Theatre review: The Book Of Names gets personal with IRA cell in Dublin docks 

The innovative production by Anu for Dublin Theatre Festival immerses its audience in a tale from the War of Independence 
Theatre review: The Book Of Names gets personal with IRA cell in Dublin docks 

Thomas Reilly in The Book Of Names at Dublin Theatre Festival.   Picture: Gareth Chaney/Collins

The Book of Names, The Pumphouse, Dublin Port, ★★★★☆

In keeping with the highly successful technique of marrying people’s history with specific places, writer-director Louise Lowe’s latest creation for Anu begins at a windswept and rainy Dublin Port, with a brief introduction to Q Company, the IRA cell of dockers and port workers that helped smuggle almost all the arms and ammunition to be used in the War of Independence.

Soon, we are in their world: the turning-point year of 1921, with its plots and raids, its independence struggle and internecine strife.

In scenes played out in and around the old port pump house, we hear of abortive assassination attempts, and witness, cheek by jowl with the cast, others as they are planned. We get conspiratorially close as the Custom House attack is argued over. It’s intense and immediate for the audience, divided into two small groups early on, but we are not confined merely to realism.

There’s muscular choreography throughout, thumping dance routines, and vigorous movement. Philip Stewart’s sound design is immensely atmospheric, while the setting plays a vital grounding role. The pump house has a fabric that is still redolent of the period, but it’s been embellished expertly in Owen Boss’s design. It’s difficult at times, in the dimly lit recesses of recreated warehouses, mess halls, and hideouts, to say where the set ends and the extant building begins. 

The Book of Names: Tony Doyle, Darragh Feehely, Thomas Reilly, Lewis Brophy, Jamie O Neill, and Matthew Williamson in the play by ANU Productions at Dublin Theatre Festival. Picture: Gareth Chaney/Collins
The Book of Names: Tony Doyle, Darragh Feehely, Thomas Reilly, Lewis Brophy, Jamie O Neill, and Matthew Williamson in the play by ANU Productions at Dublin Theatre Festival. Picture: Gareth Chaney/Collins

The characters we meet are drawn from not one but two books of names, Anu says. One a list of port workers, the other an intelligence dossier of potential targets. They are more or less identifiable, depending on one’s familiarity with the subject matter. There’s the port worker Edward Dorins, for instance, who relates his capture by the Auxiliaries. He was given the choice of shooting or drowning. He asks us as we listen which we’d take. In the event, he chose the gun. For good measure, he was beaten as well as shot, and thrown into the Liffey, surviving, the story goes, a hail of gunfire as he managed to swim off.

The period’s mingling of religiosity with patriotism, perhaps one of the aspects most remote from the contemporary viewer, is neatly evoked by the strange case of James Walsh, a teenager whose Marian apparitions briefly turned Templemore into “Pilgrimville” and brought about a de facto local truce between crown forces and the IRA.

With such a strong sense of time and place, Lowe is not very interested in being didactic, or taking an overarching, tendentious view of the historical narrative. Instead we appreciate the chaotic nature of the conflict as it was experienced: the confusion, the rumours that would have swirled around the city, and the partial, individual understanding any one player would have had. There is perhaps a risk audience members less familiar with the period might be left none the wiser, but this is a charged, immersive experience.

  • Until October 23. Online Oct 18-23. See dublintheatrefestival.ie

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