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  • Chris O'Rourke

Dublin Theatre Festival 2023: Quake

Quake. Image Olga Kuzmenko


Ireland. Once the land of saints and scholars. From holy days to holy hours, religion determined how we lived. Until the church suffered a catastrophic fall from grace when found out to be a double agent working for the other side. Its demise leaving a huge vacuum in the national psyche. Leading some to wonder have we thrown out the spiritual baby with the religious bathwater? The desire for a new, more secular faith underpinning Janet Moran’s uplifting Quake. A play that owes as much to Ireland’s Catholic heritage as it does to a more sociological and psychological interpreation of spirituality.

Set in a room suggesting a museum after dark, six characters in search of their author, who not all are convinced exists, meet at a Quaker Meeting House on a weekly basis to undertake some light spiritual practice. Cleansing breaths, quietening of the mind, they allow the spirit to blow where it will, prompting them to talk. The spirit looking decidedly self-centred as they talk about their catastrophising selves. A six strong Church of the Spiritually Bewildered voicing concerns, prayers, hopes, meeting schedules for their fight against the closure of their centre, queries to help their spiritual reflections, or sitting silently saying nothing. Like a Secular Spiritual Support Group, or Contemplatives Anonymous, damaged souls converge in charismatic togetherness recognising fellow travellers lost along the way. One dying, one suffering dementia, one alienated from her son and new born grandchild. One estranged from his gay daughter, one stuck in his parent’s past and one tired of being sexualised and wondering where she belongs. Over the course of four seasons the tree outside their window plays out a death and resurrection show as a metaphor for loss preceeding renewal. Mirroring each character’s personal growth. Each experiencing a harrowing before learning kindness and acceptance. Safe in communal arms.

Elaine O'Dwyer in Quake. Image Olga Kuzmenko

If more a self-help guide than Teresa of Avila, Moran still owes much to a Richard Rohr styled revised Christianity and St.Ignatius Loyola’s examination of conscience. The latter being what characters essentially undertake, using each other as spiritual directors to whom they confess their sins as they take stock of themselves. Spiritually, Quake doesn’t go much deeper, shirking mystical experiences in favour of personal redemption. Trees, flowers, inhabiting the body in some excellent dance sequences by Muirne Bloomer, evoking a pantheistic, environmental friendly, community cures all collective where everyone is loved non judgementally. Moran’s character studies looking less than fleshed out as a result, more like shades of a single narrative voice voicing overlapping hopes and concerns. Even so, Ronan Leahy’s God fearing bigot, arms folded against the world, unravels beautifully by way of a terrific performance. Karen Ardriff’s failure as a mother, Ruaraí Heading grieving for parents, and Elaine O’Dwyer testing the waters each deliver cracking performances. Darkness though, is never shirked: those who cannot be redeemed, or for whom heaven on earth is an unlikely prospect. A brilliant John Olohan as a man suffering dementia who can’t be made right in this heaven on earth. Nor Alison McKenna’s doubting Thomasina, the cornerstone of the community looking to finally do some things for herself before she dies. The tension between community and individuality accepted rather than resisted. The final image leaving a bittersweet taste whilst explaining why Quake achieves more than mere spiritual clap trap. Even as Quake backs the spiritual horse both ways. Slipping a note to God in case She’s there, but getting on with life, accepting what is.

Throughout, director Conall Morrison crafts beautiful images highlighting the often cult like influence of the collective. As does Abraham “Fish” Allen with the most sensational three dimensional tree. Allen, along with Paul Keogan’s stunning set and lights pushing at the boundaries of the technologically possible within the theatrical frame. Denis Clohessy’s score a mix of cinematic sentiment and quirkiness. If it all gets tidily twee at the end, Moran’s community of individuals is no longer a place simply to be alone together. It’s a place you can come and go from. A place you belong to even when you’re not there. A little like home. A place where death is a lie. Quake, in the words of Julian of Norwich, being that in which “all shall be well, all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.” A place where bold girls and conflicted men can dream a little dream. You might not buy it all, but you're bound to love it none the less.

Quake by Janet Moran, presented by Once Off Productions and Mermaid Arts Centre, run at The Samuel Beckett Theatre as part of Dublin Theatre Festival 2023 until October 8

For more information visit Dublin Theatre Festival 2023

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