The Song Remains The Same
For as long as there have been songs and stories, the ever changing, never changing face of Dublin and its rare auld times have proven fertile ground for the imagination. Dylan Coburn Gray's award winning, “Citysong," being another case in point. Channeling Homer and Ovid as much as Joyce, with a head nod towards Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood, Coburn Gray’s poetic masterpiece explores the unchanging nature of humanity in the absence of a universal and enduring human condition. Dealing less in contradiction and more in paradox, "Citysong" weaves a rich human tapestry through times and spaces. And if its philosophical meanderings can feel like quasi-lectures at times, its poetry proves to be nothing short of sublime.
In “Citysong" it’s always the same river we step into, not just twice, but repeatedly. We might improvise on the words and notes of life over time, but the song remains the same. Following three generations of a Dublin family over a single Joycean-like day, along with a reflective taxi driver, the individual details of daily life resonate with echoes of the past, as fresh and familiar as a newborn baby, or as new yet as old as an awkward first kiss. Always the same, always unique, no one can ever say they’ve been there, done that, and worn the t-shirt because there and that are forever different. There being Dublin, as distinct and intangible as a breath. That being people falling in love, getting married or not, having kids, worrying over their kids, losing spouses or becoming ill and dying. All the trials and tribulations of a life. Always the needle returning to the start of the song so it can begin it again differently.
Like all Godlike pronouncements, Coburn Gray’s narrative omniscience, broaching past, present and future, is defined by what it omits as much as by what it includes. Moving back and forth over itself, "Citysong" might aspire to the scope of a Homeric classic, celebrating the epic in the everyday, but it never achieves quite the same depth. Director Caitríona McLaughlin, marshalling her Greek-like chorus with shifting leaders, goes some way to redressing this, injecting every word, every moment, with a raw, visceral power. Even so, "Citysong’s” nicely nice humanism leaves the darkness of life unacknowledged, ensuring that if delight is in its one-sided details, the devil is nowhere to be found. But, oh, what delightful details they are, its universe in a grain of sand yielding enchanting and memorable moments under McLaughlin’s astute direction.
Throughout, Dublin serves as an unstable backdrop, a city, or a concept of a city, as vulnerable as cracked ice, ready to snap under the least pressure. Wonderfully suggested by Sarah Bacon’s superb set, which reclaims a large section of the auditorium, outlining the Dublin coastline as the frail edge of a fragile and frozen city. Yet Dublin is there nonetheless, often lovingly rendered, as substantial a space as the transience of time it conveys. A transience rich in life, love, humour and heartache, wonderfully evoked by Paul Keogan’s lighting and superbly conveyed by a glorious cast, allowing for the vagaries of opening night (poor projection, sloppy transitions and rushed, nervous moments) which will surely settle as the run progresses. With roles and monologues being frequently switched and shared, the six strong cast work tirelessly throughout covering some sixty characters, with each enjoying standout moments. Amy Conroy’s self hating Fionn, Jade Jordan’s new mother Kate, Daryl McCormack’s new father Rob, Clare McKenna as the fading Bridget, Dan Monaghan as Taxi Dad and Bláithín Mac Gabhann as just about anyone, are all magnificent.
Winner of the 2017 Verity Bargate Award, “Citysong’s" strength lies in its lovingly rich lyricism. If it overplay its hand a little it’s conscious of doing so, but richly rewards those who make the effort, which is no effort at all. For Coburn Gray’s lyrical prowess proves second to none and, along with McLaughlin, ensures "Citysong" delivers poetry in word and motion. If some won’t buy its philosophical musings — the only thing permanent is impermanence, the only thing that doesn’t change is change — there’s simply no resisting its poetry wherein “Citysong” comes into being, alights a little hour or two, before passing. Making the transient space of theatre the perfect place for this hugely impressive work. They say the best is yet to come, but "Citysong" is, unquestionably, Dylan Coburn Gray’s best work to date.
"Citysong" by Dylan Coburn Gray, in an Abbey Theatre and Soho Theatre co-production, runs at The Abbey Theatre until June 8, before transferring to the Soho Theatre, London (June 12 to Jul 6) followed by The Galway International Arts Festival (July 23 - July 28).