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  • Chris O'Rourke

Walls and Windows

Hilda Fay and John Connors in Rosaleen McDonagh’s Walls and Windows at the Abbey Theatre. Image: Ros Kavanagh


Rosaleen McDonagh's articulate plays give voice to traveller culture and to her experiences as a woman within that culture. As well as to people with disabilities. The cruel would argue these marginalised positions somehow afford McDonagh opportunities unavailable to many of her peers. Yet as McDonagh has shown with her ambitious Mainstream, and her standout short film Dear Ireland you will hardly notice my absence, she's earned her accolades. Evidenced again in her latest work Walls and Windows, which heralds McDonagh as the first traveller whose work has graced the Abbey stage. Her Walls and Windows thoroughly deserving to be there. Serving up a searing, insightful, and often exhilarating warts-and-all love poem about the trials and tribulations facing a young traveller couple.

From the get-go, Walls and Windows sets everyone whirling as desperate times call for desperate measures. Charlene, her wedding dress hanging like the ghost of Christmas future, has a secret she needs to share. But Mam, Nancy, has no time for her educated nonsense. Or for Julia, her daughter-in-law whose husband, John, might not be telling the truth about how he's making money. Sparks fly with the force of a hurricane until a handbrake turn takes us down some dark, meditative side roads. Julia, forced into a hotel for the homeless, finds the plight of women and travellers to be universal. Meanwhile John rethinks what it means to be a husband and a man, the line between cowardice and sacrifice blurring as pressures become unbearable.

John Connors in Rosaleen McDonagh’s Walls and Windows at the Abbey Theatre. Image: Ros Kavanagh

From its haunting rendition of Rio Bravo's My Rifle, My Pony and Me, to director Jason Byrne's emotionally arresting visuals, Walls and Windows wraps genuine depth in easy sentimentality, with both making for deeply affecting bedfellows. Cradling a cyclone inside Joanna Parker's caged caravan, with its bars to peer out of and into, and her unstable set, like sands constantly shifting, makes of home a place not truly there. Meanwhile Paul Keogan's masterful lighting translates it all into mood. Throughout, the pull of self and the pull of community, the pull of guilt and the pull of alcohol generate tensions explored in heart breaking honesty as we're pulled to the darkest of places. For Walls and Windows is not about home but homelessness, not about love but loneliness, not about hope but hopelessness, and about what remains when demands become impossible and no one seems to care.

Across the board Byrne elicits magnificent performances with Hilda Fay being marvellous, if under used, as an embittered traveller mother hardened to the world. A brilliant Nyree Yergainharsian proves mesmerising as the wannabe woke Deirdre, and again as the heart-of-gold maid Aga, both reminders that the horrors women and travellers endure are not local. Yet when local they become our concern. Like the sleazy hotel landlord, a wonderful Ruairí Heading. His polar opposite a towering John Connors whose scarred, pumping heart of a performance is superb. As is a brilliant Sorcha Fox as Julia, who electrifies in the on-demand option available online. Replaced, last minute, by Sarah Morris for the live and streamed performances. Not an ideal situation for anyone, but if you have to find a last minute replacement you could find no better than the ever impressive Morris. Hazel Clifford, Ericka Roe, and Mark Fitzgerald round out an impressive cast.

Nyree Yergainharsian in Rosaleen McDonagh’s Walls and Windows at the Abbey Theatre. Image: Ros Kavanagh

If light on action, McDonagh's word heavy script is rich in beautifully crafted passages. Even if McDonagh retains a tendency to try cram it all in, as if trying to cover everything in case she might not get another chance. Yet with Walls and Windows McDonagh has become much more adept at this. There's residual weight, but the rough edges of lecturing have been smoothed away. Revealing a musicality, with monologues introduced like slower movements within a symphony. A slightly long symphony that might have benefited from a little pruning and some additional variation perhaps. Often stronger when it plays as a story shown rather than a story re-told, which can slow pace in places. Yet when it ignites, Walls and Windows crackles with all the raw energy and palpable power of a breaking heart. Burning brightly, even as it dims to a cry fading in the dark.

Walls and Windows by Rosaleen McDonagh, directed by Jason Byrne, commissioned by The Abbey Theatre, was available in-person at The Abbey Theatre from 23 – 28 August, and live streamed from 27 – 28 August.

Walls and Windows is available on-demand from 29 August to 11 September.

For more information visit The Abbey Theatre.


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