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  • Chris O'Rourke

Dublin Theatre Festival 2021: Once Before I Go

Desmond Eastwood, Matthew Malone, Martha Breen in Once Before I Go. Image Ros Kavanagh


Remember Dublin in the great late 1980s? No big deal if you don't. Phillip McMahon doesn't remember it either. Fortunately he knows lots of people who do remember and didn't think it all that great. People who grew up gay in Catholic Ireland when queer bashing and the criminalisation of homosexuality went hand in hand. When the devatastion of AIDS inspired some to up their fight for decriminalisation. Inspiring others to get the hell out and maybe never come back. Or return when others had won the battle and made it safer to do so. In McMahon's hugely ambitious Once Before I Go, nostalgia and sentimentality rub shoulders with some hard facts and reclaimed history. Yet weighed down by a sense of responsibility, Once Before I Go gets caught in a tension between the fabulous and the formal. Something director Selina Cartmell frequently resolves, delivering a ménage à trois of entertainment, education and enlightenment.

Aisling O'Sullivan and Sean Campion in Once Before I Go. Image Ros Kavanagh

No easy feat. Set over three time periods, 1987, 1991 and 2019, the dates might fence off the beginnings of ACT UP and striving for change with the pre-covid, post-marriage equality Ireland of today, but history is everything that happned in between. Everything from chemsex and dating apps to marriage equality, referenced briefly during some stirring conversations. Francis O'Connor's set looking like its trying to historically overcompensate with huge, sliding numbers arranged into dates, like something from a Eurovision Song Contest. Taking up an inordinate amount of space, dwarfing, and distracting from, everyone else. Similar issues exist in relation to AIDS. A play about a Dubliner with AIDS, as opposed to AIDS in Dublin, those who remained and dealt with the crisis are never properly represented. Instead, Once Before I Go threads the mean streets of London with a brief, tragic detour to Paris. In which the diaspora of Dublin's gay past don't appear to have aged very well. Katie Davenport's costuming suggesting two paternally bickering grandparents.

Matthew Malone and Desmond Eastwood in Once Before I Go. Image Ros Kavanagh

Where Once Before I Go really succeeds is when its characters step out from the historical spotlight and shine on their own terms. Become three friends, the responsible Daithí, the reckless Bernard, and the restless Lynn, for whom the legacy of AIDS impacts their entire lives. For whom witty repartee with real talk mingle as they try come to terms with it. Friends whose early days were spent living the best of times during the worst of times, haunting the Classic Cinema like Brad, Janet and Frank-N-Furter, or long forgotten underground clubs whenever they could. Being young, reckless, sensible, passionate, heart broken and breaking hearts. Highlighting competing notions and narratives of what it means to be gay both then and now. How lesbians are often viewed through a gay mans gaze. The younger Lynn's attitude and activism defining her more than her sexuality, like a gay side kick. Giving an invested Martha Breen precious little to work with, making her engaging performance all the more winning.

Desmond Eastwood, Matthew Malone, Martha Breen in Once Before I Go. Image Ros Kavanagh

In contrast, Aisling O’Sullivan's older, wine-swilling, embittered Lynn cackles with energy and humour, her heart tattered and torn, yet still soft and beating. All beautfully captured by O'Sullivan. A perfect foil for Seán Campions superb older, in-recovery from sex and drugs Daithí. Striking a startling contrast with his younger responsible self, an equally superb Desmond Eastwood looking like Brad from The Rocky Horror Picture Show which Once Before I Go leans on heavily. The loud and cutting Jase, an impressive Sam Crerar, adds contemporary complexity with a trans theme echoing Lynn and Daithí's experiences of rejection, like history repeating itself. But everything is about Bernard. Talked of so much before you meet him, Matthew Malone has a tall task making the larger than lust Bernard live up to the hype. Which Malone does in scene stealing style, whether as a pink haired Frank-N-Furter, or resembling a wounded Saint Sebastian. If comfortable cabaret seating proves underused and arguably a phyrric victory, it is so worth it for Bernard's Celine Dion, Vegas styled moment, which might have benefited from a little more oomph.

Matthew Malone and Desmond Eastwood in Once Before I Go. Image Ros Kavanagh

In terms of gay theatrical classics, Once Before I Go is not quite an Angels in America, nor a Torch Song Trilogy, nor a Faultline, not being near as well crafted. Yet it is still remains hugely significant. And not just for marking the much anticipated re-opening of the Gate. San Francisco has its National AIDS Memorial Grove. The work of ACT UP, through writers like Sarah Schulman and Peter Staley, is beginning to be acknowledged, with a NETFLIX documentary muted on the horizon. Once Before I Go marks a step towards Ireland acknowledging our unacknowledged past. Including into our history those that never got to have histories. Like It's A Sin, Once Before I Go stumbles in places, buckling under the weight of its own ambitions and may not speak to everyone's experience. Yet it is a joyous, heartfelt, life affirming production reclaiming those we lost to AIDS. Stealing, melting and breaking your heart as it sets about lifting it higher.

Once Before I Go by Phillip McMahon, presented by The Gate Theatre, runs at The Gate as part of Dublin Theatre Festival 2021 until October 30.

For more information visit Dublin Theatre Festival 2021 or Gate Theatre.


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