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  • Chris O'Rourke

Dear Ireland continues

The Abbey Theatre's Dear Ireland - Damien Dempsey. Image uncredited.

The recent announcement of Abbey co-artistic directors Graham McLaren and Neil Murray's departure in July 2021 has been greeted by some as a disgrace, by others as long overdue. Wafting in like a breath of fresh air to take the Abbey's poisoned chalice in 2016, the likeable duo's open armed approach aimed to kick open the doors of the Abbey in favour of a new inclusiveness, their introduction of free previews proving a universal success. Yet many argue they should have closed the doors shortly after to better shape the Abbey's future. A trail of productions and co-productions with outside companies might have made the Abbey a welcoming venue, but the welcome was sometimes more impressive than the quality of the work, or the opportunities being offered, with the Abbey often resembling an undiscerning venue for hire. Complaints were made at the highest level. Heaven only knew what might come next. Concerts possibly? The audience writing shows?

Funny you should mention that. In "Dear Ireland's" fifth instalment a welcome is extended to the Abbey audience to respond and reflect on the current difficulties brought on by Covid. A welcome is also extended to musician Damien Dempsey, who, along with a host of readers, including actors and politicians, shares in an evening of song, spoken word and poetry built around the relatively dead practice of letter writing. Having invited written responses from the public, and received in excess of 400 letters, twenty were then selected to be read by a cast of rotating voices. Always one body on stage at any one time, the finished readings to be broadcast on the Abbey's Youtube channel for six months. 

Whether the Abbey should double up as a music venue is a question for less troubled times, though an impressive Lankum, by all accounts, did the cause no harm at the weekend. For now, Dempsey's musical interludes see his muscular vocals delivering heartfelt songs to compliment "Dear Ireland's" diverse array of stories. Yet with many of the letters sharing striking similarities in tone and theme, the end result often sounds like a prolonged, no craic, party political broadcast. Or a Dail sessions you might find yourself wanting to sleep through in places.

The Abbey Theatre's Dear Ireland - Minister Catherine Martin TD reading 'We Must Create' by Stephen James Smith. Image uncredited.

With many letters berating the past and/or present of Irish society, the future looks none too bright neither, given that nothing seems to have changed, or changed enough, despite referendums, rebellions, and whatever else you have. Gay, immigrant, trans and other voices lament what's been done, what's not been done, and what needs to be done as we try reshape what it means to be Irish. Raising questions about whose voices you're being allowed to hear, whose voices are shaping the culture, and about the deafening silences, political, cultural, and personal, surrounding them.

If it all sounds like misery loving company, there's a lot of heart here too. Holly Lusted's letter, read by Florence Adebambo, is utterly captivating. Be Safe, Be Seen sees dead words coming back to life as award winning journalist, Fintan O'Toole, delivers a self penned reminder to look out for those forgotten during Covid. As is to be expected, O'Toole's prose is theatrically, politically, and poetically robust, like gossamer threads of interconnection. And his delivery isn't half bad either. Indeed all non-professional performers, including Dublin Lord Mayor, Hazel Chu, and Minister Catherine Martin TD, hold their own with the professional cast. Non-professional writers, whose letters constitute the majority of the readings, also impressively hold their own as they discuss Covid's impact on an aspiring leaving cert student, a socially distant immigrant, the elderly, and a host of other ordinary people experiencing extraordinary circumstances, delivering a series of solo performances to dip in and out of over the coming six months.

The Abbey Theatre's Dear Ireland - Florence Adebambo reading a letter by Holly Lusted. Image uncredited.

Concluding with a letter by President Michael D. Higgins, read by Mrs. Sabina Higgins, the plight of cultural spaces and those who work in them, and how artists have been negatively impacted by Covid, are superbly rendered. The importance of recognising the arts as an essential basic service is wonderfully emphasised. A letter addressed to all the heads of state in Europe, and to the European institutions, advocates for reimagining our commitment to supporting the arts. Moving and inspirational, it's a rousing call that begs engagement. Even when the cultural space "Dear Ireland" inhabits often forgets that politics is not the only cultural song worth singing. That even boxers take a break between the rounds.

No one can fault the unbridled enthusiasm of McLaren and Murray who wear their hearts and best intentions on their sleeves in "Dear Ireland". Often delivering in the strangest places. Like the tops and tails song by Ray Harman and Lisa Lambe, sung in Irish, which is toe curlingly gorgeous. Still, in this instalment, politics loom heavy and large, and the craic isn't quite up to ninety, often being strangled lifeless within the political zeitgeist's vice grip. Like sitting next to that self-serious expert who has a problem for every solution, you might find yourself, at times, wanting to switch barstools. And not because of your privilege, or personal discomfort. Yes, he's some pertinent things to say. He's nothing if not having pertinent things to say. But it can all get reductively dull for saying precious little else.

Undoubtedly "Dear Ireland" is important and good for you. Like a large dose of Syrup of Figs. A little more wine, or whiskey, to wash it all down, even a cultural giggle or two, would have been nice. You'd wager there were one or two amongst the other 380 letters. You'd certainly hope so.

"Dear Ireland's" fifth instalment premiered 7.30pm on Monday, 10 August 2020. It is available on the Abbey's Youtube channel for the next six months. Link included below:


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