Eavan Gaffney in Canaries. Image uncredited.
In his most recent instalment for Musings In Intermissions critic Chris McCormack astutely posted something obvious. Astute because it's an obvious that's not always recognised. Namely that Louise Lowe could be considered a master playwright. It's understandable why this might be hard to recognise given Lowe's collaborative way of working with ANU and the kind of theatre she makes, her reputation as a director and artistic director, the fact she rarely, if ever, credits herself as writer, and because she has something of an aversion to the limelight. One can readily imagine her cringing in discomfort at any hint of attention, heaven forbid a compliment. But the truth is Lowe is something of a master playwright. In fact, when it comes to making theatre, she's something of a genius. A trait that extends to her capacity for making film, as her short movie Canaries, showing online as part of The Pumphouse Presents, makes all too clear.
Set during the years 1915 to 1918, Lowe's minor epic follows two girls, Mae and Florence, working in the Dublin Dockyard Munitions Factory in Dublin Port making shells for the British Army during World War One. Their health and safety is low on the company's agenda, whose working conditions leave both girls exposed to the risk of aplastic anaemia and toxic jaundice. The latter turning worker's skin yellow, giving rise to their nickname, canaries. An explosion at the Kynoch cordite factory in Arklow in 1917, killing twenty-eight people, ignites in Florence a desire to fight for proper working conditions. But Mae is fearful of the backlash, given that being a woman in a man's world is already hard enough. The money she makes at the factory, and the independence it lends her, being better than anything she's ever known. Even if she is being slowly poisoned.
While being a master of anything recognises significant achievement, no master is ever perfect. Canaries, too, is often far from perfect, even if its strengths far outweigh its less successful moments. As in other works by ANU and Lowe, there's a conscious intention to reclaim forgotten histories married to an impeccable attention to historical detail. Along with a less than seamless join between personal stories and political messaging, a strained dichotomy that often informs ANU's work. Railing against the abuse of workers, and soldiers, Lowe's political message often elbows its way centre stage courtesy of the worn out rhetoric of trade unionism. Acknowledging that such language was likely to raise the roof in 1917, and even allowing for Lowe sharing similar political convictions today, the homogenised rhetoric sounds like something tagged on by a staunchly insistent committee member to ensure we got the point. Sounding hollow when compared to how Lowe's characters talk about foxtrots, moisturiser, or their husband returning from war, their language rich and personal, making the same political statements far more effectively when characters themselves are the message.
When it comes to story, the short scened narrative doesn't quite find its way home, and the heavy handed metaphor of a living canary does it no favours. Yet a side story of a soldier returning from Gallipoli adds cohesion, depth and texture. Still, one senses that story was never the intended focus. What Canaries offers is a sensitive study of two women, beautifully articulated by Lowe's glorious visual vocabulary. A smile, a glance, a frown, all craft something that fills the screen from a multitude of angles, then reaches out beyond it to haul you in. For if the set needs to be singular on account of Covid, Lowe's cinematic aspirations are always pushing at the possibilities. Throughout, Lowe frequently subverts an accommodating naturalism with moments of dance and movement, lending Canaries a Terence Davies arthouse vibe. One in which the ordinary and extraordinary sit side by side informing each other.
Yet Lowe can't take all the credit, nor would she want to. ANU's impressive presence in the form of Owen Boss (design), Lynnette Moran and Matt Smyth (producers), Leanna Cuttle (Line Producer) and Maree Kearns (costumes) is evident throughout. Yet the real stars are relative newcomers Aggi O'Casey as Mae, and Eavan Gaffney as Florence in what is not just inspired casting it's, what's that word again, genius. O'Casey and Gaffney love the camera and the camera adores them in return. Capturing Florence and Mae's inner worlds, they convey their closest secrets with such composure and conviction it almost feels like a betrayal. If there's a sense, on occasion, that Lowe corrals her characters into becoming mouthpieces for another history and politics lesson, O'Casey and Gaffney ensure we never loose sight of two young women forced to live, work, and die under impossible conditions.
A master constantly works at perfecting their craft. Or, in this instance, crafts. Playwright, director, teacher, theatre maker, and currently film maker, Lowe can probably make a mean lasagne too, all while juggling cats. Limits being something she has little respect for. With Canaries, Lowe appears to be testing the cinematic waters, and the omens could be worrying for some. Visually moving in places, showing undeniable promise, film's gain might well be theatre's loss if Lowe and ANU decide to pursue this avenue. For Canaries is bursting with promise, Lowe's cinematic short story showing both range and depth despite an impressive visual economy. From the opening scene where Irish and British flags are being positioned, Canaries strives towards cinematic poetry and often gets there. Canaries also delivers an early Christmas present with O'Casey and Gaffney, both equally capable of setting the world alight. Catch them now in two gorgeously judged performances, exquisitely shot by Lowe, before the fanfare starts. Canaries' history might be stronger than its story, but it's always heartfelt and beautiful to look at. And you also get Sinéad Diskin's superb, heart aching score thrown in, like an extra special Christmas treat.
Canaries, written and directed by Louise Lowe and presented by ANU Productions, runs as part of Dublin Port Company's The Pumphouse Presents till December 23. Available free of charge as a gift from Dublin Port, donations will be accepted towards a new artist development fund to be managed by Axis Ballymun.
For more information visit Dublin Port Company.