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  • Chris O'Rourke

Dublin Theatre Festival 2022: The Boy Who Never Was

Molly O’Mahony, Matthew Malone, Maeve O’Mahon, Konstantin Stanche in The Boy Who Never Was.

Photograph: Ste Murray


Art as compass. Art as comfort. All of which amounts to art as politics. Only whose compass is it? Who gets comforted and who gets confronted? Who decides and with whom does art align? And what do you do with those who don't play by your rules? Just some of the questions provoked by Brokentalkers The Boy Who Never Was, where history proves more of a circle than a straight line. Wherein singing the same old song sees the song remain the same, even if some of the lyrics get changed here and there.

Using Icelandic author Sjón's award winning novella Moonstone: The Boy Who Never Was as a jumping off point, a rather modest art attack ensues in which theatre tells a tale of cinema. Or rather two cinemas, and a young, gay boy, Máni who loves movies in 1918 Reykjavik. Or is that modern Reykjavik? Or 1929? Hard to tell with time, like history, being one big, Dada-like, surrealist mishmash of war, pandemic, movie making and orgasmic volcanoes. And if that sounds a little like history repeating itself, that's kind of the point, and the problem.

Adapted and directed by Feidlim Cannon and Gary Keegan, theatrically The Boy Who Never Was is less engaging than its themes. Lots of helmets and headgear, including masks, might enrich visual interest but they're too few and far between. Two screens, lots of shadow, and some old time songs wheel out the tropes as often as they challenge them, aside from a delightfully re-imagined history of the musical and a cleverly managed antigen test. Matthew Malone, Maeve O'Mahony and Molly O'Mahony, not exactly stretched or challenged as an avant garde film crew, turn in competent performances. Konstantin Stanchev's Máni, exuding about as much warmth as a bitchy Puritan zealot, proves the type you'll likely have little problem with what he's saying, just with him saying it.

If in The Boy Who Never Was a war (WWI), a pandemic (Spanish Flu), and a hatred of difference are indicative of 1918, the temptation to see history as repeating itself is as much a fallacy as a fact. Take homosexuality. In 1918, the predominant psychological view was that it was a sexual deviancy, up there with pedophilia, or necrophilia. Homosexuals seen as deserving of being cancelled. Like Gary Glitter. Kevin Spacey. Jimmy Saville. It was a public service writing them out of history. Or so went the received wisdom. Knowing better, we do better today. Don't we? One thing's for sure, hindsight is apt to be just as blind when it views the past from the values of the present. For maybe the past does repeat. But maybe what it's saying isn't what we think. Maybe it's saying something we don't really want to hear. The song the same, the lyrics different.

Like Cinema Paradiso with a surreal, gay twist, The Boy Who Never Was aims to disturb the comfortable and comfort the disturbed. But doesn't it really comfort the comfortable? Like the bike lanes smuggled onto the North quays under cover of COVID, restricting access for cars to the city. Sending a message to the old, infirm, the disabled, those ill or with families of young children, or simply having poor access to poorer public transport in places like West Dublin, people who simply need a car for access. The message clear; utopian Dublin doesn't want you. Even if you have an electric car you're not welcome. Even if it is your city. Even as theatre audiences have declined. It's already been decided.

Who does art comfort? With whom does it align?

One thing's for sure, even when not at their theatrical best, Brokentalkers still provoke and subvert better than most.

The Boy Who Never Was, presented by Brokentalkers, runs as part of Dublin Theatre Festival 2022 at The Samuel Beckett Theatre till October 16.

For more information visit Dublin Theatre Festival 2022

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