It is 7.27pm on April 28th, the Abbey Theatre’s official YouTube account is welcoming us to an evening of theatre – and most of the audience are in their living rooms. There are 4,000 people in the audience for the opening of Dear Ireland — about 10 times the capacity of the Abbey St theatre itself.
Dear Ireland was a sort of online festival spanning five days, with 100 artists (50 actors and 50 writers) responding to the prompt: Dear Ireland.
The first thing to note, is that 50 – albeit short – plays, is a lot of plays. And 50 plays in four days is not only a huge time commitment, but creates something resembling exhaustion. By the time I’ve reached the 12th play of the night, I feel something resembling relief, which I’d imagine is not the response the Abbey was looking to elicit.
Almost all of these plays are direct responses to the global pandemic. Shower by Sarah Hanley from Part One is a supremely affecting monologue that addresses what we ask of healthcare workers, and looks at the vulnerability and pain of isolation from family. The Golden on the Grey by Marget Perry is a stunning piece of writing about what we miss in quarantine and how small yet how important those things are to us.
The problem though, is that almost all of the 50 pieces are either about essential workers and the rough time they are having, or those of us in quarantine and the rough time that we are having. This is no slight on the writers or performers, many of whom do excellent jobs at representing these scenarios. When presented in bulk, however, it gets noticeably repetitive.
There are, it seems, a finite amount of takes you can have on the way we live now. We are all anxious. We are all wondering when this will end and worrying for our loved ones. Maybe this isn’t a problem with Dear Ireland, but “Corona-art” in general. We look these problems in the eye every day, and a programme curated to make us look harder and longer at them is necessarily difficult, and slightly disappointing.
In Gina Moxley’s absolutely stunning A Start (Part One), Timmy Creed asks the camera: “Will everything we write have to answer this?”, a question that appears particularly relevant to the Dear Ireland project.
This is not to say that Dear Ireland isn’t impressive or worthwhile. There are pieces of theatre within it that stretch and move the imagination, alongside pandemic theatre that makes you feel guilty for enjoying it, uncomfortable for being glad it exists. Windowpane (Part One) by Shane O’Reilly is a subtitled Irish Sign Language performance shot through a window. Amanda Coogan performs his words with an enchanting physicality that is difficult to take your eyes away from.
It also provides a rare instance of sound design, set and costume unifying in this project to create something that – despite its lack of vocal projection and its reliance on heavy movement so traditionally alien to Irish theatre – feels the closest to a play that I saw throughout Dear Ireland.
Another piece worth watching is Night 4 (Part Two), which is written by Aoife Martyn and performed by Norma Sheahan. Night 4 is a monologue delivered by a nurse in front of a slightly on-the-nose, yet visually pleasing, stack of toilet rolls. The nurse is mean, tired and doesn’t want to be called a hero by people on the six one news. An incredible humanity breaks through the screen here, something that isn’t filtered through government sanctioned praise or performative claps on the sidewalk.
It’s refreshing to experience this kind of honesty. There’s something magical about Sheahan’s performance. When she says that “I don’t feel like I’m wearing a cape”, it doesn’t matter that this isn’t a novel or unique message. When she begins to think of her own mother, who is “so far away”, it doesn’t matter that this is the 18th play I have seen in two days. This is a small world that is incredibly worth seven minutes of your day.
Dear Ireland is currently streaming free of charge on the official Abbey Theatre YouTube channel in four parts, with 50 plays in total.