In Dublin theatre festival’s 60th anniversary year, artistic director Willie White is placing the emphasis on new Irish work – and a sense of theatre in dialogue with its own traditions is explicit in Dead Centre’s Hamnet at the Abbey theatre. This riff on Hamlet begins playfully as a boy shares his thoughts on being “one letter away from greatness”. The fact that he is Shakespeare’s only son, who died aged 11, becomes the starting point for a meeting between father and child that takes place somewhere out of time. Writer-directors Bush Moukarzel and Ben Kidd create an encounter between the living and the dead, ingeniously realised by José Miguel Jiménez’s video design and projections. There are echoes of Joyce and Stoppard alongside the text’s sometimes glib Hamlet references. Shifting from the specifics of Shakespeare’s biography, it investigates what parents can teach their children about life, its randomness and, in the case of Hamnet, its brevity. If the renowned playwright can’t find the right words to say to his son, is he really the “great man” the son grieves for? With a riveting, completely poised, solo performance by Ollie West, this fascinating production takes us into a child’s view of the world, without any sentimentality.
The same could not be said for Fishamble’s production of a new play by Sebastian Barry, On Blueberry Hill (Pavilion theatre), which also explores father-son relationships and themes of crime and forgiveness. Two cellmates in a Dublin prison, Christy and PJ (Niall Buggy and David Ganly), take turns to tell the interconnected story of how they got there. Their alternating monologues evoke the Dublin of the 1960s and 70s, with a lyricism that sometimes jars. This new work is connected to Barry’s award-winning novel, Days Without End, through the character of PJ, a young seminarian who is secretly gay. “God didn’t give us words for it,” he says. The necessity to hide the truth, even from himself, drives him to an act of violence.
PJ’s story alone would have made a standalone monologue, but the interweaving of Christy’s narrative gives a cumbersome structure to Jim Culleton’s production, which has little scope for theatrical energy. And while the subject of the death of a child is undoubtedly sombre, the prevailing tone is mawkish rather than tragic.
Parents’ inability to protect their children is also explored in the Corn Exchange’s multi-layered Nora (Project Arts Centre). Novelist Belinda McKeon, in collaboration with the company’s artistic director, Annie Ryan, has taken Ibsen’s A Doll’s House as scaffolding for a new play, set in the international art world in 2025. Transposing it to the near future ensures that nothing seems too outlandishly different from today. Details seep out: beyond the elegant fortress where Nora (played by Ryan) lives with her gallery-owning husband (Declan Conlon) and teenage daughter (Venetia Bowe), the streets are dangerous; it’s risky to venture into the Third Zone. Civil liberties for women have been curtailed, especially for free-thinking artists like her old friend Krista (Clare Perkins), who turns up on the day of a glitzy party, with Nora finessing decor and clothes like a power version of Mrs Dalloway.
The dystopian conceit is a clever twist on the constraints experienced by Ibsen’s heroine in 1879. In this new context, the changes in the political climate might be enough to cause a married woman to think twice before walking out on the world of privilege she has spent years constructing, partly through manipulation and deceit. As in the original, the plot mechanics are more than a little contrived, but serve as pretexts for McKeon’s acute and witty character observation.
While the marital crisis seems to come too quickly in the drama, it is directed by Eoghan Carrick as a Bergmanesque battle of wills and souls. All the performances have depth, especially Bowe as Emmy, the sparkling teenager who has inherited the artistic talent that her mother has long buried. It is one among many things, this production suggests, that are as precarious as they are precious.
In the latest site-specific work from Anu Productions, women’s freedoms and rights are far from secure. The Sin Eaters (Pigeon House Lab) explores how they have been contested and stifled in Ireland over decades, throughout the 20th century, and up to the present day. In a series of choreographed scenes and tableaux, the audience is taken in small groups through a former scientific laboratory at the edge of the city, in Dublin Bay. The bare rooms are transformed by director Louise Lowe and the superb design team, Owen Boss, Carl Kennedy and Paul Keogan, to create a sense of institutional entrapment, evoking past trauma. We watch through glass as a woman is nailed to a table, while another pins herself against a wall with chair legs. Screams are heard in the distance.
While this is all somewhat generalised, specific historical cases of injustice and suffering are also enacted, with audience members being taken on separate routes. In a room crammed with legal files, an actor (Katie Honan) enacts the case of Ann Lovett, the schoolgirl who died giving birth in 1984. In another, a tribunal of sorts is held, holding the Irish state to account for the restrictive role it assigns to women, under the constitution.
The script tends towards the didactic and the production is most powerful in its elemental movement sequences, choreographed by Sue Mythen. As with all of this company’s work, it succeeds in taking theatre into political domains, personal as well as public. Seeing The Sin Eaters on the weekend of a major public march in Dublin, calling for an end to Ireland’s abortion ban, gave the production an enormous urgency.
• Dublin theatre festival runs until 15 October. Box office: +353 1 677 8899.