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  • Chris O'Rourke


Emma Campbell and Caoimhe Kavanagh in Carline. Image Molly Behan


It’s dispiriting news coming out of The Abbey. Our National Theatre going dark till late September. The reasoning spurious, the fact undeniable. As if Dublin doesn’t already suffer a shortage of venues. Especially those that facilitate young artists looking to test themselves and grow. To try things first without having to rely on the Arts Council lottery with its demands, conditions and restrictions. Many inexperienced, wanting to learn by doing and not be reliant on slim apprenticeship or mentoring models, or talk tanks that lead to too few real opportunities. Exhibiting a punk-like enthusiasm to get onstage having taken things as far as they can. As was the case for many formative decades in Dublin. Remarkable venues like the legendary, and now derelict City Arts Centre much missed and needed. Around the corner from a black box space that’s recently been peering above the parapet. Where aspiring writer and director Úna Nolan tests their mettle with a predictable tale of an independent woman accused of witchcraft in the hugely promising Carline.

No frills, just thrills, The Pearse Centre Theatre on Pearse Street has a small stage and impressive light rig that says budget doesn’t solve everything. Artists failing to properly utilise the space not suffering from a lack of money but imagination. Which is in abundance here. Entering the space, the scent of incense greets you before you see the stage. Jade McNutt and Jack Donoghue’s detailed interior of a seventeen century cottage resembling a new age coffee shop designed by Laura Ashley. Not for the last time will the past be gentrified by the present. Sitting onstage like a scullery maid sporting a Bane mask, Emma Campbell’s vibrant Maud waits patiently as the customary housekeeping takes place. Every trigger warning is given, except a trigger warning warning you there are going to be so many trigger warnings. Followed by Ruairí Nicholl’s Vicar moving through the dark auditorium talking theological. About possession and love. But listen close, the heart of Carline beats within Nolan’s dark, mantra-like phrase.

Emma Campbell in Carline. Image Molly Behan

In what follows, a budding relationship blossoms between the independent midwife Maud and conventional housewife Florence. Caoimhe Kavanagh marrying frail delicacy to Florence's larger desires for being compelled to play life safely. For this is a world where a spoonful of Basil or a questionable birthmark is enough to get you burnt at the stake. A. Coveney as the villainous John Price eager to strike the match. His enthusiasm tempered by Nicholl’s impassioned Vicar trying to do the right thing in the right way and properly investigate. But it’s all just rationalisation. Making up reasons for the unreasonable in order to justify the unjustifiable. Leading to a predictable, and somewhat rushed conclusion, with a visual epilogue of touching beauty.

Channelling The Crucible and Kissing The Witch, Carline's structure is of an abridged novel adapted into a screenplay. Carline’s cinematic flow interrupted for spending too long on unimportant areas whilst leaving others underdeveloped. Including its hurried ending. One where story and message make for uneven, but not uncomfortable bedfellows. The past, sanitised and gentrified, judged through a modern lens, even allowing for Florence’s impressive speech on her day to day life. Jumping through time, scenic shifts evoke the screen rather than the stage, even as Nolan as director proves compositionally impressive, crafting many a mean image. Maud’s physical examination, or several acts of violence, highlighting Nolan’s impressive eye. Still, you can’t help but feel they look intended for camera, consciously or unconsciously. Begging the question if Nolan might have benefited from someone other than themselves as director. Someone who would have pushed at the script more. For whilst Nolan crafts a credible story issuing wonderful lines and moments, there's room for digging deeper. And while they make compositionally impressive use of the space, eliciting strong performances proves not to be their strong suit.

Carline. Image Molly Behan

Grand Guignol and hammy in execution, Nolan’s single focus characters act up their acting. The independent Maud, the impassioned Vicar, the conflicted Florence and the villainous Price all portentous and exaggerated in tone and gesture. Indeed, Price’s menacing sneer is only a moustache twirl away from silent movie villian. If exaggeration was intended, it’s a poor choice, leaving its cast looking unsupported, lost between realism and artifice. Still, Nolan’s superb use of props, costumes, hair and make-up go a long way to compensating. Nolan again strongest when visual, reinforcing the sense of Carline as less theatrical and more cinematic with its scenes and close ups. A hugely impressive light design by Clare McLoughlin adding fuel to an already commanding visual fire, using light and shadow to terrific effect.

Carline gets things wrong, but mainly through inexperience. Yet how else do you get experience except by doing? Mostly, it gets things right. Including the most important thing of all. Having the courage to put new work before an audience having developed it is far as you can to see what you can learn. What we learn is that Nolan is criminally talented across the board, bringing a signature rigour to everything they touch. Like all those involved, Nolan is on a learning curve. Learning what works and doesn’t. How to never turn your virtues into vices, either moral and theatrical. Learning by way of forty-five delightful, richly invested minutes. True, some of that delight stems from Nolan’s refreshing, go get it, David and Goliath bravery. But Carline has a lot going on, a lot to be proud of, and promises a lot to come.

Carline, by Úna Nolan, runs at The Pearse Centre Theatre until June 7.

For more information visit Carline


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