roars, cheers, prayers, laughter, the gamut of human emotion absorbed into the building itself. If you care to hear those voices, go visit “Hentown” at 14 Henrietta Street. You'd be mad not to. For "Hentown" is a hairs standing on the back of your neck, utterly superb production, that serves as a perfect introduction to the Tenement Museum Dublin.
“Hentown” by ANU Productions and Dublin City Council runs at the Tenement Museum Dublin, 14 Henrietta Street, Dublin 1, for an extended run until October 15th
For more information, visit ANU Productions or Tenement Museum Dublin