Samuel Beckett’s influence is writ large in Grace Dyas’s impassioned “We Don’t Know What’s Buried Here,” where two ghosts, who can’t go on, go on digging a never ending hole looking for answers, victims, and a release they know may never come. In a world where everything public may soon become private, “We Don’t Know What’s Buried Here” sets out to bring everything made private about The Magdalene Laundries into the public domain. Forced internment, forced adoptions, child and adult deaths, unmarked graves, and compliant cover-ups, “We Don’t Know What’s Buried Here” portrays the Irish State as co-conspirators with the Catholic Church, a conspiracy, Dyas argues, that continues to this day. With the last Magdalene Laundry in public ownership now being sold by Dublin City Council to a Japanese Hotel Group, a site promised to the Magdalene women as a memorial in the Quirke Report, many see this as the final act of betrayal in an ongoing cover up. Yet everything being buried is being buried alive, and “We Don’t Know What’s Buried Here” wants to haul it out of the dirt so its voice can be heard. To uncover the State’s dirty laundry and hang it out in the clear light of day in an effort to prevent the past from becoming the present.
Performed by Dyas, who plays Tina, a woman constantly digging for the truth, and Doireann Coady as Bernie, a woman digging to find her daughter, “We Don’t Know What’s Buried Here” sees the action unfold in a park near the railings surrounding the former Sean McDermott Street site. Less characters than representative Everywomen, Coady and Dyas set out to give voice to the helpless victims of the Magdalene horrors. Built on the metaphor of digging, both into the past and ourselves, the metaphor soon proves to be a mixed one as the ghosts dig to both uncover the truth and cover it up, to excavate and to inter. Like a dog chasing its own tail, their Sisyphus like task might hold out the illusion that the goal is just within touching distance. But in the end it might never be reached. All that remains is the digging.
If Dyas’s script is thematically layered, politically it’s about as subtle as a brick to the head. One which sees its provocative political message being plainly delivered and on point, but its medium being often less engaging due to its problematic Beckettian staging, and its confusing, disjointed flipping between too many opposites of past and present, denial and desire. Throughout, signature THEATREclub techniques are very much in evidence, with Dyas’s script built around a series of simple mantra like motifs endlessly repeated, as well as a relentless physical rigour. Yet, despite great physical exertion, its passion never really translates viscerally to the audience. That said, if the point is to instill a sense of the frustration and futility experienced by those seeking answers, it’s a job well done. But the price tag for this pervasive sense of hopelessness is to dilute much of the sense of outrage it seems to be trying to muster. It’s hard to get built up for a fight you’ve already lost.
Throughout, Dyas’s script is at its best when its mantra like incantations hone its focus, looping back onto itself. Linking the horrors of Auschwitz to those at The Magdalene Laundries, or The Magdalene Concentration Camps if you will, makes for a provocative argument. One that portrays many contemporary politicians as neglectful of their responsibilities towards those most disempowered and vulnerable within society. ‘Arbeit macht frei,’ Dyas incants repeatedly, work will set you free: the lie told to the six million who died in Auschwitz, to those interred in the Magdalene Laundries, and presented as the message being sold by an Ayn Rand styled Leo Varadkar. Yet in trying to become all things to all people, and to address every concern, “We Don’t Know What’s Buried Here” often looses energy and focus in places, with the issues affecting survivors of The Magdalene Laundries becoming part of a larger narrative and critique. One where their plight is contextualized within a wider, less developed commentary on the housing crisis, homelessness, inner city poverty and drug abuse, on poor people living on rich land being rehoused in encampments outside the city.
Directing Dyas’s problematic script, Barry John O’Connor unevenly negotiates its inherent internal conflicts. While its Beckettian aesthetic works incredibly well foregrounding a sense of futility, it’s far less successful in conveying a sense of outrage, or of the human experiences embodied within the politics. Often employing some well-crafted, self-composed music, O’Connor delivers some much needed emotional reinforcement, or relief, at key moments. Set design by O’Connor, along with Eoin Winning, with its steel spiked railings atop a green hill is functional rather than evocative, but Winning’s superb lighting design takes up the slack, and then some, travelling through a multitude of moods and seasons, days and decades. If Dyas’s Tina is more a political mouthpiece than a character, one suspects Dyas intended this all along, with Dyas’s commentary on the personal price of activism being deeply resonant, as well as highlighting the artificial meta-theatricality of the actor on stage. In contrast, Doireann Coady’s Bernie is a more complex, identifiable, and relatable character, one who makes a far more compelling argument through her humanity than much of the political commentary.
In “We Don’t Know What’s Buried Here” the tune may have changed, but the song has remained the same. The lie continues for the Magdalene women as truths are buried and promises broken. Yet “We Don’t Know What’s Buried Here” often digs a hole for itself by feeling like a lengthy party political broadcast. One where the party’s politics might be plain to see, but the broadcast itself is often endured more than enjoyed, even by those who subscribe to the politics. Feeling longer than its ninety minutes, “We Don’t Know What’s Buried Here” can feel confusing and hard work at times. Preaching better to the converted, it hits the mind rather than the senses, and never quite ignites a fire in the belly due to its overwhelming sense of futility. Even so, whatever your politics, “We Don’t Know What’s Buried Here” raises some pertinent and uncomfortable questions about what kind of society we want to live in and offers a searing indictment of the political neglect of the most vulnerable within that society. If the aim of art is to disturb the comfortable and comfort the disturbed, “We Don’t Know What’s Buried Here” certainly achieves both.
“We Don’t Know What’s Buried Here” by Grace Dyas, produced by THEATREclub in association with The Civic Theatre, Tallaght, runs at the Civic Theatre, Tallaght until February 17th before visiting the Axis Ballymun on February 20th, Mermaid Arts Centre on February 22nd and O’Reilly Theatre on Feb 24th
For more information, visit THEATREclub, The Civic Theatre, or websites for any of the above venues.