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  • Chris O'Rourke

Dublin Theatre Festival 2023: Ironbound

Olga Fedori and Aonghus Óg McAnally in Ironbound. Photo by Agata Stoinska.


The American Dream. Send me your tired huddled masses who, if they work hard enough, might become billionaires. Live the good life. Become queens of New York or kings of Chicago. The reality being it’ll more likely be New Jersey. And for conquer read get a low paid, factory job, or a job cleaning rich people’s houses, or both. As for hard work, it might just about help you to make the rent. The latter being the case for forty-two year old, Polish immigrant Darja. Following a man to America wanting to be a blues player, it became clear he wasn’t going to settle for her more modest dreams of security and money. The heart of America. The root of all evil. The lack of it not necessarily making for goodness. The need for it turning relationships into arrangements to try wrestle power from controlling men. Leaving Darja with a trail of two broken marriages, one reprobate son, a mailman lover sleeping with a rich woman, with the rent due and Darja out of a job. In Martyna Majok’s homage to her mother, Ironbound, the female immigrant experience is explored through disjointed episodes in Darja’s life. In a production loaded with glittering sparks, which never quite ignite into roaring flames.

Olga Fedori in Ironbound. Photo by Agata Stoinska.

On the evidence of Naomi Faughan’s confining set and Matt Burke’s graveyard lighting, both of which are superb, New Jersey isn’t likely to become a tourist trap anytime soon. Yet it’s a trap for Darja. A dead end street where she waits at a deserted bus stop, Godot like, for a bus that never arrives. Overhead wires and cables, like the chained fencing, a web of poverty impossible to break free from. Large looming skyscrapers etched against an oppressive sky another wall bearing down, forcing a minimised playing space. Pushed front and centre, Darja argues with the endlessly cheating Tommy. Their relationship a co-dependency of mutual failings now at breaking point. Not helped by her son Matthew stealing her car and her needing $3000 to get him into rehab. Which, if Tommy coughs up, she’ll stay with him. Not that Matthew wants rehab. But Darja is blinded by her love for him. And she’s tired. Down to the bones of her soul tired from trying so hard. Not that that will stop her when it comes to fighting for her son. Asking nothing for herself, to the point of refusing help, she would sell her soul for her child. Her life. Her body. Most costly of all, her pride.

Olga Fedori in Ironbound. Photo by Agata Stoinska.

While director Aoife Spillane-Hinks makes clear and often courageous choices, not all are likely to appeal to everyone. Foregrounding Darja’s strength, resilience and dignity, it never quite unlocks her frayed, frustrated self. Darja’s logical practicality seeing her hiding behind an impenetrable wall of pride. More robust than her cardboard shield, which she drops momentarily when faced with the kindness of a stranger when sleeping rough. A hooker with a heart of gold who offers her help for a night. The sensitively smart, rich kid Vic, a delightful Lewis Harris, garnering an impromptu hug but little else by way of connection or revelation. Darja, a victim who refuses to accept she’s a victim, trades in stoic practicalities, flint hard, arms folded against the world. Her emotions reined in behind her survivors wall, her defences killing her, too afraid to let them down. Leaving us to guess who she is, why she never went home, or went to Chicago to chase the bigger dream? A hurricane of wild, kinetic energies present in Olga Fedori’s magnetic performance, which crackles with electricity. Fedori bringing the thunder even as she never releases the lightning. Yet it’s there, like a pressure valve waiting to explode, wanting to scream beyond the exhaustion. Fedori looking restrained inside a self-consciousness staginess which glitches against the plays heightened realism. Seen in Konstantin Stanchev’s Maks, a wannabe Blues player and Darja’s first husband, never quite achieving convincing chemistry with Fedori. Their passionate scenes looking like a magazine photoshoot, all neat and tidy and drained of energy; a sanitising at odds with the play’s gritty realism. The dirty, messy energy of the streets, of down and outs, of deserted bus stops and derelict factories late at night, of the desperation when you can’t go on, yet go on. An energy never truly in evidence. The stoic Darja willing herself onwards with relentless force and fierceness, restraining her emotional energy behind dignified resilience.

Olga Fedori in Ironbound. Photo by Agata Stoinska.

An energy touched upon by a terrific Aonghus Óg McAnally as Tommy. A jittery, lonely loser, Tommy is a bad negotiator. His situation with Darja less a relationship so much as an arrangement where they argue over financial terms and conditions. Both engaged in a constant power play until Tommy agrees to help her if she’ll marry him, but whether from love or seeing it as the best bargain he’s likely to get it’s hard to say. History repeating itself, or a road not taken? Either way, it opens out not into an ending so much as a fresh beginning. The bittersweet, final image as likely to evoke hope, joy, sadness, or disappointment. It’s said that those who don’t take the hard road to heaven will take the comfortable road to hell. In Ironbound Darja has taken the hard road and it has taken her to hell. Her pride, clutched fiercely, wills her onwards for the sake of her child. She might not have had the life she dreamed of, but she will use every ounce of strength to ensure he has every chance of it. A new tomorrow might be slim, but it’s impossible to stop dreaming. Sometimes dreams do come true. Hope reigning eternal in the face of relentless opposition. Making Ironbound a poignant, powerful and heartbreakingly beautiful story.

Ironbound by Martyna Majok, an Abbey Theatre production, runs at The Abbey Theatre as part of Dublin Theatre Festival 2023, continuing until November 11

For more information visit Dublin Theatre Festival 2023 or The Abbey Theatre


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