Dublin Theatre Festival 2023: Breathwork
Kelli-Ann Masterson and Michelle O’Rourke in Breathwork. Image uncredited
So it begins. Or ends. Not with a bang, but a whisper. A requiem for the dying in impenetrable darkness. The select audience seated in a circle around a beam of blue light. Inside of which three figures stand in nervous desperation as music growls like a threat. Éna Brennan’s eschatological reflections on environmental end times, Breathwork, steeped in the chimes of doom. Singers Andrew Gavin, Michelle O’Rourke and Kelli-Ann Masterson suggestive of Macbeth's cautionary witches, or ghosts of forgotten pagan gods, stalk Sabine Dargent's pitch black set. Slowly they circle, half shadows full of bewildered sadness, fearfully searching each other’s face for an answer as to why. Brennan’s music often intentionally overpowering Breathwork's singing where voices, like Isaiah, sound older than time. Prophetically calling through the storm, uttering half heard whispers, mouthing in silence. Lines shooting like slivers of warning, lodging like arrows as eyes pass, half pleading, half in accusation. Brennan’s soaring score laced with fear leavened danger. The emotional charge igniting David Pountney’s heavy handed libretto.
A follow-on sequence seems Christian in comparison, built on choral harmonies, like a choir sharing an agreed ritual. Again the dark, with Alan Mooney’s astonishing light design risking Breathwork looking better than it sounds. Singers intimately gathered inside the semi-lit circle sing refrains before bodies slip away into the shadows. Music now a death dirge, a keening, a longing for what is, what was, and what might be no more. Till hope becomes an empty stage. The final sounds a rapping on the coffin, a death rattle, an expiring breath. Silence.
Skirting an awkward space between installation and performance, Breathwork succeeds by virtue of its excellent design, superlative voices and superb music. Yet the libretto struggles to evoke sympathy, like a priest quoting scripture trying to terrify you with images of eternal damnation. Thankfully design, the interplay of voices, and Brennan’s often aggressive score elevate the experience into something that asks more of us in terms of environmental responsibility. Part of a larger work currently in development, Breathwork is not quite a lead single from the forthcoming album so much as a stand alone EP. A twenty minute taster that has an identity all its own. One well worth listening to.
Breathwork by Éna Brennan, presented by Irish National Opera, runs at Project Arts Centre until Sept 30 as part of Dublin Theatre Festival 2023.