- Chris O'Rourke
Meadbh Maxwell as Ber in Danti Dan.Image uncredited.
In 2018’s The Patient Gloria, Gina Moxley explores women and desire in a world where men often determine both. It wasn’t for the first time she broached the subject. In Danti Dan from 1995, three girls negotiate sexual awakening in the 1970s in the male maelstrom of rural Cork. A time where, when it came to sex, women were taught don’t ask, don't speak, don't know, just do. A world of phone taping public phones for free calls, of Sweet Afton cigarettes, and where the horrors of Bessborrough House were a very real threat for unmarried mothers. A place where three girls on the cusp of womanhood move from innocence to inexperience. Livin’ Dred serving up a brave, ambitious production. One that flares frequently even as it never quite ignites.
In Moxley’s superb script, men aren’t all they think they are. David Rawle’s understated Danti Dan being less autistic, or something similar, so much as a subversion of masculine perfection. The proverbial village idiot who imagines he’s a cowboy, recording passing cars in his notebook. Then there’s Eoghan Collin’s overstated Noel, a legend in his own mind or what’s otherwise known as a langer. Around whom three girls live, love and labour through ignorance to hard knocks. Meadbh Maxwell’s Ber, a kind of Reese Witherspoon meets Daisy Dukes in red ankle boots and thigh length shirt, is the girl all the bad boys want, and the most sexually knowledgable of them all. She’s done it, kind of, and even though her period is late she knows you can’t get pregnant doing it standing up, right? (eh...wrong, for those who don't know). Her sister, Chloe O’Reilly’s Dolores, is a good girl with bad desires, otherwise known as having a healthy curiosity about sex. She’s being led into temptation by the youngest girl of them all, Venetia Bowe’s Cactus, whose healthy curiosities seek secret satisfaction because she’s not allowed to be curious. A girl who lives up to her name, all prickly and sharp. It might be a defence mechanism as her breasts are the size of blackberries and everyone sees her as a child. But Cactus knows all about peculiar poker games, practicing kissing, and what a man wants, courtesy of a hilarious scene as the romantic fallacies of Mills and Boon novels are laid bare. Even so, curiosity is a killer, and not just of youthful innocence.
David Rawle’s Ashanti Dan in Danti Dan.Image uncredited.
Though Danti Dan spoke of its time, its themes have aged frighteningly well. Under Arron Monaghan’s uncharacteristically uncertain direction, Danti Dan divides into two halves; a straight up comedy followed by a balanced drama post intermission. But the effect of the first half means pathos doesn’t land as effectively by the end. Compounded by characters being more archetypes or caricatures, with little nuance or subtlety. Given all we’ve learned about autism and other conditions in the intervening years, the car spotting Danti Dan isn’t a character here so much as a device, and not a well realised one at that. If sex is power and power corrupts, Cactus emerges as a corrupted villain. Mean, spiteful, manipulative, there’s little sense of vulnerability as she struggles to understand herself and her desires. Being instead a malignant villainess confirming the worse prejudices about sexually curious women. The female equivalent of Noel: a trope passing as a reality. If Ber and Noel improve second half, prior to that they’re both one trick ponies. While Ber is always engaging and credible and grows in stature, Noel, alas, is initially a prancing horse pitched so high he’s impossible to take serious. Like watching Biff from Back To The Future swaggering around Sophie’s Choice. Granted, post intermission Noel and Ber find balance and bring greater depth, but you wish they’d done so from the beginning. Only Dolores strikes the right balance throughout, Chloe O’Reilly turning in a stunningly detailed performance as an innocent abroad, smarter and more stupid than the rest, trapped between tradition and desire.
If Moxley’s realism is underscored by smart metaphors, it’s reflected in Naomi Faughan’s set with its phallic monument which the girls, at one point, clean, making vivid the shadow these girls live under. A man’s world where women suffer for being playthings whose desires don’t matter. Conveyed as an idea more than an experience; intimacy and movement coordinator Brian Burroughs failing to come to grips with the plays sexual demands. Intimacy scenes having the sexual energy of a comic routine, or a medical exam. Physical contact occasionally uncomfortable to watch because the cast look uncomfortable. Even allowing for the tensions and vagaries of touring, this performance being at Mullingar Arts Centre, the emotional whirlwind didn’t achieve critical mass as a result.
Venetia Bowe as Cactus in Danti Dan.Image uncredited.
Despite appearing to spend half its budget on herbal cigarettes, and immersing itself in obvious Seventies hits, Livin' Dred's Danti Dan avoids nostalgia and offers history as immediacy, ensuring Moxley's play still cuts close to the bone. In terms of consent and disability, or lived visceral experience, it could have cut even closer. Yet like its three curious girls, it seems afraid to give itself permission to explore scary places. Skimming the surface rather than plumbing the depths. Doing enough to ensure an enjoyably entertaining evening. Not a bad thing to settle for, but there's more to be had here.
Danti Dan by Gina Moxley, presented by Levin' Dred Theatre, is currently on tour.
For more information visit Livin' Dred Theatre.