For millennia, letters have connected people when physical closeness wasn’t possible. And with social distancing limiting the ways in which we can interact, letters have become an apt medium for the Abbey Theatre’s latest project, Dear Ireland Continued.
Following the success of the original festival which was available to stream in late April, the second installment of Dear Ireland was released last Monday, August 10th.
The digital production documents some of the experiences and challenges faced by the Irish nation in recent times through letter readings, musical performances from Damien Dempsey and spoken word performances from guests such as Green Party TD Catherine Martin and Lord Mayor of Dublin Hazel Chu.
It’s hard to deny the strange atmosphere that lingers over the image of the Abbey Theatre stage – the usually bustling auditorium seems dismally hollow without an audience. The vacant rows of seats act as a stark reminder of the pandemic’s tremendous impact on the theatre industry. The stage seems to engulf the lone performers who stand, sometimes awkwardly, not knowing where to look.
It becomes clear after the first few readings that some performers have more experience than others – the compilation seems to flick between powerfully emotive accounts and disconnected ramblings of words from a page.
Each letter begins with the words “Dear Ireland…”, threading together a spectrum of individual experiences. From a student’s anxieties about exam cancellations to a woman presenting the challenges faced by the deaf community during the pandemic, the production provides a platform for a diversity of voices. Despite the occasional monotonous performance, it was in this wide representation of society that the project sustains its energy and achieves its success.
In her letter, 69-year-old Ava Stapleton humorously wonders if she should simply “crawl under a rock and die”, because it feels as though this is what society expects of her. Biaina Ryan’s letter, in contrast, discusses the racism she faced as a Russian child growing up in Ireland. Her voice proudly acknowledges the selflessness of those with “European accents” who have spent the pandemic “breaking their backs” to clean and disinfect their respective places of work.
Coronavirus and lockdown experiences were not the only themes that played out on stage however – a strong feeling of social awareness was also prevalent. In a profoundly emotive letter read by Rachael Dowling, Laura Mcauley describes an encounter with a man from Gambia who had left his wife and daughter in search of a better life. Her letter appeals to Ireland to look after this man and “help him find his brave new world”.
In another devastating letter, Brigid Calvin discusses direct provision and pleads that the inhumane treatment of the vulnerable is discontinued. The letter painfully recalls the injustices of the Magdalene laundries, asking Ireland, “have you learnt nothing?”.
The general success of the readings were unfortunately disrupted by the musical interludes of Damien Dempsey. Although his performances were strong in an individual sense, they seemed out of place when paired with the readings. His songs became drawn out, slowing the pace of the entire production.
Nevertheless, the production’s aim – to reflect the voices of a nation – is achieved and is an example of how the arts can provide society with a mirror for self-reflection. Despite its occasionally sluggish pace, the heart of the project encapsulated the essence of theatre: to provide those lacking a voice with a platform to be heard.
Dear Ireland Continues is now available to stream free of charge on Youtube.