Ericka Roe in The Messenger. Image uncredited
Dermot Bolger helped shape modern Irish literature. From Raven Arts to New Island Press, Bolger introduced, and supported, many new writers of distinction. Including himself. Novelist, poet, playwright and publisher, Bolger was prolific. An unstoppable, one man impresario who had the last laugh. Working class, from Finglas, Bolger helped give voice to the unheard and unseen when the odds were stacked against him. He didn't care. He let the work speak for itself, and some of it is still speaking. As is Bolger, in his latest play The Messenger, a tribute to those who died in the North Strand bombings on Whit Weekend, 1941. If, over the years, the tone of Bolger's work has shifted many times, The Messenger retains his love of social realism touched by the supernatural. Yet like his Last Order at the Dockside, it's a work heavily steeped in nostalgia. And it's a look that doesn't quite suit him.
With a Dublinese closer to Ronnie Drew than Roddy Doyle, Bolger takes us on a North Dublin saunter, geographically and sentimentally. Clutching her Sacred Heart Messenger magazine, a sort of Time for Irish Catholics during much of the twentieth century, a young woman is preparing for a date with the apple of her eye, Eamonn O'Connor. Except the apple of his eye is her younger sister Gracie, who she addresses throughout. As if that wasn't complicated enough, a German Messerschmidt dropping bombs thinking Dublin is the UK is about to unleash a whole new set of complications, ensuring the love hate, secret sharing sisters will never be the same again. Yet, in a strange twist of fate, the real, long term victim might well be O'Connor.
Those of an unkind disposition might dismiss The Messenger as nostalgia for the elderly. Yet it attempts to speak to history, and at the heart of history lie people. Many often written out of history, or reduced to statistics. Something Bolger is mindful off, with The Messenger offering a character study as memorial, making her both messenger and message. One in which an apparent simplicity conceals a wealth of depth. For Bolger's character is a woman in between. Between this world and the next, old Dublin and its newer suburbs, childhood and womanhood, home and new horizons. In images stepped in ghostly tones, courtesy of a spartan, shadowed design from Suzie Cummins, and simple sparse camerawork from Ger Kellett, language is left to do the heavy lifting. Yet with dollops of nostalgia dripping from every description, wedged in references, and words sounding self-consciously literary, it often steps uneasily. Like walking with stones in your shoe, feeling rhythmically forced and uncomfortable a lot of the time. But then you haven't factored in Ericka Roe.
Under Mark O'Brien's nuanced direction, Roe is simply mesmerising. The rouge does not flatter her, nor the spinster styled costuming, and she only has language and expression to work with. But she trips nimbly along, finding rhythms even when buried, accentuating with a smile, a shift of the eyes, a bob of her head. Negotiating Bolger's verbal hurdles with conviction, bringing to life a character as much her own creation as Bolger's. It breathes and demands your attention, present even at the other end of the camera. Close your eyes and it's a radio play, but you'll still see Roe.
The Messenger serves as an Axis swan song for director Mark O'Brien, who leaves his post as Axis Artistic Director for the newer shores of The Abbey Theatre, where he takes up position as Executive Director, Co-director with Caitríona McLaughlin as Artistic Director. Leaving behind an impressive legacy that helped shape the Axis into the vibrant theatre it is today. In many respects, The Messenger serves as fitting swan song as older and newer talents meet in a work rooted in history and community that's unafraid to take a risk. Like a lot of O'Brien's work. The risks don't always pay off. But Bolger and O'Brien know that already. But risk aversion never pays off. They know that too.
The Messenger, by Dermot Bolger, presented by Axis Ballymun, is available online for free (though donations are appreciated) until May 31.
For information visit Axis Ballymun.