A few weeks ago we travelled to Dublin to see the latest production by the Abbey Theatre of Tom Murphy’s “The Wake”, a play portraying the materialism of Irish small-town communities in the early 1990s. It reveals how far most members of so called respectable families are prepared to go to satisfy their desire for power and wealth.
So far 2016 was a great year for fans of audio described theatre performances and I hope the continuing international interest in Irish arts will further not only creative art production, but also help to increase the availability of caption and audio description for patrons with visual and hearing impairments. I have written about how audio description works and the importance of making culture and arts accessible to everyone in a previous review.
The staff of the Abbey Theatre is very friendly and the lady who hands out the audio devices even recognised us from last year.
To the dismay of the rest of the O’Toole family, Vera suddenly reappears in her home town, endangering her sibling’s plan to auction the family hotel, which their mother left to Vera, in her absence. Vera however is more hurt about not being told about the death of her beloved grandmother. Although she resents not being consulted about the auction, unlike her money-obsessed siblings she does not really care about the buying and selling of property which she calls “the family game”.
While a lot of the time, Vera isn’t exactly pleasant and despite working as a prostitute in New York, she shows more courage than the others and is the most honest of the characters. Aisling O’Sullivan portrays Vera’s contradictory character beautifully. By coming home, the cosmopolitan, tough Vera turns back into a rebellious and vulnerable school girl for a while and seduces her teenage sweetheart Finbar and Henry, her sister Marcia’s pompous Anglo-Irish husband. Reversing the “Windows of the squinting valley”-theme they stage an alcohol and sex orgy in the hotel, with the whole town watching in horror through the windows. In spite of her eccentric behaviour all Vera really wants is to belong. After all, nobody can choose their relatives and their place of birth.
“What other society, town, civilised country would put up with it?”
To keep up the appearance of respectability, the siblings commit Vera to an asylum for the mentally ill, justifying their betrayal by saying it is best for everyone, including Vera herself. Locking up the most vulnerable members of society and those who simply refuse to fit in, has been a common way for Irish society to “solve” its “problems” for decades – Institutionalisation became the most expedient and profitable response to poverty, illness, orphans, “young offenders” and “fallen girls”. Finbar, labelled “Tinker” by the O’Tooles, too is a victim of institutionalisation. Abused by the priest and after spending his childhood in the industrial school in Letterfrack, he is constantly afraid of authorities and wants to be left in peace. While his dealings in scrap metal may not be entirely clean, compared to the O’Tooles, playing monopoly with the town, he is a straight businessman.
Tom Murphy himself is from Tuam in County Galway and according to a screen with a map, which decorates the stage in the final scene, the action takes place there. One of the reasons why the play resounds with the audience is, that the characters appear to be fashioned from real people. Everyone knows or has heard of a domineering brother married to a doctor’s daughter who gets through life only on pills, a greedy and jealous sister and a pontificating Anglo-Irish barrister with poetic ambitions who is too cowardly to embrace a bohemian life.
However, the play is not only dark, the characters interact brilliantly for some comic relief. Especially the funny dynamics between the feckless but likable Finbar (played by Brian Doherty) and the pompous Henry (played by Frank McCusker) is priceless. Their inability for the most part to understand each others language and thoughts highlights class distinctions, which, although traditionally disputed, do exist in Ireland. The wake-scene is no sugary happy ending, but it includes some great singing, reminding us that these ruthless and troubled people are descended from a rural society, which valued not just money, but also arts, kinship and wakes.
I’d recommend Tom Murphy’s plays in general to visually impaired people, since everything important is expressed in dialogue. I recently read “Conversations on a Home Coming” and while I consider it a great play, read in silence the text became very repetitive. Unlike for example Shakespeare plays which include lengthy monologues, most Irish plays work only on stage. It is spoken language – witty exchanges of one-liners, dialect and colloquialisms, recitations and subtle changes in intonation – that captivates the audience. The language in Murphy’s plays – and the characters who use it – seem simple and everyday, but everything is carefully constructed to present a picture of Irish society, audience members recognise.
When booking the tickets I was told the play contain strong language, violence and nudity. While strong language is almost necessary in a realistic play, I wasn’t sure what to expect of the other two. I don’t mind violence and nakedness, if it’s not just to shock people, but serves a narrative purpose – which it did in this performance.
I thought I remembered the voice from the last time and I actually met the audio describer after one show. It was great to meet the person behind the voice in my ear and to thank her. I asked her if she couldn’t record the AD to make it available for multiple performances. Unfortunately, this wouldn’t work, because as soon as the silences between the dialogues would be a second longer, speech and recording could be out of sync.
There isn’t much to say about the AD. It blended nicely into the background, giving descriptions of cast, costume and changes on stage, while also leaving time to listen to the music. That’s the way it should be. Other audience members commented on Finbar’s comic expressions, when he didn’t have a clue or was too drunk to care what the others were on about. As I do in everyday life, I had to guess these subtleties without being able to see facial expressions and I’m not sure how they could be conveyed through words as part of the AD. The duration of the play was three hours, with a twenty minute interval. And the audio describer stayed attentive during the whole performance, a remarkable achievement.
see Arts & Dissability Ireland for upcoming audio described and captioned performances