• Chris O'Rourke

Dublin Theatre Festival 2021: The Book of Names


The Book of Names. Photo credit Pablo Cassinoni

*****

ANU. Theatre's innovative outliers. Landmark, one of Ireland's premiere production companies. Each responsible for some of the most exciting productions of recent decades. Joining forces for The Book of Names, a site specific, immersive theatre experience in The Pumphouse, Dublin Port. So much for the facts. And The Book of Names deals in little else but facts. But under Louise Lowe's irresistible alchemy, facts quickly turn into magic.


It commences quietly, with a conceit you don’t see coming. Not for the last time will you be surprised by what you don’t see coming. That's how magic works. And there's palpable magic at work in The Book of Names. Lowe's theatrical grimoire about brothers in arms fighting for Ireland's freedom, only to be divided by the civil war that follows. Conjured up by a wild incantation invoked under an inclement sky. Cycling back from the past, the first ghost of Q Company. A secret cell of the IRA. Returning home to the iconic Pumphouse whose walls are steeped in their memory.

The Book of Names. Image by Ros Kavanagh


It was from here Q company helped smuggle in over 97% of IRA weapons during the war of independence. Where a wounded victim hid from ruthless English Officer, Hoppy Hardy, after he tried murder him on Capel Street Bridge. Where arguments about the Custom House attack signalled the beginnings of a division. Leading to several deaths, victims often selected from one of two book of names; one a list of port workers, the other the IRA's intelligence dossier. A ledger of photographs and address collected by a woman photographer and a ring leader you'd never suspect if he stood next to you. Like the history you find yourself standing next to but might never know was there. Directed along one of two of its paths by fate in the shape of a terrific Michael Glenn Murphy.


History is given present immediacy by designer Owen boss who recreates details of time and place, right down to the detritus, with remarkable tenacity, using many items from the period to evoke an atmosphere that doesn't draw you in so much as absorb you completely. Yet Boss isn't alone in displaying technical brilliance. The tumultuous, almost symphonic layering of Philip Stewart's sweeping sound score enriches the experience with its breathtaking power and subtle sensitivity. Similarly Sarah Jane Shiels' marvellous lighting which, along with Jack Scullion's superb costumes breathe the past into the visceral present.

The Book of Names. Image by Ros Kavanagh


All brought to life by a remarkable ensemble in Lewis Brophy, Tony Doyle, Darragh Feehely, Etta Fusi, Úna Kavanagh Michael Glenn Murphy, Jamie O'Neill, Thomas Reilly and Matthew Williamson. Actors, dancers, boxers, painters, older hands and very first timers. Each excelling to create a work stronger than their impressive individual parts. Like Williamson, a unique dancer with a signature style. Moving as if a conduit for forces he can barely contain, muscles and tendons tensed, propelled like a whirling dervish and being simply jaw dropping to behold. Or Úna Kavanagh, bringing movie star glamour to a world dominated by boys and men. Materialising in smoke beyond the window of a Model Ford T. Even when in a room on her own, without an audience, just the possibility of a passing glance, Kavanagh remains focused, alert, riveting.


Yet the real star of The Book of Names is Louise Lowe. If Lowe prefers her cast and crew to take the plaudits, and even acknowledging their immeasurable collaborative contributions, they didn't write The Book of Names. Didn't conceive it. Didn't undertake the forensic level of historical research characteristic of Lowe's work. Didn't direct it to quiet perfection.

The Book of Names. Image by Ros Kavanagh


While the Book of Days is spellbinding, spells don't only induce enchantments, they're often used to break them. Like the spell of forgetfulness cast over a forgotten or rewritten history denying us access to the full richness of our past. Experienced here in all its tense, glorious, agonising, confusing, violent, suspicious and exhilarating immediacy. Do yourself the best favour you’ll do yourself all year, go see The Book of Names. One of the best experiences of this or any festival. For those who put credence in the star rating system, the opening bid is five.


The Book of Names, written and directed by Louise Lowe, presented by ANU and Landmark Productions, runs at The Pumphouse, Dublin Port as part of Dublin Theatre Festival 2021 until Oct 23.


For more information vist Dublin Theatre Festival, ANU or Landmark Productions.

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