This new production from Talking Shop Ensemble is a highlight of the ABSOLUT Fringe Festival in Dublin. The play alludes to Arthur Miller in its title, the names of its two characters—Willy, a 54-year old unemployed carpet-fitter from working-class Dublin and his wife, Linda—and in several direct quotations of the famous “Attention must be paid” monologue from Death of a Salesman. But this more than a re-working of Miller’s work for an Irish context, rather an original play in its own right.
Gifted 23-year old playwright, Shaun Dunne, who also performs the roles of narrator and of Willy, has produced a moving reflection on working-class identity, family relations, the marginalization of skilled labourers and tradesmen, and the collapse of the Celtic Tiger as intimately refracted through the marriage of two people.
After a lifetime of pride in his trade, Willy is faced with a society in which he is denied job benefits by austerity cuts and is bewildered by commands that he retrain to accommodate himself to the new “knowledge economy.” His life, and his wife’s, becomes a litany of waiting, waiting for work, waiting in the dole queue, waiting for letters from Job Seeker’s Allowance, which becomes emblematic of a whole country struggling to emerge from systemic recession. Linda, in turn, struggles to acclimate to Willy’s lack of work and its effect on every aspect of their lives together, as bills go unpaid and Willy’s depression spills over into the domestic space. Weary and unable to play emotional surrogate to Willy’s male breadwinner any longer, she begins to yearn for autonomy and roles other than wife or mother—this is as much a death of a tradesmen as the transformation of an Irish mammy.
The play features a strong autobiographical element—as Shaun explains in an opening address, Willy is modelled on his father, and as teenager in secondary school, he was stunned when reading Miller’s play for the first time to recognize a portrait of his own father’s desolation, confronted with the loss not merely of financial security but of his very identity when the housing bubble burst and the construction industry with it. As such, the play is as much a reflection on the revelatory powers of theatre to communicate the experience of a generation of youth confronted with the deflation of their parents and the evaporation of their own futures as it is a portrayal of a class of skilled labourers threatened with extinction.
One of the most tender scenes takes place when Willy comes home after a night down the pub and drunkenly tries to communicate both his sense of personal despair and his love and hopes for the future of his children to his sixteen-year old child.
Willy’s and Linda’s characters are informed not only by Dunne’s parents, but based on numerous interviews conducted with other tradesmen and their families, and this sociological research pays off: the characters are rounded and complex and feel vital and real. The performances by Lauren Larkin and Shaun Dunne are stunning in their maturity; Larkin in particular inhabits the role of Linda with a warmth and assurance that belies her twenty-one years. Likewise, the script is distinguished by its sophisticated command of voice: the dialogue is finely observed, and crackles with humour, earthy Dublin idiom, strange twists of intermingled poetry and raw melancholy. In all, this is a production that is eminently topical, yet without sacrificing subtlety: it is entertaining, heart-wrenching, and mesmerizing in turn.