An Irish dubbing of the infamous film Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom, is not an enjoyable experience for the audience. But that's precisely the point, writes Alan O'Riordan.
As a response to the cruelties of fascism, Pier Paolo Pasolini’s notorious 1975 film Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom, was a necessary artwork.
Not at all enjoyable, but as visceral as its subject and, thus, perhaps, inevitable. The same might be said for Dylan Tighe’s transposition of the film to an Irish setting, via a skilfully achieved live redubbing of his own intelligently reworked script.
Tighe himself appears first onstage, for what amounts to a critical preface, spoken in Italian. He’s interested in the societal structures and ideologies that enabled Ireland’s network of industrial schools and laundries, and how they persist.
“Ogni tempo ha il suo fascismo,” as Primo Levi put it.
The film is screened above the performers, Thomas Collins, Peter Gaynor, Lauren Larkin, Niamh McCann, Gina Moxley, Will O'Connell and Daniel Reardon. They all excel in a technically demanding task of synchronisation, and, as we plumb the depths of depravity, it’s their craft that often makes this bearable.
Tighe’s rewrite changes the scene without being overly proscribed. Its nods to the contemporary – “we’re all top shaggers,” say, or, finally, a good use for 'Ireland’s Call' – are astute.
While the spouting of corporate jargon and team-building cliches skewers the new ruling class. But the true justification comes in the use of transcripts from the Ryan report and elsewhere: first-hand stories of rape, abuse, violence, and coprophagy.
These accounts mirror the mere depictions of them on the screen, perhaps even surpassing them in depravity.
The audience is not spared. We are forced to squirm in full presence of man’s worst cruelty, while being reminded of its systemic nature, its reality.
We are deprived of our coping mechanisms: it’s no longer “just a film”, it’s not “just the bad apples”, it’s not “just the church” or “the past.”
It’s the product of what Tighe terms with anthropological detachment the “sadistic society”. Its contemporary manifestation is a techno-consumerism controlling our lives and behaviours as it destroys the environment, and dehumanises a new kind of “other”: the homeless, immigrants, the surplus humans of the technocratic age.
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Tighe’s visceral, confronting approach of course carries risks. Does it revulse the audience to the point of alienation? It might. Certainly people were leaving.
But the mere fact that the issues he raises can be discussed and memorialised clinically and soberly, or represented less confrontationally, does not mean there is not a place for such a shocking, emotionally impactful, perhaps even traumatic, reminder of the nature of what we are talking about.
Yes, this exists on a pornographic, exploitative knife edge. But it forces us to confront an endemic dark side of human society. Is a nihilistic response possible?
Or the conclusion that resistance is futile? Yes, of course. But, like Pasolini, Tighe finally represents a mere flicker of hope. As two of the suffering prisoners dance, one asks, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” The reply: “I want to be free.”
Liking this show, or not, is beside the point. (So too, perhaps, giving it a star rating.) But it’s as valid as it is difficult. And it’s exactly what a national theatre is for. It might be impossible to look at, but that’s no reason not to see it.