On paper it must have looked like a no brainer. A seriously talented cast, along with an experienced writer and director, telling of the lived experiences of some of Dublin’s bravest working class women. Women who daily survive the hardships of poverty and austerity and the dangers of loansharks. Yet despite its noble ambitions, “Dublin Will Show You How” doesn’t show it very well. Even allowing for it being presented under duress due to last minute illness, and being seen essentially in preview. None of which accounts for its self-consciously shaky foundation.
The foundation in question being Tracy Martin’s lopsided script built from a series of workshops, facilitated by director Vanessa Fielding, with women who've experienced violence at the hands of loansharks. With a reputation for the depressing, and sometimes doing it well, Martin goes whole other level dark side with “Dublin Will Show You How.” Real life women become voices for the horrors of poverty with barely a hint of individual personality. Likewise the abusive men. In the hands of a lesser cast this could have caused even more untold problems. But the talents onstage, playing a multitude of roles, help to conceal a multitude of sins, even when it's not always easy. The slick and slimy Shane, a domestic abuser come pimp, sees a generally impressive Luke Griffin practically licking his lips on one occasion, searching for a way to make something from the stereotype.
The presence of Thommas Kane Byrne (TKB), looking uneasy and wasted in a series of mediocre cameos, can't help but beg the question of what might have been. His Flats Trilogy often powerfully revealed the richness, as well as the horrors, of similar women and their lives, making pain more poignant and the people more rounded. Something Martin’s obsessively austere writing fails to communicate. If Martin's women work best when relating to each other, too often Martin translates their experiences through a depressively faux poetic. One lacking the working class lyricism of a TKB or Emmet Kirwin. Instead, word wrought references to seagulls and stigmata place Martin, the writer, centre stage, and however noble her personal sympathies might be, she’s constantly blocking the view.
Something a hard working cast valiantly compensate for. Not being particularly helped by director Vanessa Fielding, whose staging leaves the audience frequently blind as she fails to come to grips with the traverse. Even so, many cast members shine, especially brave latecomer Karen Adriff as a mother trying hard to care for her children. Ciara Evie might play several characters who have very little to do, but what Evie does she does astonishingly well. Indeed, the wise money wouldn’t bet against Evie emerging in the coming years as a serious talent. A talent of the calibre of Liz Fitzgibbon, stunning as the homeless Josephine, the abused Marie, and a host of others. Indeed Fitzgibbon, Evie, and Adriff, along with a fantastic Denise McCormack as Joan, a woman whose son died under suspicious circumstances, are the performative glue which keeps it all from falling apart, ably supported by Griffin, TKB, Leah Moore and David O’Meara.
It’s a man’s world in “Dublin Will Show You How” where women living in austerity are abused and exploited. By males as much as by the conditions society places them in. It’s a story that’s been told, and that still needs to be told. But it’s been told better. For what "Dublin Will Show You How" offers can sometimes resemble something close to poverty porn. Like porn, “Dublin Will Show You How” restricts itself to a monotonous, semi-gratuitous series of images that it never deviates from. The argument that “Dublin Will Show You How” puts stories that represent the working class on the stage of the national theatre is false justification. With writers like Emmet Kirwan and Mark O’Rowe expressing working class experiences through working class lyricism, TKB articulating the pain, joy and dignity of inner city life, and with companies like ANU or THEATREclub creating award winning theatre around working class histories and experiences, the standard has already been set incredibly high and “Dublin Will Show You How” lags far behind the posse. Well intentioned, offering occasional insight, it accords the women it represents respect and dignity. It could have done so much more.
“Dublin Will Show You How” by Tracy Martin, a co-production between The Abbey Theatre and The Complex, runs at The Peacock Stage of The Abbey Theatre until April 6, moving to The Complex from April 9-13.
For more information, visit The Abbey Theatre or The Complex.