Dublin theatre festival review – compelling, exciting drama

Various venues, Dublin
Immersive Irish history, unacknowledged Aids deaths and post-coital chats – this year’s festival is challenging and entertaining

Returning to live performance with a flourish, Dublin theatre festival’s packed 16-day programme presents new work from some of Ireland’s most talented theatre artists and companies. Two of these, Landmark Productions and ANU Productions, have joined forces to create The Book of Names (until 23 October), a compelling site-specific performance set in Dublin’s docks. The latest of director Louise Lowe and designer Owen Boss’s immersive excavations of hidden histories, this depicts episodes from the last months of the war of independence in 1921. Marking the centenary of its conclusion and the signing of the Anglo-Irish treaty that precipitated the bitter civil war, this highly ambitious work succeeds in bringing the conflict down to a human scale.

Drawing on historical research into an intelligence dossier used for surveillance purposes, the impressionistic narrative incorporates superb choreography and sound design to recreate individual men’s experiences of being on the run from the Black and Tans, shipping in ammunition or planning ambushes. With audiences separated into two groups, we are brought up close to the cast of nine, following their characters’ stories, including that of the portrait photographer Harriet Lavery (Úna Kavanagh) and munitions worker Tom Leahy (Jamie O’Neill) who stand out in the highly committed ensemble.

Hidden histories ... Úna Kavanagh in The Book of Names.
Hidden histories ... Úna Kavanagh in The Book of Names. Photograph: Ros Kavanagh/Pablo Cassinoni

More recent history is honoured in Once Before I Go (at the Gate until 30 October), which traces a group of friends from the late 1980s to today, spanning profound social and cultural shifts. Playwright Phillip McMahon sets out to memorialise young men whose deaths from Aids were often hidden, or never fully acknowledged, at a time when homosexuality was illegal in Ireland.

Opening in a London flat in 2019 as the middle-aged Daithí (Sean Campion) receives an unexpected visit from an old friend Lynn (Aisling O’Sullivan), the action switches back to Dublin in 1987, where the younger Lynn (Martha Breen), Daithí (Desmond Eastwood) and Lynn’s brother Bernard (Matthew Malone) are heavily involved in the gay rights movement. Taking its time through backstory and exposition, Selina Cartmell’s production ignites in the moving third act, where Daithí and Bernard are determined to live to the full in early-90s Paris, in defiance of Bernard’s serious illness. Dazzling in drag cabaret, Malone owns the stage, suggesting that there’s a full musical-theatre version of this story waiting to burst out.

Living through Aids ... Desmond Eastwood (Young Daithi), Matthew Malone (Bernard) and (front) Martha Breen (Young Lynn) in Once Before I Go.
Living through Aids ... Desmond Eastwood (Young Daithi), Matthew Malone (Bernard) and (front) Martha Breen (Young Lynn) in Once Before I Go. Photograph: Ros Kavanagh

In the 10 years since the riveting Trade, adapted for television as Rialto, screenwriter and actor Mark O’Halloran’s writing has become even more distilled and spare. Conversations After Sex (at Project Arts Centre and online until 23 October) portrays a series of sexual encounters between an unnamed Dublin woman (Kate Stanley Brennan) and the men she hooks up with via an app, over the course of a year. With a double bed centre-stage throughout, anything extraneous to their post-coital conversations is omitted, creating an intense focus, heightened by the formal precision of Tom Creed’s direction and Sarah Bacon and Sarah Jane Shiels’ design, for Thisispopbaby.

Aftercourse ... Kate Stanley Brennan and Fionn Ó Loingsigh (Walton) in Conversations After Sex.
Aftercourse ... Kate Stanley Brennan and Fionn Ó Loingsigh (Walton) in Conversations After Sex. Photograph: Ros Kavanagh

Playing all of the men, three of whom the woman meets several times, Fionn Ó Loingsigh impressively switches character and tone, conveying shades of loneliness and dislocation that avoid stereotypes. Initially humorously defensive, Stanley Brennan’s woman moves through depths of emotion as she gradually begins to unfreeze from a past relationship that ended traumatically. Unhappy in a completely different way, her sister (Niamh McCann) tries to connect with her but is constantly rebuffed. “I don’t know who I am,” Stanley Brennan’s character bursts out, in a portrayal of grief that is unforgettable in its rawness.


Helen Meany

The GuardianTramp

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