The story of how the Abbey Theatre was founded, with its troupe of rebel actors, separated lovers and important royals, couldn’t be more anarchic if it was inspired by Commedia dell’arte, which – fittingly – theatre company The Corn Exchange actually are.
Michael West’s arch play from 2004, written in collaboration with the company, is an alternative history of the Abbey. It’s 1904 and Willy (Louis Lovett) has written a drama to launch the new National Theatre of Ireland. The Wooing of Emer, set to rouse Irish nationalist feeling, will premiere in the middle of the English King’s visit to Dublin.
This homecoming of The Corn Exchange’s play at the national theatre may be overdue but there’s no disputing its timing. Yes, we’re offered a lively acknowledgement of the Abbey’s origins by new management but, by playing it in this house, we see the national theatre go self-reflexive. “It’s not about the plays, it’s about the building,” argues Willy, confirming criticisms levelled against the theatre’s programming in past years.
But equally as self-aware in this sly work is its resolve, which chimes with the Abbey’s change of direction as of late. You mightn’t disagree with Eva (Karen Egan), the troupe’s diva and spiritually sensitive medium, when she holds up a timepiece and announces: “This watch is to mark the start of a new era.”
Grotesque portraiture and satirical routines are sharply contained in director Annie Ryan’s kinetic staging, aligning our sympathies with working class woes. Willy, we see, scrambles to make up his share of the lease on the company’s new theatre, while the costumer Maggie (Caitríona Ennis), a hotel maid, strives to finish work in time for the curtain. This is all against the backdrop of a tense political climate; Willy’s brother Frank (Gus McDonagh), an actor playing the Irish hero Cuchulainn, goes suspiciously off the grid.
The troupe’s bourgeois members, meanwhile, are left to be great foils. Paul Reid’s Martin, a sensitive aesthete, floors us with his clueless remarks. Egan’s excellent Eva, patriotic to the bone, speaks Irish with blustering force. W.B. Yeats and the suffragette Maud Gonne couldn’t beat them at comedy.
You may be surprised, however, by how much it has to say about hope. The live piano score by Conor Linehan jabs and nudges the action along but finds softer resonance, for instance, when stage carpenter Jimmy (Colin Campbell) steals a rose to proclaim his love for Maggie. Indeed, as the play proceeds into an increasingly impoverished and dangerous landscape, such desires are frequently challenged. “We wanted to say something,” pleads Willy, after the collapse of his national theatre. Lovett expertly retreats from the broader strokes of comedy to have us share the heartbreak.
Yet the streetlamp placed by set designer Kris Stone, and lit by Matt Frey and Stephen Dodd’s lighting, refuses to go out for certain. It even sparks briefly but unexpectedly back to like when a darkness swallows up Ennis’s heartfelt Maggie. This production is just as resistant. Why found a theatre? To change the course of destiny.
Dublin by Lamplight is on until 1st April 2017 at The Abbey Theatre. Click here for more details.