Dublin Theatre Festival 2021: Rearing is Sparing
Denise McCormack and Karen Ardiff in Rearing is Sparing. Image Babs Daly.
Sometimes art and the zeitgeist collide unexpectedly. Take TKB's latest play Rearing is Sparing. In which two Dublin mothers speak to their unswerving love for their criminal sons. Commissioned by the Axis Ballymun before the tragic road accident some months back in which three criminals lost their lives and divided a nation. Following scenes at their funeral many felt celebrated their criminality and not their lives. Leading to a shambolic Joe Duffy show where their family argued they were good people who did bad things, and who had the human taken away from them by the media. Many shook their heads in agreement. Others vehemently disagreed. "So what? The guards at Auschwitz showed the same humanity. Firm friends. Good fathers. Devoted mothers." On this evidence alone Rearing is Sparing, part of Dublin Theatre Festival's eagerly anticipated 2021 programme, sets about bravely entering a potential minefield. One even Joe Duffy couldn't negotiate. But then Joe's not TKB, who's knockout Rearing is Sparing proves sensitive, smart, and (un)surprisingly funny. Forever conscious of never sensationalising, demonising nor romanticising the lives or the people involved.
With a mild Hitchcock flourish, Rearing is Sparing withholds its secrets till it's ready to tell. All we know for a long period is that Mrs Reynolds and Mrs Preston have spotted each other in a coffee shop near the courts. Both women are involved in the same trial and both have a problem with the other. Both have two sons who are like chalk and cheese. It soon emerges something happened between one or other of their boys. The word murder gets floated, but it's unclear what or who exactly did anything. As the fog clears over a series of alternating monologues the tension between both women thickens. Culminating in a delicately handled duologue that brings it all home, sensitvely, if a little too easily.
If Rearing is Sparing scintillates, Jason Byrne's excellent direction sets it on fire. Naomi Faughnan's grey walled set might look like an exercise in simplicity, but it reinforces the emphasis on mirroring. Both women, at identically opposite sides of the stage, dressed in black, sit with a knee crossed and an elbow resting on the long table separating them. They could be sisters. Doppelgängers. A theme echoed in the musicality of TKB's language as both women share and overlap on key phrases like choral incantations. Indeed, if the details of their lives are often sketched, it's the detail of their language which reveals them in their true resplendence; all pride, heartache, defiance and similarity. Rich in Dublin humour and expression, language sometimes risk both characters sounding like the same narrator. Yet in the hands Karen Ardiff and Denise McCormack, first night nerves and an unaccommodating cigarette box aside, it's a pitfall neatly avoided. Indeed, Ardiff and McCormack are mesmerising, delivering what might arguably be the duet of the festival. In which McCormack's rivetingly detailed, tea pot loving, toffee nose hating Mrs Preston might well prove to be one of its outstanding performances.
Not that Ardiff's performance is in any less invested. Rather Ardiff's Mrs Reynolds introduces a resolution near the end that makes for a bit of an ask. With action having taken place off stage, when things happen on stage there's been a build up of import that's not quite delivered on. Made convincing, thanks to a brilliant Ardiff, it's not narratively as compelling as Mrs Reynolds makes her brave announcement without any real sense of how she got there. It might be the only way for life to move forward, but it feels somewhat hurried and shoehorned to fit.
If the end feels uneasy for being a little too easy, it's because Rearing is Sparing usually dislikes easy answers, being unafraid of complicating matters. If it doesn’t hold these women to account, it's not afraid to ask about their complicity. It may suggest a solution, but it offers no resolution, just greater understanding. It takes a lot to sustain engagement in two people sitting on stage talking separately. But like Eugene O’Brien's Eden, Rearing is Sparing keeps you riveted and doesn’t pull it punches. It won’t be the most energetic spectacle you'll see this festival. But Ardiff and McCormack are sensational, their brilliantly crafted characters owning the stage. If Rearing is Sparing marks a transition for TKB, it's an immensely promising one. The play is dedicated to his mother, Susan. One suspects Mam will be very proud indeed.
Rearing is Sparing by TKB, runs at The Axis Ballymun as part of Dublin Theatre Festival 2021 until October 2. It is available on demand from Oct 4 - 10.