First, dispense with the word ‘play’. For the eight audience members at each performance of The Sin Eaters at the Pigeon House, by Poolbeg generating station, this really is an experience that’s far, far away from any conventional set-up of actors on stage and public watching them from their seats.
Instead, you’re ushered from room to room as the all-female cast immerse you in various scenarios from the less savoury chapters of Ireland’s recent history. Words like ‘Granard’ and ‘Tuam’ are uttered; surreal scenes of institutional incarceration are acted out with minimal dialogue.
The most intense moments come when the audience members are subtly split up. I end up in a darkened room, sitting across a table from one of the cast, with a lightbulb hanging over us.
She presses the button on an old reel-to-reel tape machine and stares at me as her mouth moves in time to the male voice emanating from the machine. He’s a garda asking questions at one of the interrogations during the Kerry Babies case. It’s a deeply uncomfortable experience... but obviously that’s the whole point.
In other hands, such techniques might feel gimmicky or crass.
However, Dublin-based Anu are the masters of such productions and have a history of dealing with difficult subjects through brilliantly original drama.
Research for The Sin Eaters was undertaken at the National Archives and, given some of the forensic digging that may be done at sites such as Bessborough and Tuam, you’re unlikely to encounter a more powerful image than the rows of earth-filled archive boxes bearing the file names of many institutions.
The title comes from the ‘sin eaters’ of various cultures who would ritualistically ingest a piece of food representing the sins of a person who is about to die, thus allowing them go to the next world cleansed of their past.
Here, it links to elements of a trial-like inquiry which resolves that the Catholic Church and Irish state, as well as other parts of society, can no longer be let off the hook.
At times, the snippets of dialogue will leave you wondering about their context, and few people will get all of the topical references. Rather than just getting you thinking, however, The Sin Eaters also works at a more visceral level. And it is all the more powerful for that.