A Dynamic Theatrical Event Reveals Ireland’s Hidden Histories
As I joined the small group waiting in the dark outside a closed-up building on the north side of Dublin, I wondered whether I had the right place. There was nothing to indicate the presence of a theatre space; the only remarkable feature a small plaque mounted high on the wall, indicating that this had once been the residence of playwright Sean O’Casey.
When the door finally swung open we found ourselves entering a pub. The locals, who seemed to have been drinking there for the evening, pulled up seats for us at their tables and began conversations. Although the piece was billed as being about the 1916 Easter Rising, it was clear both from the costumes and the television mounted on the wall that we had instead arrived in 1966—the fifty-year anniversary of the week-long Irish rebellion against British rule. A new generation of young Dubliners flirted and laughed at the two young fellas who had managed to swipe the head from the statue of the British Admiral Lord Nelson after the IRA blew it up on O’Connell Street. They were briefly distracted by the RTE news broadcast of parades and an address by President Eamon DeValera, and finally silenced by the entrance of a woman in black who passed her coat, a statue of Mary, and a small bouquet of daffodils to audience members as she danced her grief. This set off the ensemble who fluidly danced between our tables, using the stools and each other as counter balances, jumping over the bar in a series of stylized movements to 60s music from the juke box that then blended into a more sinister underscoring as the landlady began closing up, kicking out the drunks, and asking an audience member to escort the woman in black home. Only when the door was bolted behind her customers did she begin to tell her story. The three time periods (the imminent danger of 1916, the grief and sense of unfinished business of 1966, and the commemorations of 2016) provided the liminal space in which the drama played out.
In her writing on documentary theatre, Carol Martin identifies six functions of the form: to reopen trials; to create additional historical accounts; to reconstruct an event; to intermingle autobiography with history; to critique the operations of both documentary and fiction; to elaborate the oral culture of theatre. These Rooms certainly draws from oral history to give us access to additional accounts, shifting the focus from the ring leaders of the rebellion to the civilians of Dublin, but its fractured narratives and participatory dramaturgy takes us way beyond historical reconstruction to really examine the act of memory, the endurance of grief, and the problems inherent in commemoration.
Devised and directed by David Bolger and Louise Lowe, it is the third of a triptych of performances that ANU Productions created this year as a response to the one-hundred year anniversary of Ireland’s 1916 rebellion: Sunder explored the last desperate moments of the Easter Rising in Moore Street, Dublin where the rebels were contemplating surrender, and Corporation Street recounted the impact of the 1996 IRA bomb in Manchester, England. ANU has established an enviable reputation in Ireland for innovative exploration of historical events. They do this through meticulous research and long-term collaborations with artists, scholars, and sites. These Rooms is the product of an eighteen-month collaboration between ANU Productions and CoisCéim Dance Theatre, the stated aim of which was to challenge one another through an exploration of each other’s methodology and practice. Presented as part of the 2016 Dublin Theatre Festival, These Rooms is based on the eyewitness testimony of thirty-eight women, as well as recently released findings of a government inquiry into the ferocious fighting that occurred, not in streets and the General Post Office, but in private residences where civilians were often caught in the cross fire. Together the artists exploit the inherent temporality of theatrical form to create unique ways for audiences to engage with a contested time period.
Together the artists exploit the inherent temporality of theatrical form to create unique ways for audiences to engage with a contested time period.
In small, shifting groups we moved through the house. The production design by Owen Boss gave us tantalizing historical period detail in some rooms while others were dimly lit installations that we had to peep through bullet holes to see (never knowing when a soldier would look back at us). Perhaps even more interesting were the corridors and stairwells that were lit (by Ciaran Bagnall) but left mostly as they appear now in 2016. This allowed us to move around between times and interact genuinely with the performers without feeling pressed into character.
Given this insider view of the civilians whose lives and houses were disrupted by the devastations of rebellion, we experienced the story through random and disjointed segments as we moved through the house and through time. The story of a young man killed by a former comrade as he walks down the stairs, for example, was first told to me by our landlady, his grieving mother who was unable to pick out the perpetrator in a line-up, then repeatedly acted out by the young soldier who had killed him and is tortured by the recurring memory of the event. I finally met the son in hiding in the basement of the house and then witnessed the murder itself.
The interdisciplinary combination of movement and installation took us beyond verbal testimony and into the inner turmoil of the time, reminding us of our humanity and connection to the past without asking us to take sides.
Through these multiple perspectives, the audience gradually comes to feel everyone’s loss, as well as the impossibility and irresponsibility of creating the sort of singular narrative exemplified by the earlier television broadcast. When we arrived back in the pub we found the women survivors, visibly shaking with grief, dancing with one another. One, standing on top of the cigarette vending machine exclaimed:
I’m a pacifist but I had to watch my brother and my husband die…
Where is my place amongst the dignitaries at the commemoration?
Where is yours?
In the Dublin Theatre Festival, Dubliners rather than tourists form the majority of the audience, theatres are spread across the city, and performances are integrated into seasons. The result is polished productions that truly seem reflections of the place and time that they are in.
As is the case for any immersive theatre piece, it is hard to stage a curtain call or acknowledge the performers without abandoning the integrated space that the performance has created. These Rooms deliberately left us then without the catharsis that a curtain call provides, forcing us to abandon the grieving characters as we exited to the dark streets.
I think O’Casey would have approved of this new work that immersed us in an environment with the same urgency, danger, and dark humor as his Dublin trilogy (The Plough and the Stars, The Shadow of a Gunman, and Juno and the Paycock). ANU Productions and CoisCéim Dance Theatre succeeded in bringing us into a contested period of Irish history without romanticizing it, or allowing us distance from the horror. The interdisciplinary combination of movement and installation took us beyond verbal testimony and into the inner turmoil of the time, reminding us of our humanity and connection to the past without asking us to take sides.