Inside a grimy old laboratory on Dublin’s waterfront, a team of anthropologists discuss a constitutional article that destines women to be homemakers. Not everyone’s in agreement in ANU’s thrilling site-specific production; Niamh McCann’s unfettered scientist, eager for closure, recalls Virginia Woolf by preferring a visit to the lighthouse. “Everyone knows the stories already,” she pleads in a production, and a nation, freighted with the past.
That’s some admission by Louise Lowe, a director who previously brought hidden histories to light. An obvious veil of artifice blankets this work, which began as a college project and now dresses its players indiscreetly as researchers. That they are drawn to this venue, an old soil treatment facility, suggests it as a potent site for questioning the state of the nation. “Do you believe places have memories?” asks Amy McElhatton’s harried lab technician along the way. Possibly, but this conceit comes out of the blue.
Instead, it’s in the poignant warp of Emma O’Kane’s dance movement that we glimpse a believable archive: the agonising decisions facing unmarried mothers over the years. If women are symbols of fertility, Úna Kavanagh gives us a sorrowful Venus, connected by IV to a hospital ward, tracing the etymology of the amendment illegalising abortion in Ireland.
Lowe demonstrates a more sure hand when it comes to those controversies from decades past. Alone witnessing Rachel O’Byrne’s dutiful and vivid performance, I was cast simultaneously as interrogator and witness to Joanne Hayes, an unmarried woman coerced into a false confession by police in 1984. A spectator, no less than a society, is complicit.
Elsewhere, clunky and mythic embellishments suggest the company got carried away with its subject: sin eating, an old-world custom making lone individuals accountable for the transgressions of a community. That’s a profound lens through which to view the Irish constitution’s reference to women. As the production prepares the ceremony for its audience, are they to make an ancient cycle of vindication and blame start anew?
They’ll more likely flee through the clinical corridors designed by Owen Boss and Paul Keoghan. The soul-cleansing relief of a sea breeze on the other side is a refreshing but facile finale.
The Sin Eaters is on until 15 October 2017 at the Dublin Theatre Festival. Click here for more details.