Dublin Theatre Festival 2021: Stronger
Scott Graham, Mary Murray in Stronger. Image by Ros Kavanagh
The road to Stronger is paved with good intentions. Like Janice, an arts teacher who smudges the teacher/pupil boundaries to help a disadvantaged student who then rapes her. Or her frustrated husband Rob, feeling like collateral damage as his wife struggles to move on, every effort to help driving them further apart. In Geoff Power's ambitious Stronger the need for closure after a horrendous crime opens a pathway to Restorative Justice. A process whereby victims are given an opportunity to meet the perpetrators so both can move forward with their lives. A noble idea given a loud voice in this brave production. One that raises many heavy issues, but ultimately proves incapable of carrying their weight.
Mary Murray and Marcus Lamb in Stronger. Image by Ros Kavanagh
Though Stronger lands some powerful punches, it suffers for trying to ensure all its points get made. Feeling over written to accommodate its message, usually at the expense of character. Which director Paul Meade struggles to reconcile, a ghostly Janice often confusing as a shadowy voyeur looking in on other scenes. When Stronger does hit home, it's courtesy of an impressive cast who slip its instructive constraints. Mary Murray is a performer who cannot lie. Which is why her naive, super lovely, hi-energy teacher is like watching someone trying to wriggle into clothes that don't fit. But get into the muck and grime of the experience, and Murray becomes visceral and alive, her recollection of the rape one of many highlights, both performatively and technically. Marcus Lamb as her devoted if overbearing husband has an uphill struggle, being less a character so much as a device to frustrate and be frustrated. Luckily Lamb, like Murray, is the quality of actor who squeezes every drop of truth from whatever they can find, scattered amidst lots of points being made and lots of positions being taken. Some, like the ending, looking decidely shaky, designed to promote an idealised RJ model rather than the characters it should be serving.
In writing Stronger, Power's work teaching creative writing in prisons inspired him to want to articulate the victims voice. What he articulates splendidly is the perpetrators voice. Assisted in no small measure by an excellent Scott Graham as Damon, utterly compelling as a young, easily led teenager with a volatile streak trying hard to be harder than he is. In contrast to his brother Zippo, a less convincing Fionntán Larney, hands thrust down his tracksuit fronts like caricature of a bad boy trying to sound menacing. Jennifer O’Dea as a police officer and RJ facilitator shows great finesse. Though given the overwhelming success of her brief RJ session, it's hard to swallow without a pinch of salt, looking like an airbrushed RJ commercial, or something more at home on the Disney Channel. RJ can be messy, hard, painful, and often things remain unresolved. It's not a cure all panacea. Little of which is in evidence here.
Mary Murray in Stronger. Image by Ros Kavanagh
Like the canvas in Maree Kearns's clever set, depicting an unfinished painting lacking colour, the metaphor proves double edged as it could also refer to Stronger. It may be based on a true life incident, but that only informs what it wants to say, not how it goes about saying it. And what it wants to say is vitally important. How it goes about saying it might knock you down occasionally, but it never knocks you out, feeling a little too clean and tidy. Mark Galione's lighting, Michael Stapleton's music and sound, and John Galvin's video design compensate by creating a lurking sense of tension and oppressiveness. Yet it's when Murray and Graham really get to shine that you understand the importance of what Power is trying to get at.
Stronger by Geoff Power, presented by Gúna Nua runs at Smock Alley Theatre as part of Dublin Theatre Festival 2021 until October 9.
A special public forum accompanies this production. Presented as a webinar, the forum will feature a discussion based on the themes of Restorative Justice raised in the play. The panel will include national and international Restorative Justice experts including academics, advocates and legal practitioners. Online, Oct 7, 4p.m. Ticket available at links below.