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  • Chris ORourke

Dublin Theatre Festival 2018: The Bystander

The Bystander. Image by Luca Truffarelli


Hear No Evil, See No Evil

Using the 1964 murder of Kitty Genovese at her apartment block in New York City as a jumping in point, Junk Ensemble’s “The Bystander” sets about exploring the bystander effect. A form of mob mentality where bystanders to an incident are less likely to help someone in need when other people are around. Various factors from apathy, context, perceived personal and shared responsibility, all impact on how the bystander effect comes into play. If Junk Ensemble’s “The Bystander” recognises these complex sociological dynamics it still seethes with a raw and palpable rage against the lack of outrage and the death of Genovese. For evil thrives when good people do nothing, and “The Bystander” is not prepared to stand idly by.

Working from the Genovese murder proves a risky move, even if it does reclaim Genovese and re-present her as a living, loving, human being. Her killer, Winston Moseley, not so much. Genovese’s murder might have been the original impetus which lead researchers to explore the bystander effect, but claims that thirty-eight people stood by and did nothing appears now to have been grossly exaggerated. This risks locating, and confining, the bystander effect to one specific moment in 1964, making it sound like an isolated incident built on dubious evidence. If mention of mobile phones tries to inject a contemporary resonance, it almost slips by unnoticed. A recurring motif of binoculars looking curiously on from a safe distance reinforces a sense of time past. One imagines a mobile phone, or video camera a la Rodney King, being far more indicative of the bystander today. As Junk Ensemble’s dance theatre has never confined itself to historical literalism, it feels like an opportunity missed to bring past and present more fully into the same experience.

Following a stirring dance sequence with Stephanie Dufresne, Stephen Moynihan, Steve Blount, and Tilly Webber, which returns and is expanded upon later, things initially take a moment to find their feet, with text struggling to best make its points. If, later, Dufresne’s ‘feel nothing’ and ‘hate him’ mantras prove powerful, along with Blount’s mantra like struggle to explain himself, the interspersed journalistic accounts of events and responses, or of ideas surrounding the bystander effect, can feel as if they’re trying to force an ideological frame around the performance. Which it doesn’t need. For once context is finally, if didactically established, its time to buckle up, with bodies speaking far more eloquently and irresistibly.

From agitated flurries in whirling, wrestling group sequences, to duets involving punching and kicking, unflinchingly visceral choreography and direction by Jessica and Megan Kennedy instils an unnerving tension and undercurrent of rage and violence throughout. Often built from simple conflicts beautifully realised; Webber’s agitated and aggressive posturing against a reluctant vulnerability, Moynihan’s panicked movements towards help informed by an immediate shuddering recoil, Blount’s defiant refusal while Dufresne relentlessly tries to move him. Trying to move the unmovable is mirrored as Moynihan sets about trying to move Webber’s injured or dead victim in a heart achingly moving duet. This immediately following a stunning solo by Webber. A powerful duet between Webber and Dufresne uncomfortably underscores the inherent violence. As does the quartet’s stunning return to an expanded opening sequence which asks some discomforting questions.

All of which is couched beautifully in Denis Clohessy's sublime and evocative score. Zia Bergin-Holly’s subtle lighting design hints of a blood red sky and of places of shadow, lending depth to Sabine Dargent’s provocative set. Dargent’s CSI style tent is genius in simplicity, becoming Moynihan’s tented cocoon where he, bubble wrapped and ears blocked with cotton wool, insulates himself, determined to hear no evil, see no evil, or to be touched by evil.

Repetition of several key movements and images, including a woman’s body lying twisted on the floor, peering through binoculars, or looking back over your shoulder, all converge to create a rich base palette from which “The Bystander” paints a vital and visceral portrait. Yet like the violence onstage, what’s seen is only the tip of the iceberg. What lies underneath is immeasurably deeper. And made palpably real. For “The Bystander” places you in direct proximity to the seething sea of rage, pain, indifference, and violence bubbling underneath. Alongside momentary flashes of hope and humanity. An exquisite and unforgettable experience, one that honours a forgotten victim while asking pertinent and uncomfortable question, “The Bystander” is a thing of violent beauty. Not to be missed.

“The Bystander” by Junk Ensemble, ran at The Axis Ballymun as part of Dublin Theatre Festival 2018. Tour dates to follow.

For more information, visit Junk Ensemble.

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