Performing Place: The Irish and the City

In advance of ‘The Irish and the City’ conference at Birkbeck, University of London, which focuses attention on the depiction of the urban landscape in Irish theatre, and the relationship between cultural performance and cities, this extract by Brian Singleton from Fintan Walsh’sThat Was Us’: Contemporary Irish Theatre and Performance reflects on the importance of space and place in contemporary Irish theatre and performance:

Thatwasuscover007.inddSince its inception, the Dublin Theatre Festival has been associated indelibly with buildings, whether Italianate in design (such as the Gaiety Theatre), or black-box (such as the Project spaces). It has even accepted with good grace performance in circus tents in the-(almost)round (Footsbarn, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, DTF 1990), perambulatory experiences in a public reception room (The Lost Days of Ollie Deasy by Macnas and Mikel Murfi at the Round Room, Mansion House, DTF 2000), and reconfigured exhibition spaces for traverse configurations (National Theatre of Scotland, Black Watch by Gregory Burke in the RDS Shelbourne Hall, DTF 2008). But in those alternative spaces the productions were of dramatic play texts staged in environments that added new viewing strategies beyond the control of theatres in which spectators no longer sat passively in the dark. In the spaces of popular entertainment, other than theatres, spectators can see each other and form communities of viewers who feed off each other’s engagement with the performance, and provide a component of the scenography with which performances often interact.

But none of the above-mentioned performances actually interacted with or was responsive to the actual site of the performance in Dublin. They were all touring productions parachuted in to Dublin venues that replicated the conditions of the first performances from their home spaces and cities. ANU Productions’ celebrated trilogy (and proposed tetralogy) of performances at the Dublin Theatre Festivals in 2011 and 2012, however, emerged from a particular area of north Dublin, colloquially known as the ‘Monto,’ immortalised in a song by The Dubliners. The area is bounded by Gardiner Street, Talbot Street, Seán McDermott Street and Amiens Street, and is a short stroll from the Abbey Theatre, where Ireland as a nation was imagined more than a century before, and from the General Post Office (G.P.O.) where a new Irish state was proclaimed. But the Monto had a less salubrious past, being Dublin’s main red-light district in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Nowadays the area is a paradox of sorts. In one corner of Foley Street (formerly Montgomery Street from which the Monto takes its name) are Dublin City Council’s progressive arts spaces (The Lab and DanceHouse) for emerging artists, on the northern side lies a former Magdalene laundry, and to the east lies the semi-derelict remains of a social housing project that in the 1970s was blighted by poverty and the arrival of heroin to the city. Louise Lowe (joint Artistic Director of ANU Productions, with Owen Boss), and several company members have direct connections with the Monto, and in some respects the site-specific productions that emerged from the area were a performative engagement with it as social archive.

ANU Productions also challenge what we conventionally know to be theatre. Their mission statement points out the company’s devotion to ‘an interdisciplinary approach to performance/installation that cross-pollinates visual art, dance and theatre in an intensely collaborative way’ presenting work that creates ‘innovative exchanges with audiences.’ At the helm is director Louise Lowe and artist Owen Boss with a small core team of associate artists. Lowe and Boss’ track record in site-specific work stretches back to their collaboration in a community site-specific performance entitled Tumbledowntown (written by Lowe) with Roundabout Youth Theatre in Ballymun in 2005 that was reimagined in 2007 for the Hotel Ballymun project in one of the remaining social housing tower blocks weeks before its demolition. The company’s early work (two productions in 2009) included both a play in the non-theatre spaces of Project Arts Centre (Declan Freenan’s Corners) and a site-responsive performance Basin in Lowe’s former childhood home, the gate lodge of Blessington Street Basin. And that blend of hosting and ghosting, spilling out and over the spaces of their rehearsal laboratories and into the streets, communities and found spaces of their artistic neighbourhood, and for some in the company, including Lowe herself, of their former community, is a major characteristic of ANU Productions’ work. Nurtured and championed by Dublin Fringe Festival and its director Róise Goan, ANU Productions’ first major critical success came with World’s End Lane, the first of a proposed tetralogy of performances in and in response to the people, communities and histories of the Monto in north inner-city Dublin. The performance (focusing on the history of prostitution in the Monto) was nominated for Best Production by the Irish Times Irish Theatre Awards and won the Fringe Festival’s Best Off-Site Production in 2010.

Sorcha Kenny in 'Laundry'. Photo by Patrick Redmond. Courtesy of Louise Lowe.

Sorcha Kenny in ‘Laundry’.
Photo by Patrick Redmond. Courtesy of Louise Lowe.

The production was revived in 2011 as part of the Dublin Theatre Festival to play in tandem with the second part, Laundry, an encounter with the state-sanctioned abuse of women in Magdalene laundries. And for the 2012 festival the third part of the cycle, The Boys of Foley Street, a roller-coaster journey through the heroin epidemic in the area of the 1970s and 1980s, premièred.

World’s End Lane

World’s End Lane began for three spectators at a time in the foyer of Dublin City Council’s arts space, The Lab, on the corner of what once was known as Montgomery Street and on the very spot of one of the most notorious brothels of the area. The blurring of the lines between real life and performance life, once tickets were checked, provided an unsettling context for spectators who were immediately separated and shouted at by two male performers acting as pimps to the performed prostitution. Spectators were directed to listen to audio recordings of the history of the area, and ordered into a ghosted brothel bedroom in The Lab’s foyer exhibition area. In the brothel room, I (and I can only talk about the performance in the first person as I had no other co-referent spectator) as an individual sat in an intimate encounter with a prostitute barely inches apart, unsure of the modality of the transaction expected, all the while eyes glared in at me through peepholes in the walls. Suddenly a man burst into the room and engaged in a stylised movement score somewhere between a sexual encounter and a fight. Though embarrassed by being co-present at this moment of intimacy and fearful of their proximity in a highly physical choreography, I did not participate. Ordered out of the room, further historical contextualisation of the Monto’s past, with factual details of the numbers and types of women in the brothels, of the men who frequented them, and of the diseases and illnesses suffered by all, were imparted to me. Sitting with headphones at the corner of the street separated from it by glass walls, I viewed the street in its performance of daily life but was also subjected to the gazes of the passers-by; both subjected to and subjecting the street and its legacy, I was deeply troubled. While at the window a young woman streetwalker caught my eye. Was she a performer or a member of the public? She marched over to me accusingly and gestured to me to come outside. Immediately I, as spectator, was caught in the first real ethical dilemma of the production: should the young woman who may or may not have been a prostitute, be followed? My reluctance to follow her instigated a moment of crisis when I would not play the game of performed intimacy, at which point the actor broke character and declared ‘I am an actor playing the part of Harriet Butler,’ thus relieving any anxiety I might have. But reality impinged to further dissipate the tension as two local children wrote themselves into the performance unexpectedly and brought the scene to the contemporary moment in which I learned that a campaign by Frank Duff and the Legion of Mary to close down the brothels may have been successful in 1925 but decades later and in the contemporary reality of the street, prostitution was still prevalent. Safely returned to The Lab I was put to work filling plastic statues of the Virgin Mary with methylated spirit, and I was determined to fill as many as possible, not knowing the reason why, as the most notorious madam of them all (May Oblong) slowly circled towards me. But before she did, I was ordered out of the building by one of the pimps and left reeling with the sensuously intimate exposure of a history and my own place within it. But I reeked of meths and took with me the near-miss of addiction and the adrenaline rush of an encounter with a past social history collapsed into the present. The Irish Times critic Peter Crawley wrote of his encounter with the performance thus:

Over the last thrilling, terrifying and utterly transfixing hour I have not learned this history, but lived it; dumbly obeying and following strangers, listening to scandals, confessing secrets, conspiring with an anguished junkie, feeling unnerved and giddy by the one-on-one intimacy of Louise Lowe’s production, agonising over my role as either participant, voyeur or non-intervening citizen, tumbling finally from its enthralling mesh of then and now in a daze of different perspectives.

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