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  • Chris O'Rourke

Mespil in the Dark

Mespil in the Dark. Image by Ros Kavanagh.


Dublin. Once a thriving hub of artistic activity. A place where artists, musicians, and all manner of performers lived, drank, made art and hung out in shared spaces. Which COVID handsomely put paid to. Truthfully, the rot was setting in long beforehand. For years now the city has been pushing artists, studios and venues out by making it too expensive to be in. And near impossible to access if you live off the Dart and Luas lines. Turning parts of itself into a lifeless business campus by day and a soulless ghost town by night. The rest becoming a tourist theme park. With trumped up attractions and the obligatory overpriced food and beverages. Its few, remaining artists haunting the shadows like friendless Caspers. Often working for the theme park to pay the rent. Those who can find somewhere to live that is.

Such concerns inform the hugely ambitious Mespil in the Dark, four fifteen minute episodes by Pan Pan that explore the artist living under COVID in a city intent on marginalising them. In which frenemies with few benefits are presented in a series of overlapping character studies defined by shared loneliness and fleeting connections. Like La Boheme, or In The Heights, location proves vital in establishing the tone of their everyday lives. In this case a cramped and creepy Mespil Estate, looking lost to what was or what is. A place both haunted and liminal.

Mespil in the Dark. Image by Ros Kavanagh.

Its cheerless atmosphere established by the photographic detachment of Gavin Quinn's direction and Ros Kavanagh's editing. In which cold, almost clinical images define the dominant vocabulary, and which actors work to serve. A brave choice which often works given that much of Eugene O'Brien's script, despite being obsessed with the voice, relies on silent images establishing context rather than on text or performer. Be they the daily rituals of Mespil's rather conventional Bohemians, their cramped living conditions, or the dreariness of both Mespil and Dublin. While there's a unifying vision, there are competing voices, with the whole feeling like its suffering an identity crisis. Haunting, comedic, cinema verité, its genre blending often subverts to wonderful effect. Almost as often as they find themselves colluding uncomfortably, like shaking salt into your cornflakes. Something Jimmy Eadie's impressive sound design both contributes to and, at other times, smoothes over.

Looking like the sole survivor following a very tidy, zombie apocalypse, Episode One sees Andrew Bennett's Adam inhabit a near deserted Dublin, a place as bleak as a summer's day in Belmullet. While striving for pathos, and galangal, Adam confirms your worse fears that actors are self absorbed and self obsessed. So come the clever, striving for poignancy twist at the end you're as likely to think, "what did you expect? You're an idiot Adam." Indeed, Adam might be ducking and diving and smoking something illegal, but a scene stealing cameo by Olwen Fouéré as Olive leaves you wishing you had two pints of whatever she's having. A timely testament that the most damning indictment against Irish arts is that they are not clamouring to raise statues to Fouéré, whose immeasurable contributions since the 1980s have been defined by consummate skill and generosity, being continually fresh for always taking risks, even when they don't pay off.

Mespil in the Dark. Image by Ros Kavanagh.

Money is the root of all misery, and misery loves company in Episode Two as a couple struggle with their confining conditions. Like a declaiming, demented Goth, Anna Shiels-McNamee's Shiela, and Tadhg Murphy's Viking looking Turlough, struggle to raise their child, their spirits, and a part of the male anatomy waning as fast as their careers. A prolonged Tarot reading, unlikely to convince even the most enthusiastic practitioners, feels like a narrative opportunity wasted when set against Quinn's images and O'Brien's silences, which often prove far more effective.

Not though, when Ned Dennehy's alcoholic architect takes flight in Episode Three. Then you want all the words. Delivering a searing indictment against cheap feats of engineering passed off as architecture, Dennehy's Francis delivers what is essentially an embittered, interrupted monologue. As sharp, smart, and unswervingly brilliant as Dennehy's delivery. A visual comic moment midway through proves genius and allows you to come up for air. For Francis has more pain weighing on his mind than failed architecture. Like the larger failure of Dublin City Council and property developers towards the city, its artists and its residents. The latter given face and a voice in Dennehy's mesmerising performance, albeit a frustrated voice. Venting in a room, alone, to an audience that isn't there.

Mespil in the Dark. Image by Ros Kavanagh.

Arguably the most poetic and poignant of the four, Episode Four sees Lans, a young man from Sierra Leone, being constantly distracted from his studies. He is torn between too many worlds; the past and present, family and isolation, science and witchcraft, what he says and what's repressed. Once again, the incomparable Fouéré steals the shows as the mysterious Olive, lighting up the screen with a rare intensity, the camera not just loving her, but seeming in awe of her. Leaving Ahmed Karim Tamu as Lans facing something of an uphill struggle, on which he stumbles at times, yet finding his feet more often than not. Indeed, rarely has eating porridge been more deeply affecting.

Despite its many strengths, were Mespil in the Dark a TV pilot it's unlikely to get optioned. Spread over four consecutive nights, the novelty of tuning in soon wears thin. Probably because we're a binge culture wanting our next episode yesterday. More relevantly, it's COVID context already feels of a time most want to move on from, like a really bad ex. As for its larger issues, it might seem like a conversation that's still happening, but mostly, like Ned Dennehy's Francis, its shouting after a bus that's already left us behind. Unless you seriously believe a government that tut tuts while condoning vulture buying is going to offer genuine support to artists rather than another token gesture. A quarter of ministers, or more, are landlords. These are the people making decisions on affordable housing. In any other business it would be considered a conflict of interests when you work for one company but have a personal investment in its competitor. Mespil in the Dark might shed a little light on the plight of artists, but some dark hearts brought us here. Making Mespil in the Dark less a cry for fairness, or a love letter to Dublin, so much as an embittered Dear John to a town without pity. And who'd want to live there?

Mespil in the Dark, by Pan Pan, directed by Gavin Quinn and written by Eugene O'Brien, was streamed over four consecutive nights from June 16th to June 19th as part of Coiscéim Coiligh/Brightening Air. An alternative 360 online version of Episode 1 will be available on Vimeo on 20th June.

Available on demand through August 29.

For more information visit Pan Pan or Brightening Air


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