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  • Chris O'Rourke

Dublin Theatre Festival 2023: Volcano

Volcano. Image by Emilija Jefremova


It’s odd seeing remounts of relatively recent productions in Dublin Theatre Festival. Yet in the case of Luke Murphy’s multi-award winning Volcano, it’s a welcome state of affairs. A darling of the Galway Arts Festival in July, where it originally premiered in 2021, Volcano is a remarkable piece of durational dance theatre. Serving up existential inquiry wrapped in Sixties sci-fi, a dash of Beckett and a ton of theatrical ingenuity.

Broken into four, forty-five minute sections, it’s essential to see all four to appreciate Volcano’s rich interrogation of art, life, culture, what it means to be human and is there a point to it all? Its ruse of Pod 261 undertaking a space voyage with two passengers a neat conceit allowing dancers Luke Murphy and Will Thompson to undertake several explorations. Not so much into outer space as inner space. Exploring what they see, project, think of the world. What they think they think, trapped in a room behind glass like a lab experiment. Its wallpaper peeling, its carpet tiles worn, the furniture, including a temperamental wireless, bordering on the antique. Alyson Cummins’ brilliant set evoking a present through the past through which they’re trying to reach the future. Looking back to look forward.

After a tidy intro to The Amber Project via black and white TV for some context, an opening duet sees classic images formed and dropped. A recurring device with images from art and popular culture looming large as momentary tableaux. A device which also helps mark the passing of time. All the while Murphy and Thompson race around shifting lights, resetting the camera, then jumping into action at the unexpected prompting of the radio. A one way receiver reminding them there’s a bigger world out there. Perhaps other species. Document everything, all your experiences. Let them know you were here. Keep to the prescribed course. Don’t try to escape. You might get lost, like a lone diver, looking at other creatures looking back at you.

At times ingenuously crafted images of The Sistine Chapel, The Pieta, Tiananmen Square, ET, raising the flag over the Reichstag are offset by dynamic scenes highlighting the artificiality of chat shows, the awkwardness of wedding speeches, and several popular dance crazes. Sections Two and Three commencing with wind themed solos. Thompson’s graceful routine, like a leave buffeted in a breeze, juxtaposed with Murphy’s storm driven sequence opening the third section. Which sees Murphy on stage alone. An impression of William Shatner’s rendition of Rocket Man speaking to the loneliness of the solitary lighthouse keeper slowly going mad. Realising we do not exist alone, we only ever exist in relationship to others. Recovered in the final section which again opens with a duet in which bodies float weightless. Opening into an ending that serves as a beginning, with narrative becoming clearer. Even as walls being torn down reveal the tragedy at the heart of humanity. Thinking art offers a way out when it’s only ever cave paintings on a wall. Cold comfort. But stay the course. Grab the bull by the horns. Keep digging, in vain. We can’t go on. We go on. Begging the question, what is it you’re looking for?

In every respect, Volcano is a masterpiece. Its interplay of disciplines married in pitch perfect timing. Stephen Dodd’s endlessly manipulated lighting, Pat Rathaya’s constantly changing costumes, Rob Moloney’s astonishingly brilliant composition and sound design capturing the inner and outer projections of Murphy and Thompson. Whose physical lexicon, whether strutting like Night at the Roxbury, or articulating movements of signature beauty through sweat soaked bodies pushed to their limits, are gorgeously realised. Like a Tennyson epic, Volcano is poetry in motion. Each section a stanza, each re-reading offering fresh rewards. Asking big and small questions, it playfully takes existentialism to task. If life’s meaning is what we make it, is this the best we can do? These shallow entertainments, these obsessions with recording ourselves jumping through the same old hoops, these fading efforts at art? Is the mind endlessly creating forms for fear of facing the silence? Is this really the best we can do? In the case of Volcano, its best couldn’t get any better.

Volcano by Luke Murphy, created by Luke Murphy with Adam Burton, Emily Terndrup, Lily Ockwell, Will Thompson and Diarmuid Armstrong, presented by Luke Murphy’s Attic Projects, runs at The Lir until October 1 as part of Dublin Theatre Festival 2023.

For more information visit Dublin Theatre Festival 2023

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