Absence is the word that might best summarize Enda Walsh’s enigmatic Arlington, a dystopian nightmare of a world bereft of human contact, agency, community, past or future. Its three young characters vibrate with frustration, anger and fear, but they are unmoored from their physical surroundings; they possess nothing, are nowhere, and may expect nothing except death. They are present but they are already somewhere else at the same time. Walsh’s previous play staged in New York, Lazarus, which he co-authored with David Bowie, was similarly inhabited by ghosts.
Political is another term that might helpfully be used, but only as a reminder of absence. The title references Arlington National Cemetery, a monument to loss, scaled to the proportions of war. Yet the play isn’t about military conflict. If anything, there is an absence of resistance to the totalitarian state that Walsh vaguely imagines. In the play’s first scene, a woman named Isla (Charlie Murphy) describes how she walked quite naively into the grasp of the government, where she has remained, for almost 30 years, patiently waiting for her fate to be decided at a whim. Arlington is a reminder perhaps of the people – soldiers and prisoners, obviously, but others also, in countless small ways – whose lives have taken detours because of state interests.
Yet Arlington isn’t a play about America either, necessarily, although Walsh, a prolific Irish playwright with Broadway credits including a Tony for Once, knows us well. He also took some inspiration for Arlington from the refugee crisis in Europe, where, in places like Calais, France, migrants were “housed” in shipping containers, which for Walsh, sounded more like human storage. The victims of Arlington are imprisoned in towers, one per cell, by the thousands, all over a fictional city that is no longer a city, just a place where people wait for their number to be called, and sent to die. In the meantime, they are forced to tell cheerfully banal stories in exchange for food and sleep. If they express the slightest emotion or resistance, punishment follows.
It’s hard to describe Arlington without trying to impose an interpretation, or see hints of George Orwell’s 1984, but we do so at the risk of reductivism. Walsh provides scant narrative from which to draw concepts like character, plot, theme, setting or meaning. There is Isla, at home in her mostly empty, almost sprawling waiting room. Invisible to her behind one wall sits a Young Man (Hugh O’Conner) in a tiny surveillance booth, who must interrogate her, but it’s clearly his first day on the job. Jaime Vartan’s set deliberately teases with both hyper-realism and fantasy, WWII-era and sci-fi technology (from closed-circuit TVs to mind transference). Absurd elements like spontaneously combusting office equipment also slip in, while Walsh asks us to set all reason aside, as in the case of Isla, a seemingly normal, intelligent woman despite spending her entire life in solitary confinement.
The second section of the play’s three scenes, the first and third of which are connected, consists of a solo dance, performed by Oona Doherty, as another prisoner of the state. Unlike Isla, however, she is not waiting for her number to be called. There is a mounting tension throughout the play, but its apotheosis is here. In comparison to the characters’ language, which has been purged of meaning and emotion, the dance speaks what the characters feel but cannot express, driven by Teho Teardo’s score. And it is wrenchingly screamed in Emma Martin’s spinning, writhing choreography, a dance to face death.
But isn’t Arlington, named, after all, for our national cemetery of fallen soldiers and an assassinated president, fundamentally American too? Doesn’t its name alone capture the collateral damage of political ambition playing out daily on our screens and news feeds? Visits to mental health professionals and sales of 1984 have spiked in the US since last November’s elections, and Walsh manages to tap into both our nagging daily anxieties and our most conspiratorial fears. Arlington looks and feels like that dream where familiar settings suddenly become menacing, for no identifiable reason, and we start running like hell.