For a minor character in a major play, the gravedigger in Shakespeare’s Hamlet has hard work to do. Deep into the ground, he’s far from exhausted when someone interrupts to ask who the grave is for. “I do not lie in’t,” he says mischievously, “and yet it is mine”.
Grace Dyas’s new play for THEATREclub almost takes that ambiguity as its structure. Set in Dublin’s Liberty Park – once promised as a memorial to survivors of the Magdalene Laundries, now primed to be sold to a Japanese hotel group – it suspects a state’s secrecy can bury a nation’s history.
We find two ghosts of women, once incarcerated in a nearby Laundry, now digging a hole for undiscovered truths about the country. Bernadette (a shrewd Doireann Coady) recalls her reward for endlessly polishing brass and cleaning clothes: “l was paid in the purification of my soul.” That’s not unlike, Dyas outlines, the recent appeal of the Taoiseach to early risers, suggesting that work will set us free.
In director Barry John O’Connor’s vigorous production, digging underlines an emotional excavation of the past. Bernadette moves earth while condemning public scandals, murders and sexual harassment. There’s mention of forgotten reports into Dublin’s drug epidemic, their solutions since redacted. When something new is finally uncovered, Tina (an adept Dyas) refuses to take a look. An individual, no less than a nation, might be too traumatised to.
Yes, the production’s freighted in parts but it’s also reverential, finding calm in the elegant strings of O’Connor’s music and the rich colours of Eoin Winning’s lighting. Familiar echoes of Waiting for Godot – “When’s the Man coming,” Bernadette asks, referring to a bogeyman warning kids against syringes in the street – make for a fresh pastiche of Samuel Beckett.
If at one point Bernadette loses motivation to dig any further, she may be summing up the fatigue of a nation, only shocked out of complacency by the latest crisis. But Dyas also shows the other extreme, where a search for answers becomes an unhealthy obsession and, ultimately, an imprisonment.
In this cutting tragicomedy, not knowing the full history of Ireland’s oppressive institutions is a form of servitude in itself. It’s also a call for action against the loss of evidence through privatisation, and the depressing effects of neoliberalism. It’s probably no accident that the back-and-forth, while reminiscent of Godot’s Estragon and Vladimir, has the ring of solidarity, and possibly activism. “I couldn’t have done it without you,” says Tina, grateful for the assistance.
We Don’t Know What’s Buried Here is on until 17 February 2018 at the Civic Theatre, Dublin. Click here for more details.