Ella Lily Hyland in HAMMAM. Image: Pat Redmond.
So this is the way the year will end, not with a whimper but a bang. ANU’s explosively brilliant HAMMAM suggesting The Abbey have kept their best wine till last. An historically true tale centred around a Turkish bath on O’Connell Street during the close of the Civil War, what unfolds is an Alamo for the Anti-Treaty side in which Cathal Brugha and a group of defiant women never say die as they fight for Ireland. Facing former comrades for refusing to surrender to a half baked republic minus its promised equality. Bringing to conclusion ANU’s Decade of Centenaries. Twenty-two projects since 2013 exploring key moments in Irish history. A feat of theatrical and historic importance unrivalled in the history of Irish theatre. Blisteringly brilliant in all imaginable ways.
Jamie O’Neill and Robbie O’Connor in HAMMAM. Image: Pat Redmond.
As is often the case with ANU, there’s more than one way to promenade through history, with two groups being sent off on opposing paths. The reformed Peacock unrecognisable as it opens into historical and liminal spaces. Offering a labyrinthian descent into the inner circles of hell where chairs cling to the roof, tribal rhythms beat, and blood smeared angels minister to the needs of the damned. Bodies bloodied, battered and broken tending injured men as four women refuse to lie down. To be ordered about. To sell themselves short to a treaty that robs them of their pride and promised equality. Ghaliah Conroy, Ella Lily Hyland, Úna Kavanagh and Sarah Morris a divine quartet searing your soul with kindness, camaraderie, gossip, heartbreak, offering knowing nods and shared, surreptitious smiles that make you part of writer and director Louis Lowe’s immaculately detailed conspiracy. Kavanagh a woman tending a wounded man whose eye is full of glass. Morris encountering a former comrade turned enemy in Peter Rothwell’s captured soldier, reliving her trauma and facing a horrible choice. Conroy transfixing whilst capturing the moment a grenade explodes. Hyland irresistible as a woman the other women can’t abide, yet who stands beside them none the less, her face ravaged with pain, her spirit battered but unbroken.
Jamie O’Neill in HAMMAM. Image: Pat Redmond.
From tea cups to old world whiskey bottles, Owen Boss and Maree Kearn’s superlative design provides the foundational ingredients for the alchemy that follows. In which Ciaran Bagnall (lights), Kevin Gleeson (sound) along with Kearns and Boss uncork the past so that even the dust, smells and shafts of shadow feel like another time. Saileóg O’Halloran’s detailed costumes adding the final touches to powerful images crafted from Lowe’s powerful text, alchemised in jaw dropping performances. Daragh Feehely's Rasputined styled monk highlighting the clash between the real and the ideal, condemning the Church’s immoral involvement in the new born nation. Robbie O’Connor electrifying as a rebel ready to die but awaiting his orders. Jamie O’Neill mesmerising as the man destiny burdened with the responsibilities of history. Moments flashing past like machine gun rounds, the room swirling as Conroy and Matthew Williamson dance an impassioned duet of rising heartbeats, a marriage on a battlefield of desire and dread while Oisín Thompson and Pattie Maguire observe like sphinxes. Yet always there’s the women. Cradling the tea cup, the damp cloth, the heart shared as life’s big scenes play out in another anonymous hotel bedroom. Desire, fear, choices, farewells. To a nation forgetting to remember its promises and to those trying to remember to forget. Rob Moloney’s affecting score, skirting close to the Celtic twilight, lures, subdues, arouses and seduces. The whole leaving you stunned and breathless.
Ghalia Conroy in HAMMAM. Image: Pat Redmond.
With HAMMAM, ANU reaffirm their reputation as the most exciting, original and innovative theatre company in Ireland. At whose core lies the genius that is Louise Lowe. That the self-effacing Lowe hasn’t yet been properly recognised, or elected to Aosdána, is not just a shame, it’s an outright crime. Lowe’s contribution to Irish art as a director, with or without ANU, as a visionary, as a chronicler of the forgotten and theatrical innovator extraordinaire is exemplary. Were one to gather all her scripts into a collected volume, and someone should, it would represent a body of work containing some of the finest Irish writing of the past decade or so. Lowe deserves every plaudit. As do ANU. Who, like Lowe, are just a little bit insane. Opening HAMMAM on December 23rd? That’s insane. But you’ll be so glad they did. Get a ticket if you can. HAMMAM will be the best present you get this year. Unmissable. Unmatched. Unforgettable.
HAMMAM, an Abbey Theatre and ANU Productions co-production, written and directed by Louise Lowe, runs at The Abbey Theatre until January 6, 2024.
For more information, visit The Abbey Theatre