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  • Chris O'Rourke

Dublin Theatre Festival 2021: The First Child

The First Child image credit Jack Phelan


He's a busy man, Enda Walsh. Hot on the heels of the brilliant Medicine comes his latest offering, The First Child. Following The Second Violin and The Last Hotel, The First Child is the final instalment in the trilogy of operas written and directed by Walsh, with music by composer Donnacha Dennehy. And it's fair to say they've kept their very best wine till last.

No cheap Barolo this. The First Child proves a rare vintage. A tale of bullies and the bullied, it opens like Fatal Attraction if it was directed by Hitchcock. A psychological thriller about a woman Karen, stalking new dad, Simon, and his suspicious wife, Alva. Just when you think you have it figured out, you suddenly have to think again. And then again. With more twists than a corkscrew, The First Child keeps you hooked till the very dark end. And even then you're left thinking.

Sarah Shine, Joan Sheehy and Caia Leseure in The First Child. Photo by Ste Murray

Juxtaposing everyday conversations with repeated abstract phrases, the comic banalities of baby carriages, bad tinder dates, and boring couples are nudged by dark, bizarre musings suggesting powers and forces beyond sight or consciousness. Delivered by an excellent Children's Chorus and a sublime Eric Jurenas, entering sporadically and informing proceedings like Backward Talking Man on Twin Peaks. Throughout, there's a sense of the cinematic, reinforced by Jamie Vartan's superb set, Jack Phelan's stunning video design and Alan Silverman's evocative lighting. The cinematic also informing Dennehy's superb score. Built not so much from sounds looking for melodies so much as melodies splintering under unbearable pressure. Dennehy's music strong as steel, yet sounding like it might fracture or explode at any moment. Beautifully realised by Crash Ensemble under conductor Ryan McAdams.

Niamh O’Sullivan and Emmett O’Hanlon in The First Child. Photo by Ste Murray.

As for singing, it's difficult to recall such a diversity of magnificence in recent times, with voices complimenting each other so completely. To call Eric Jurenas a revelation is to understate it considerably, not so much singing as channeling angels. Grounding coming in the form of baritone Emmett O'Hanlon and scene stealing tenor Dean Power; both superb. Soprano Sarah Shine and mezzo-soprano Niamh O'Sullivan are apt to leave you gobsmacked. If O'Sullivan suggests the classic Hitchcock blonde with a brain of her own, Shine undergoes more costume changes than any performer should have to endure; both sounding sublime, their performances controlled to perfection. As is young dancer Caia Leseure, choreographed by Emma Martin, mesmerising as she tries give shapes and patterns to the wild, dangerous energies coursing through her. Joan Sheehy as the older woman who, along with Leseure, suggests a mirror to Karen's past and future rounds out an impressive cast.

The First Child. Photo by Ste Murray

A frenzy of genres, The First Child weaves operatic with cinematic, thriller with horror, rich comedy with deep tragedy creating a seamlessly satisfying whole. If, for Karen, there's a suggestion of the controlling hand of destiny, as if everything was leading to that inevitable moment, the same might be said for the conclusion to Walsh's and Dennehy's trilogy. The Second Violin and The Last Hotel are astounding. The First Child is simply magnificent.

The First Child, written and directed by Enda Walsh, music by Donnacha Dennehy, presented by Landmark Productions in association with Irish National Opera, presented in partnership with Crash Ensemble with the support of The Irish Times runs as part Dublin Theatre Festival 2021 at the O'Reilly Theatre until October 9.

The First Child will be live streamed on October 9 then available on demand until October 23.


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