Puppets on a String
It’s less a case of the politics of performance and more a case of politics as performance in “Ask Too Much of Me” by Dylan Coburn Gray. Where the personal is political and very little else. Set in the days and weeks leading up to last years abortion referendum, though referencing several decades before that, “Ask Too Much of Me” paints a lopsided picture of political youth giving voice to their concerns. One that soon begs the question of whose voice is it we’re really hearing here? And whose politics?
Set in a romanticised, dilapidated squat, smartly designed by Molly O’Cathain, and superbly lit by Sarah Jane Shiels, misery loves company in this dive of eternal youth. The kind of student hovel where you come for the party and leave to escape the endless tirades of those whose apparent poverty sounds an awful lot like woke privilege. A place where you have to be voicing an opinion in order to have a beer, where everyone is judged to be someone else’s dickhead, and where everyone lives a ‘let’s art’ lifestyle, but where art is thin on the ground. For, like sex, a lot is talked and judged more often than it’s experienced. Yet there’s real anguish behind it all, be you pro choice and disowned by your parents, a bi-girl with opinions on everything, a gay kid wondering if he’s really gay, or a muslim uncomfortable with touching and being touched. Or a straight kid, or a virgin, who feels embarrassed about it. Set up as a series of loose political discourses, and a superbly funny, if worryingly uniform sequence where couples awkwardly pair off, the big day arrives and the future comes calling. A future that asks too much of us, where I can’t love you the way you want, and where we’re all doomed anyway. But you might as well enjoy it even if you don’t know how, lack the correct biblical quote, or are too busy talking about it.
In Coburn Gray’s unbalanced script, young people play politics without a Playstation or a playlist in sight. As in Coburn Gray’s excellent Citysong, it doesn’t matter what the decade, the song remains the same. Or so he would have you believe. Except it’s all a little disingenuous as older heads on younger shoulders endlessly discuss politics, usually sexual politics, spoken in the same voice and built around the flimsiest of narratives. Throughout, discussions range from the revealing, to the redundant, to the reductive, with Coburn Gray’s characters faring far better when he lets them off to do other things. Like looking to slip under a duvet, or miming washing a dead body, or marvelling at a drag queen. When their personalities, and not their political views, shine forth, instead of playing distant cousin to an argument. Something Veronica Coburn’s direction often accentuates, even if it proves to be something of an uneven affair. Looking superb during groups scenes, direction often looks uncharacteristically sloppy during smaller scenes, with people curiously placed, sometimes with their backs to all, or part, of the audience.
Like a St. Elmo’s Fire for the digital age, or Friends for the 21st century, “Ask Too Much of Me” presents kids playing at being adults. Except here they’re little more than the politics they perform looking to get laid. In her notes, National Youth Theatre’s Artistic Director, Veronica Coburn, shows some noble and pertinent aspirations concerning Irish youth theatre. Aspirations that see “Ask Too Much of Me” falling short of its own ideals, raising significant questions around issues like voice and ownership. For even if many, or all, of this young cast share many, or all, of the views and values being expressed, you can’t shake the sense that what you’re witnessing are mouthpieces performing like puppets on a string and talking with the same voice. Indeed, many young voices, and lived experiences, are not represented here in this fantasy of a politicised and privileged youth.
Which is a shame, for having spent all this time addressing these concerns it leaves little space to acknowledge the talent of this hugely impressive cast. If there are many who'll quickly tire of “Ask Too Much of Me’s” overworked political meanderings, the talent and personality of Sammy Cahn, Caitlin Hebron, Eimear Hussey, Sarah Kelly, Seán Kenneally, Daniel Madden, Pippa Molony, Penny Morris, Abigail Mulcahy O’Connell, Darragh O’Donnell, Olwyn O’Donoghue Patterson, James O’Leary, Allie Parsons O’Neill, Daniel Penrose, Micheal Tient and Blaithín Ward outshine politics every time. You feel it in every performance and, oh my God, there’s some serious talent in this production. It hits you in wave upon wave, and there’s no escaping it, with many shining when let loose of endless political discourse to bravely kiss, laugh, dance, touch, and make awkward efforts to connect. A three star production with some four star talent, “Ask Too Much of Me” shows we’re not all doomed when there’s talent this good heading into the future.
Youth Theatre Ireland presents The National Youth Theatre’s “Ask Too Much of Me” by Dylan Coburn Gray, directed by Veronica Gray, running at The Peacock Stage of The Abbey Theatre until August 24.
For more information, visit The Abbey Theatre.