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  • Chris O'Rourke

Least Like The Other

Irish National Opera's Least Like The Other. Image by Pat Redmond.


You might not have heard of Rosemary Kennedy. Sister of John F., Ted and Bobby Kennedy, Rosemary was lobotomised in 1941 then hidden away in an institution as a shameful family secret. A seemingly beautiful and vivacious young woman with mental health or developmental issues, her voice was eclipsed by her mother, her father and her doctors who all claimed to speak in Rosemary's best interests. In composer Brian Irvine and director Netia Jones's Least Like The Other, presented by Irish National Opera, Rosemary once again risks being eclipsed. This time by an intense, exhilarating and hugely ambitious opera also claiming to speak for her.

Irish National Opera's Least Like The Other. Image by Pat Redmond.

While Rosemary is unquestionably the focus of Irvine and Jones's operatic labour of love, she serves more as its object rather than its subject. A deliberate choice, partially because facts on Rosemary are hard to ascertain. Its true subject being the abnormal societal, gender and psychological norms which led to Rosemary being lobotomised. Like Ayn Rand on steroids, her parents were all about nurturing winners. The feeble minded, the fat, the failures, or the embarrassment of Rosemary's who couldn't cut it, were all cut out. Or had part of their brain cut, usually under instruction from fathers or husband plying their patriarchal trade. Men telling women what to do with their bodies. How the times haven't changed.

Irish National Opera's Least Like The Other. Image by Pat Redmond.

Played out in a cold, clinical, compartmentalised stage, the medical overshadows the personal as Rosemary obediently blends into the constantly shifting, colour drained landscape. A place where voices speak to pictured memories, or lies passed off as facts, or just to voices running through your head, with Sinead Wallaces's lighting, David Sheppard's sound and Jones's multimedia design proving staggeringly effective. Yet Rosemary's inner turmoil is best reflected in Irvine's overwhelming and marvellously dissonant score, married to some remarkable singing by mezzo-soprano Naomi Louisa O'Connell who generates huge sympathy, even during agonisingly long educational lessons over an encyclopaedic dinner. With O'Connell revealing more about Rosemary through her singing than anything said through text. And there's lots of text. Lots of information. Lots of people talking about women, about medicine, and even Rosemary. Meanwhile Rosemary, always on stage, says little. Does little. Observes, worries, and complies. And if it's all done with an exquisite eye to detail, you come away learning more about grandstanding doctors and questionable neurologists courtesy of strong performances by Stephanie Dufresne and Ronan Leahy who, along with Assistant Director Aoife Spillane-Hinks, provide various voiceovers throughout.

Irish National Opera's Least Like The Other. Image by Pat Redmond.

To call Least Like The Other an experimental opera is to undersell it. It aims at being an experiential opera. Its fusion of sound, singing, music and performance establishing a visual and audial cacophony visceral in its immediacy. Yet key texts when read rather than being projected or surtitled are often drowned out by music and go unheard. Part of the experience perhaps, but it becomes old hat pretty quick. Throughout, a structural hierarchy seems to suggest a symphonic score with talking, then singing, then performance in order of importance. If its penultimate scene cleverly flips the recorded score out into the auditorium in a powerfully unsettling manner, with Rosemary's red dress a flash of identifying brilliance, ending on a poignant echo of her single moment of peace feels, if not quite the happy ending, like letting us off the hook. And letting Least Like The Other off the hook for not having given Rosemary more room. For making her a finger pointing to someone elses, well intentioned moon. Taking forever for her echo to fade, leaving you unsure if the show is over.

Irish National Opera's Least Like The Other. Image by Pat Redmond.

An opera about Rosemary Kennedy that's not really about Rosemary Kennedy, Least Like The Other pushes at boundaries and delivers an exciting and exhausting experience. Its interplay of music, voice, performance and text suggesting exhilarating possibilities. You may come away not knowing much more about Rosemary Kennedy, but Least Like The Other makes you horrified about what you discover. It's a tall order for a performer to carry such a sketched out character and make you care in a production this rich and vibrant. But O'Connell proves to be a cut above the extraordinary, her singing, presence and performance making you care and care deeply.

Least Like The Other, by Brian Irvine and Netia Jones, produced by Irish National Opera, runs at The O'Reilly Theatre until September 18 before transferring to Cork Opera House on September 22, and The Lime Tree Theatre, Limerick, on September 25.

For more information, visit Irish National Opera.


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