• Chris O'Rourke

Elsewhere


Elsewhere by Michael Gallen, on the Abbey Stage. Image: Ros Kavanagh


****

Communism's failure to find a foothold in the West, or deliver the proletariat Promised Land in Russia and the East, often gets attributed to it modelling itself like a Church. Its ruthless leaders exercising papal-like infallibility destroying those they were meant to serve. All in the name of the party. By that rationale you'd wonder why Ireland isn't the greatest Communist country in the world? Some gave it a go. As far back as 1919 staff of the Monaghan Asylum, together with its 700 residents, locked themselves in and established an independent Soviet commune. Inspired and guided by Union leader, Peadar O’Donnell. An act of defiance in response to horrendous conditions compounded by the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic. An act celebrated by Michael Gallen in his latest opera Elsewhere.


It doesn't take a genius to see hospitals then and hospitals today share frightening similarities. Poor working conditions, poor pay, history not so much repeating itself as looking like it never moved on. Libretto by Gallen, along with Annemarie Ní Churreáin and Dylan Coburn Gray lets characters highlight such issues rather than relying on an excess of union speak. Which, as anyone who's ever sat though a trade union conference will confirm, is often steeped in such rhetorical tedium as to be a foolproof remedy for insomnia.

Daire Halpin in Elsewhere by Michael Gallen, on the Abbey Stage. Image: Ros Kavanagh

If Communist tropes loom large; red flag, red star, red beret; Gallen and co. wisely understand that people describe politics far better than politics. Take Celine, around whom the story imaginatively unfolds. Or is remembered many years later. Nervous, jittery, struggling to make sentences, her mind oscillates between the impersonal experiences of institutionalised care and a moment in time when she mattered. When, in her mind, she led a revolution, being 'locked in' given a different resonance. Even if it makes Communism sound like the ramblings of a lunatic, or enough to turn you into one. Too many conferences perhaps.


If Marx and co. provide the politics, Brecht supplies the theatricality. Meta-theatricality that is, with lashings of alienation effect, Katie Davenport's staging suggesting a stage rather than a set. Actors breaking character to remind you that they, along with the musicians, are acting. Under Tom Creed's clever direction, it comes together into a wildly engaging experience, even if projections by Luca Truffarelli add little but grey distraction. Offsetting the political with the personal, Creed's two week revolution, looking like a wild weekend in a dormitory, is juxtaposed with images of Electro Shock Therapy sensitively and beautifully crafted. Some dime store psychology, along with a creative stand off with musicians of Ensemble Miroirs Étendus, conducted superbly by Fiona Monbet, adds lots of personality.

Elsewhere by Michael Gallen, on the Abbey Stage. Image: Ros Kavanagh


Musically, there's a case could be argued that Elsewhere is more resonant of a Sondheim musical, or a fractured tone poem with operatic interludes rather than an opera. A notion supported by the uneven quality of singing by Daire Halpin, Amy Ní Fhearraigh, Adrian Dwyer, Sarah Shine, Sinéad O’Kelly, Fearghal Curtis and Aaron O’Hare. While duets and solos prove considerably strong, most notably Halpin and Ní Fhearraigh, choral work never quite achieves operatic standards, even as it delivers a hauntingly effective ending against hollow acoustics. Individually, voices often transcend the limits of singing. Halpin and Ní Fhearraigh registering pain, doubt, fear or hope like conduits of sound from the depths of the soul. Voice an integral instrument rather than just a vehicle for text. Ensuring Gallen's score delivers musical scenes straddling that place between musical theatre and opera. Uniquely its own thing which, as in the final duet set against a fading chorus, has breathtaking moments that can rouse and move.

With Capitalism replacing terrorism as the world's most wanted super villain, Communism, like a well preserved Bond, is again put forward by some as the world's hero saviour. Despite its good intentions always ending up as roads to hell. Yet if Capitalism can't or won't, Elsewhere gives no reason to believe Communism can or will. Who doesn't like living in a commune? An awful lot more than you'd think. It's not even clear Celine does. Making the bright red star less suggestive of power to the people so much as the wistful twinkling of a Christmas wish. I do believe, I do believe, I do believe.

Elsewhere by Michael Gallen, on the Abbey Stage. Image: Ros Kavanagh

Hospitals, the housing crisis, homelessness, all are pressing issues needing immediate attention. If history teaches that Communism, like current Government policy, isn't up to the task, Elsewhere's search for political alternatives is hugely resonant. For Elsewhere dares to hope. As indeed it should. O'Donnell and his co-conspirators won their battle for improved pay and conditions it should be remembered. The convenient forgetting of which Elsewhere looks to set to rights. Made all the more enjoyable by it being unafraid to laugh at itself for fear of puncturing its own seriousness. Ensuring you take it all the more seriously. Serving up a cacophony of delight that is fun, thought provoking, and often moving.


Elsewhere, by Michael Gallen, presented by Straymaker and the Abbey Theatre in association with Miroirs Étendus and Once Off Productions, runs at The Abbey Theatre until November 20.


For information visit The Abbey Theatre



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